the long goodbye (1973)
Altman's period of genre deconstruction in the early 70's is responsible for some of cinema's greatest films, not least of which is his foray into noir with The Long Goodbye. The film is a cinematic cousin of The Big Sleep due to its Chandler source material, main character and screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, though the thirty year gap can make them feel like distant relations. Altman's tour through the American mythos had crossed through military pictures and the Korean war, to westerns and now to the pulp detective pictures. Still a couple of years shy of summarizing it all in his magnum opus, Nashville, The Long Goodbye still sees the passage of time and time's tides' erosions on American life, here from the vantage point of the present (Mash and McCabe were both period). The displaced noir archetype of Marlowe, (once the cool, envied loner) is now seen as an outcast, described as a "loser" even by his closest friends in the less ruggedly-individualist 70's settings. Without dames and their military fathers' staunch upbringings to serve as an antithesis of, Marlowe floats amongst a calm and consumerist world of groceries and bungalows, each of his counterparts that he passes by, tucked in their own private worlds no longer need a private eye, hell, Marlow can be a hero just by picking up some late night brownie mix for his star child, yoga-loving nudist neighbors. Films and classic stars have become the legend, forgotten by most and relegated to impressions on the local booth operator. The tides of time continue to flow in and out of shore.
Tough guys have taken on a new role in the world. Whereas Sterling Hayden's brutish alcoholic Hemingway-type writer carries old world strength, he is easily subdued by a doctor who knows his psychological triggers. Physical strength means little when one can bypass engaging in combat and cut to the inner weakness normally shielded by his addiction. Marlowe, in this tale, is unable to command any situation at all, rather being caught up in the flow and tossed around like a rag doll from one scenario to another. Much in the same way, cigarette smoking takes on a resignation. Keep calm, light up, and wait for the fallout from whatever life is throwing at you. In the new America, Marlowe is but a relic and slips by trying to do right by his and getting slapped, punched or stabbed at every turn. The film's core lie in its differences of thought with all previous iterations of the character, here Marlowe isn't womanizing so much as subdued himself, happy with a home-cooked meal from a woman rather than her phone number and indeed we never witness him sleeping with anyone nor hinting at it. He stands up in jester-like fashion to any mode of authority, society plays as a joke. While he's busy eluding the consequences of most situations through his aloof attitude and inability to take part in the psychological gameplay, we still witness his utter inability to transcend his circumstances. He has no drink of choice, why would he? When questioned by Hayden's character on his preferences he simply replies in 70's male fashion 'well, I'm drinking what you're drinking', agreeable is the MO of the times. Only when his pillars of loyalty and friendship are completely shaken do we witness Marlowe going on the violent offensive. The signature of all of it is Altman's wandering and restless camera that seems discontent with simply telling us the tale, though the better judgement of Altman continually drags us back to the narrative, back into the norms of the new society. His camera wishes to be free, like Marlowe, and roams the landscape of his mis en scene while searching for small moments, the ethereal elements, the waves, the reflections in the windows. The males are confused, unhappy, playing machismo games with one another while the women, free and empowered in principle, seem lost. In reality they are subjugated and unhappy as well, though the men are barely at ease with their retained dominance, instead choosing to lash out at the women based on some perceived lack of power where there is none. It's a changing world and the only antidote is not to act, to remain an observer and take it all in, and head out for the right brand of cat food at 3am every now and again. Was the world so different in under three decades? Sure. An energized and strengthened populace with American exceptionalism and individualism as its base had conquered the threats of the known world, fast forward and malaise had set in, Marlowe is treated like a child wandering about, his profession as laughable as the authority figures he scoffs at earlier in the film. When finally the mystery surrounding Terry Lennox is resolved, it's Marlowe who delivers the final blow to the archetype. Altman's final moments condemn all that is trusting and innocent in the modern American psyche, you'll lose everything, you'll even lose the cat.
The pillars crumble as the populace shrugs and lights up another Marlboro. Is it that we're too busy burying our heads in the sand and reliving the 'cool' of the past to possibly save the present? The old world, and the old America are destined to wind up like Hayden; cast out to a harsh sea of their own volition in the middle of the night, a logical suicide, goodbye new world. The past lives on only as an imitation by a youth who lives it vicariously. We can no more imagine it than we can recreate it, a world adrift on its own waves of tuned-out, tuned-in brownie mix. Marlowe's neighbors got it alright, they don't go out and the world doesn't get in, no matter how much it stares. It's like Marlowe says when he exits the lock-up early on in the picture, right? 'They'll bring you here, but they don't much care how you get home after'. Tough to hold it together in a world that only cares about using you for its purposes and then drops you immediately after. Altman had touched the pulse of the times, kept his cool, and given it back to use as a mirror of the world he was living in, or maybe just a reflection in a pane of glass. The tide rolled out with The Long Goodbye, and all Marlowe could do was watch. He didn't even wave.