When I watched the clumsy SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL last week or so, I made the point that altering source material is not an automatic reason for me to dislike a movie. SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL isn’t mediocre because it changed almost all of Ace Atkins novel or gutted all the heart and charm from Robert Parker’s characters, or even because they removed the intelligent Susan for a shrieking Iliza Shlesinger. It was mediocre because it’s mediocre.
Plenty of great films have made plenty of changes to the source material: JACKIE BROWN, JAWS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and so on. If a film is good, most people will forgive the changes it made. Hell, even Elmore Leonard loved what Tarantino did to RUM PUNCH. I try to take the film as the film and the book as the book and not let either one dictate my enjoyment of the other. Gene Siskel used to say, “You have to give a film it’s given,” in terms of its narrative, and I like to apply that to the film, too. You want to turn Jackie Burke into Jackie Brown, change her from white to black, and move the story from Miami to LA? Cool, let’s see what you’ve got.
All of this is a long preamble to Robert Altman’s 1973 adaption of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel. Elliot Gould is not Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and the film changes the time period from the late 40s to the early 70s. What we get in Gould’s Marlowe is a kind of moralistic slob. He’s the kind of man who is messy in all aspects of his life, except for his appreciation for his cat. The film opens with Marlowe passed out in bed. His cats wakes him at 3 in the morning because he’s hungry.
Marlowe stumbles to the kitchen, and finds they’re out of cat food. He makes a concoction from refrigerator leftovers and the cat passes, so Marlowe heads out for a middle of the night run to the local 24 hour store to buy the cat’s preferred food-in-a-can. They’re out. The stockboy tells Marlowe they’re out and it doesn’t matter because it’s all the same shit. So Marlowe buys the not-preferred food and comes home, where he locks the cat out of the kitchen to pull of a ruse – he takes the new cat food and puts in an old can, so the cat thinks its the right food. He even pretends to open the old can when the cat is let in. It’s elaborate, equal parts tender and overly-complicated, and it doesn’t work. The cat doesn’t buy it and takes off, never to be seen, again, but certainly to be heard from.
All of that happens before the story even gets going, but it perfectly sets up the character. Marlowe’s friend shows up, cuts on his face, asking for a ride to Mexico. Marlowe takes him and then the case (this is a detective story, remember) happens to him as much as he goes out and solves anything. Seemingly disparate plots about Mexico and an abusive, drunk writer weave together. The only time this film feels like a hard-boiled detective story is in the final act, and it works, because Marlowe has grit but ’70s grit looks different than ’50s grit because of how much the world has changed.
It’s an Altman film, and Altman made his career on making “anti-genre” films just like THE LONG GOODBYE. What he’s really interested in, it seems, is equal parts the people inside the genre (what does it do to a person to be a moralistic PI in modern LA, or a war surgeon in Korea, and so on), and how the genre creates, builds, and ultimately exploits myths by steamrolling people. Altman takes these genres other people have built and recenters them on the characters who live inside these myths.
He also gets amazing performances. Gould is brilliant in every frame of the film, and Sterling Hayden gives a mountain of a performance as Roger Wade, the abusive, drunk writer who exudes bombast to cover for his inner doubts and frailty. Their longest scene together – sitting down at Wade’s house, Wade in shade and Gould in the sun with the Pacific Ocean in the background – was apparently largely ad-libbed because, according to Altman, Hayden was perpetually drunk and stoned on the set.
There’s also an epic performance from Mark Rydell (who went on to direct a bunch of films, including ON GOLDEN POND) as a kind of nouveau-riche gangster, Terry Augustine. It’s one of my favorite gangster performances and Augustine could easily walk out of this film and into a Tarantino movie and no one would bat an eye.
THE LONG GOODBYE isn’t the kind of film you watch when you want to be reminded how much you love detective stories, but it is the kind of movie you watch when maybe the genre’s expectations and formulas are starting to feel a little stale in your mind. When you want to push at the boundaries and dig deep in the center. Or just when you want to watch a great director and a great actor do their thing for 2 hours. THE LONG GOODBYE is brilliant.