With his latest movie, The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman is once again asking for trouble—and once again there’s every reason to believe he’s going to get it. In the American film industry, this director is the ultimate heretic: he has a lucid vision of the world and he’s sticking to it, no matter what the momentary fancies of popular commerce. Only once has this vision coincided with the national mood and given him a smash box-office success; that was M*A*S*H, which is five movies back in his career. Now Altman has gone and pushed his audacity beyond the limits of chutzpah and into the realm of hubris. He has taken a film property with a fervent built-in following—one of Raymond Chandler’s detective novels—and transformed it into a movie that seems bound to bore and alienate that very audience. The Long Goodbye, like most of this brilliant director’s work, is some kind of wonderful picture, but it probably won’t win him any friends among the already skeptical gnomes of Hollywood.

The movies just doesn’t lend itself to an easy sell. When United Artists opened it in a handful of cities months ago, the accompanying promotion campaign led the public to believe that The Long Goodbye was, as one might expect, smack in the grand tradition of all the other Chandler-inspired pictures—the most table of which, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), starred Humphrey Bogart as fictional private eye Philip Marlowe. But Altman’s film, as it turns out, owes little to that past; Bogey is dead and the director is far less interested in arranging a second coming than he is dancing on graves. Audiences hoping for nostalgia binge were turned off, and UA yanked the movie from distribution.

Now The Long Goodbye is being given a New York City opening and some new publicity that bills the film as “a dark and comic send-up of the 1940s’ gumshoe genre.” A well-meaning try, but no cigar. The movie is not satire either, and audiences who come to it expecting an orgy of in-jokes are going to have a rotten time. Altman doesn’t want to play games with our cultural legends; he wants to annihilate them.

That’s precisely what he did two years ago when he took on the western in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Although Altman employed all the phenomena of the horse opera—the manly gunman with a storied past, the raunchy saloon, the two-fisted madam and the final shoot-out—the film turned these cliches inside out, completely defying an audience’s normal expectation of either a madcap wester M*A*S*H or the plain good-guy, bad-guy theatrics of a John Wayne oater. It was a movie in which the two glamorous and seemingly “made for each other” stars (Warren Beatty and Julie Christie) did not fall in love; one in which the whole town did not turn out for the climactic showdown and instead left the hero to die alone and unmourned, an anonymous stiff to be buried by the unremitting snow.

Philip Marlowe, who turns up in the form of a rumpled and ill-shaven Elliott Gould, is still on the case—who can give a damn about the case?

Altman even tampered with the basic devise of narrative storytelling. Not only did the “plot” seem to be unfolding in some vague fashion off-screen, but much of the movie’s dialogue was intentionally inaudible. By liberating his film from all the dramatic and sentimental constraints of the past, Altman came up with a ballad of the frontier that, while accommodating courage and humor and love, was sung in an apocalyptic key. It was a few of the Golden West that had more in common with Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust than with James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales.

So it’s not really too surprising that this time around Altman turns to Chandler for source material, for, like our current reigning detective-novelist Ross Macdonald, Chandler was one of Nathanael West’s spiritual heirs. His fiction provides a perfect means for Altman to transport his western dreams from the turn-of-the-century wilderness to the southern California where American civilization came to its grim dead end. Indeed Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who, along with William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and the uncredited help of Chandler himself, adapted The Big Sleep a generation ago) have plunked Philip Marlowe down into the immediate present—an L.A. of all night supermarkets, hash-stoned freaks and underworld gangs so ecumenical they can accommodate equal numbers of Jews, Blacks, Italians and Mexicans among their ranks.

Philip Marlowe, who turns up in the form of a rumpled and ill-shaven Elliott Gould, is still on the case—who can give a damn about the case? For Altman, the story is a nuisance that he reluctantly displays in incoherent dribs and drabs. And so, The Long Goodbye is in truth another ballad, belonging to that special brand of neon soul music we associate with insomnia and dashed hopes. This is a movie about a society that is choking on dirty money and its own high-proof bile.

