Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Long Goodbye

Like a lot of Robert Altman films, The Long Goodbye is a finicky, restless experience. The camera glides along, never still, always zooming, dollying, closing in on the faces of the characters, and even focusing on the visual space between two people in conversation. The dance between the angles and the actors is well-suited to this detective story based on a Raymond Chandler novel. The movements reflect a sort-of Chandler-esque patter, like the camera itself is the real detective, getting paid fifty dollars a day, plus expenses to uncover the mystery of the film.

The plot itself is typical of Chandler stories. Philip Marlowe, private eye, takes a friend, Terry, to Mexico as a favor. The next morning, it’s revealed that Terry has beaten his wife to death and used Marlowe to flee the country. Not believing that his friend would commit such an unspeakable act, Marlowe tries to uncover the truth behind Terry’s disappearance and the wife’s death. Along the way, the plot complicates with the introduction of a wealthy, abused woman (it’s always a dame), her drunken husband, and a host of gangsters looking for money that Terry left behind.

The Long Goodbye is atypical, though, in the way it uses its retro, Golden-Age plot to explore a different era. It, subtly, strands the very 1950s character of Marlowe in the early 1970s, a time that does not fit him. He’s not into yoga, doesn’t really care about making lots of money, and, even when facing certain death, won’t remove his tie. His outlook runs perpendicular to that of the more post-modern attitudes found in the other characters. It’s a sly tweak to the whole genre, exposing the moral rigidity of the hard-boiled detective archetype, and leads the film to an interesting, challenging conclusion.

Elliot Gould’s Marlowe is a first-rate acting class on how to deliver off-hand, witty lines while staying in character. It’s a perfect rendition of the hurting, cynical detective archetype, and Gould’s lanky physical appearance adds a new layer of vulnerability to the character. He doesn’t look nearly as tough as Bogie or other cinema detectives, and in Gould’s hands, the detective’s wit becomes his only defense against the violent world he inhabits. It’s a charming performance from top to bottom, and the film is twice as engaging for his relaxed, confident portrayal.

The movie’s full of little visual riches and manages to expertly balance a mostly jaunty, comic tone with very grim, serious events in the plot. The final payoff feels rushed and it’s not led up to very well (the film sort-of meanders to its conclusion), but it’s a startling ending and makes sense in retrospect, particularly in light of its wrong-time/wrong-place Marlowe. It’s refreshing, too, that Altman and co. resisted the urge to deliver ten minutes of explication for those audience members who couldn’t keep up. The Long Goodbye always makes perfect sense on a gut level, if not always a textual one, and it understands that the thrill of a mystery is in diving into a pile of information and trying to make sense of it all.

1 comment:

Q said...

I love reading your reviews. You write so very well. This sounds like a film I would enjoy. On to the queu it shall go.
Thanks Dave!
I am glad you are back in business.