Philip Marlowe has been asleep. Whether it’s been a literal and continuous Big Sleep that has lasted since we last saw the man in 1946 is unclear. But there are clues scattered about which suggest that it is. First off, genius screenwriter Leigh Brackett is back with another adaptation of a Raymond Chandler opus just as she was all those years earlier when she was Howard Hawks’s scribbler of choice. But regardless of the initial and obvious familiarity, things are markedly different than the last time we saw Marlowe. For the hope and exuberance of postwar 1946 has given way to the cultural malaise of 1973, a time where the fabric of the country was disintegrating under the twin stresses of Vietnam and Watergate and everything we thought we understood about America was turned upside down and was perpetually under audit.
Robert Altman’s masterful The Long Goodbye was the first in a wave of neo-noir films that flooded the American cinemas in the 1970’s. Along with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, and Robert Benton’s The Late Show (produced by Altman and both cast and crewed by many of his regulars), these films took the antique formula of the dogged private eye and turned it on its ear by examining the current culture through the newly-minted, cynical lenses of the Boomer Generation or making a contemporary allegory out of an old-fashioned period piece. In all of the cases, there was a strong, moralistic tone regarding right and wrong that would crack as the film unspooled and the hero found that he no longer recognized the world he was in, a theme that cut deeply with the intended audience.
This is strongest and most evident in The Long Goodbye, which, not coincidentally, was the first of the bunch. In it, private eye Philip Marlowe is juxtaposed immediately with a cinematic fantasy. As “Hooray For Hollywood” scratches its way over the soundtrack and we survey the lodgings of one of pop culture’s most indelible and toughest detectives, we immediately sense that something has gone directly to seed. Instead of clean-lined Humphrey Bogart, we get fuzzy, wrinkled, and unshaven Elliott Gould. And instead of having to jump into his car in the middle of the night to solve a hot mystery under the darkness of the Los Angeles night, Marlowe’s cat simply wakes him up because he’s hungry and wants some food.
While the trip to the grocery store for the cat food supplies the film with its most potent allegory about trust, it also serves to crosscut an escape from the Malibu Colony by one Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), lifelong buddy of Marlowe currently bruised and battle-scarred after a tussle with his wife, Sylvia. As he drives to Marlowe’s pad to request an emergency, middle of the night escort to Tijuana, Terry surveys the physical damage to his person; deep scratch on the face with a swollen and bruised hand. When Sylvia Lennox shows up beaten to death fifteen minutes into the film and Terry confesses to her murder in his own suicide note, Marlowe goes on a personal crusade to clear his friend’s name. In doing so, he mixes with an alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden), the writer’s icy blonde wife (Nina van Palllandt), an equal opportunity mafioso (Mark Rydell), and a quack doctor (Henry Giibson).
Clad in a cheap black suit that never comes off his corpus and prowling about in his 1948 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet with a bottomless supply of non-filtered Lucky Strikes, Marlowe stumbles through blanched, early 70’s L.A. in a total haze. Still smart enough to sniff out phony amateurs and bumbling hoods, Marlowe never seems to understand the gravity of his current situation or the physical stakes involved. And in direct opposition to Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep where Philip Marlowe seemed to glide through a studio-built Los Angeles with horny women throwing themselves at him without any effort on the part of Humphrey Bogart, Gould’s Marlowe can’t even negotiate a fruitful conversation with Mrs. Tewksbury, real estate agent to the rich and famous. “It’s ok with me,” a catchphrase he’ll employ throughout the film to signify his acceptance of any given situation without any shred of understanding, seems to fly out of his mouth with more frequency the closer the film gets to its conclusion.
What makes The Long Goodbye unique is that, like the other genre-blasting offerings by Altman, this is a detective film without much of a mystery at its center. Marlowe seems more intent on convincing himself of Lennox’s innocence than he really cares about clearing Lennox’s name and, like so many other Altman heroes, there is more than a touch of self-deception at play with Philip Marlowe. Lost in a landscape where ideals have become malleable, trust is transactional, and macaroni costs more than a quarter, Marlowe desperately builds a case out of the wildest of red herrings so he can continue to float along through life with his core values intact. Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes is gutted by the larger graft that has seared him very personally and Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby is frustrated at his inability to see three moves ahead of him but Philip Marlowe believes in a kind of idealistic clarity better suited for a time long since vanished, if it even ever really existed at all.
It isn’t until about the the middle of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, itself ostensibly a whodunit about a call girl killer, that the film’s mystery is lifted and the audience knows the identity of the murderer well before the titular cop figures it out. In The Long Goodbye, the detail of Terry Lennox’s bruised hand being concealed by the driving gloves is something told to the audience but not Marlowe and it is a reveal that occurs before the opening credits end. In essence, Altman wants us to know that Marlowe will spend the rest of the film being played for a sucker and expending a ton of shoe leather just to get his heart broken. In a world that’s gone all wrong, Marlowe is all right. Unfortunately for him, he’s all wrong in a world where, by his own constant admission, it’s all ok with him.