In this way the film’s “mystery” is far less important that the people and places Marlowe encounters while pursuing it. More often than not his clues lead him to a ritzy housing development in Malibu where a burnt-out, crazy writer named Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) lives with his wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt). Although their household is built on mounds of cash, it is bankrupt in just about every important way. The Wades’ existence is defined by a sea of drunken beach parties so immutable that even when a man walks into the ocean to commit suicide one night, neighbors insist on coming over during the search mission to break out some more booze.

At least there’s still some tribal sense of community in Malibu; L.A. itself has become a frontier ghost town like all the others where the boom went bust. The piano bars still have their solitary Hoagy Carmichaels, but there are no customers besides Marlowe, and the owners have to give their wares names like “Hot Pants Drinks” in a desperate maneuver to lure clientele. While the city’s lowest caste of tradesmen and hangers-on still do movie star impressions at the drop of a hat, the subjects of such hero worship are the forgotten stars of the Hollywood firmament—like Walter Brennan and Barbara Stanwyck. But perhaps the most haunting specters of doom are the young stoned-out and semi-nude women who, night and day, can be seen dancing to the slow and silent beat of some transcendental drummer on the terrace across from Marlowe’s flat; they support themselves by dipping candles for “a cute little shop on Hollywood Boulevard”—presumably the town’s last, degenerated outlet for what used to be known as craft.

As usual Altman has a crew of distinctive supporting players around, and they are as central to depicting the dreary moral landscape as is the fine, smoggy Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe, Deliverance) cinematography. Though the director’s stock company (Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, et al.) is not on hand, the casting is by and large as fortunate as it is unlikely. Nina van Pallandt, the paramour of yesteryear’s Clifford Irving-Howard Hughes “book” affair, is a terribly appropriate choice for the cagey blonde Eileen, and Hayden, bearded and boorish, makes a pitiable hack-Hemingway of a husband for her. Ex-ballplayer Jim Bouton captures the peculiar, smooth assurance of a kept man, and TV comic Henry Gibson, whose talents had heretofore seemed obscure, is a fitting quack shrink, and “albino turd,” as one character describes him, who moves with the exaggerated, bouncing strides of a figure from a James Thurber cartoon.

Like such other Altman heroes as McCabe, Brewster McCloud and the M*A*S*H surgeons, Marlow has the courage that prods him to take chances and settles scores.

There is also Mark Rydell as Marty Augustine, a mobster whose polished social graces and almost casual cruelty make him all but indistinguishable from respectable folk like the Wades. Marty is nouveau riche and Jewish, a nice guy who would rather be at Sabbath services than at work, and who is prone to bragging about the $1,000-a-week health farm he can afford for his overweight wife. Rydell makes Marty appear rational even during the character’s more eccentric moments—like the one where he tells his mistress in all hushed sincerity that he loves her, and then proceeds to punctuate his affectionate declaration by picking up a Coke bottle and quite off-handedly smashing it across her face.

But most of all there is Elliott Gould as Marlowe. This actor has finally risen from the ashes of all those films like Getting Straight and I Love My Wife, in which he has been debasing himself for more years than he or anyone else would care to recall. His performance in The Long Goodbye is unmannered and endearing as well as comic.

Outwardly, Gould’s Marlow is a shambles of a man who walks around in soiled dime-store suits and can’t command the allegiance of his pet cat, not to mention that of a woman. (If Lauren Bacall were around she’d probably have him arrested for vagrancy.) But Gould’s mumbling, happy-go-lucky cynic of a private eye also radiates a constant, if fatalistic, sense of integrity that the outward chaos cannot belie.

Like such other Altman heroes as McCabe, Brewster McCloud and the M*A*S*H surgeons, Marlow has the courage that prods him to take chances and settles scores, even though he suspects that the death and greed around him may wipe out his small acts of valor in the long run. It’s not for nothing that Altman, in his most startling departure from the original Chandler novel, has Marlowe pull out a gun in the film’s final moments and smilingly knock off an unfaithful friend. This act is essential to the director’s conception of the hero and, not so incidentally, it’s the only instance of justice in the movie.

It’s a joyous moment, too, as murders go, and Altman extends it by a long closing shot in which we watch Marlow skip and dance up a country road as “Hooray for Hollywood” creeps up on the soundtrack. Hooray for Hollywood? Well, of course. Like his heroes, Robert Altman cannot live without getting the last mocking—and quite possibly self-destructive—laugh.

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