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Even though Robert Altman’s extraordinary, revisionist, supremely Trunkworthy neo-noir conceals a satisfying tangle of dark secrets, the real mystery lies not within the folds and creases of its plot but in the partly abrasive critical reaction to its initial release. The director’s decision to uproot a character immortalized by Humphrey Bogart from mid-century to early-’70s did little for the likes of Time magazine’s Jay Cocks, who labeled the movie a “travesty of Raymond Chandler’s superb novel.”
Much better appreciated since ’73, the film—which finds overhauled private investigator Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) struggling to unravel a fishy murder-suicide—has emerged as a multilayered, jazz-inflected, semi-satirical masterpiece, arguably the first great noir shot in color. The elements that rankled with some early viewers turned out to be its greatest strengths.
Shambling through the crushed ideals of bohemian ’60s California—a familiar landscape in ’70s cinema—Gould’s easygoing Marlowe is for the most part a sleepwalking softie, more dupe than detective, a crumpled younger Columbo minus the raincoat and the blinding insight. Dazed and (mostly) confused, he’s lost in his surroundings, bemused by the price of macaroni, indifferent to the pot brownies offered to him by his lithe, topless, yoga-loving neighbors. Altman nicknamed the character Rip Van Marlowe, and when he awakes at the very beginning, fully clothed, 3 a.m., to feed his cat, he may as well have been unconscious for decades.
The cat, it turns out, is crucial to the movie’s beautifully embedded thematic patterns and ideas. Despite Marlowe’s sneaky attempts to serve up alternatives, it won’t eat anything except “Coury brand” cat food, and promptly deserts its insomniac owner in lieu of gratification. “You can’t fool a cat,” Gould has said in subsequent interviews, explaining his director’s interest in true natures, both human and feral. The savagery of life runs through many scenes. Gangster Marty Augustine (a standout Mark Rydell) takes a Coke bottle to his girlfriend’s face just to intimidate Marlowe; the Doberman belonging to femme fatale Nina van Pallandt keeps pinning our detective to the wall; stray dogs hump casually in a Mexican street.
Verbal phrases and soundtrack melodies weave their way through the action, creating that sense of fully controlled improvisation so familiar to longtime Altman fans. The theme song (composed by John Williams, lyrics by Johnny Mercer) is planted into most every scene, from doorbell chime to supermarket Muzak to Mexican marching band. Meanwhile, Marlowe’s signature phrase—“It’s OK with me,” an emblem of his unheroic passivity—taps out its own rhythm. During the shoot, Altman hired a plane to decorate the sky over Gould’s house with the words: “It’s OK with me too.”
Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, The Deer Hunter et al) is at the top of his game here—his constantly moving camera makes us feel like voyeurs, and we’re frequently allowed to see more than Marlowe. At one point, Altman excludes the detective from a conversation by having Sterling Hayden’s suspected murderer send him out of the room. We listen like eavesdroppers while Marlowe is viewed in reflection, distant, clueless, a wraith chasing a shadow. But that’s OK with him.
Screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who had helped create Bogart’s Marlowe alongside William Faulkner on Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep, gets the script credit here too, a telling link to Chandler tradition that makes Altman’s version of the iconic detective all the more memorable.
A scratchy old recording of “Hooray for Hollywood” (lyrics, again, by Johnny Mercer) opens and closes The Long Goodbye—a clear signal that Altman set out to make movie traditions, homages, and clichés his playthings. Like the imitation “Coury brand” with which Marlowe fails to dupe his cat, this movie doesn’t do what it says on the tin . . . and that’s exactly why it’s a Trunkworthy classic