My alternative canon #3: The Long Goodbye
Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here.
During my freshman year of college, one of my first orders of business was to watch a bunch of movies I’d never had the chance to see. This was back in the late nineties, long before Netflix or streaming video, and filling in the gaps in my cinematic education was a far more haphazard process than it is now: I’d never even had a Blockbuster card. (When I finally got a video store membership, the first movie I rented at the Garage Mall in Cambridge was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.) I saw many of these films on videocassette in one of the viewing booths at Lamont Library, where you could borrow a pair of headphones and watch a title from the open stacks: it’s how I was introduced to Vertigo, Miller’s Crossing, 8 1/2, the first half of Chimes at Midnight—I never finished it—and many others, including The Long Goodbye. I’d wanted to watch it ever since reading Pauline Kael’s ecstatic review from The New Yorker, especially for the line: “What separates [Robert] Altman from other directors is that time after time he can attain crowning visual effects…and they’re so elusive they’re never precious. They’re like ribbons tying up the whole history of movies.” And when I finally took it in alone one night, I liked it for what it clearly was: a quirky satire of Los Angeles noir that managed to remain compelling despite devoting a total of about five minutes to the plot. Many of its scenes seemed even quirkier then than they did in its initial release, as when Elliott Gould, playing Philip Marlowe, is menaced by a gang of thugs that turns out to include a young, mustachioed Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But it wasn’t until I saw it again a few years later, with an enthusiastic audience at the Brattle Film Archive, that I realized how funny it was. It’s perhaps the one film, aside from M*A*S*H, in which Altman seems so willing to structure comedic set pieces with a genuine setup and payoff, with a big assist from screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who uses the framework of Raymond Chandler’s original novel as a kind of low-horsepower engine that keeps the whole thing running. The film’s basic pleasures are most obvious in the scene in which Mark Rydell’s gangster smashes a Coke bottle across his own girlfriend’s face and then says to Marlowe: “That’s someone I love! And you I don’t even like!” But an even better example is the scene in which Marlowe is hit by a car, followed by a cut to an unconscious figure in a hospital covered from head to toe in bandages—followed in turn by a shot of Marlowe, in the same room, looking balefully at the patient in the next bed. Described like this, it sounds unbearably corny, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so delighted by a gag. In fact, it might be my favorite comedy ever. (It also has my favorite movie poster, drawn with Mad-style dialogue balloons by Jack Davis, which includes a joke that I didn’t get for years. Robert Altman: “This is Nina van Pallandt, who portrays a femme fatale involved in a deceptive plot of shadowy intrigue!” Van Pallandt: “How do you want me to play it?” Altman: “From memory!”) Movies from The Big Lebowski to Inherent Vice have drawn on its mood and incomparable air of cool, but The Long Goodbye remains the great original. It tried to deflate a myth, but in the process, it became a delicious myth in itself. And part of me still wants to live in its world.