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Robert Altman's the Long Goodbye as a Genre Revisionist Film

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"Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye attempts to do a very interesting thing. It tries to be all genre and no story... It makes no serious effort to reproduce the Raymond Chandler detective novel... it just takes all the characters out of that novel and lets them stew together in something that feels like a private-eye movie."


The period of American cinema between 1965 and 1975 produced many films that almost completely restructured classical Hollywood's accepted genre conventions. A fine example of this would be Robert Altman's iconoclastic take on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973), a detective film based on the final book in Chandler's Philip Marlowe series. Altman, who is known for turning around traditional genre conventions, revises and reinvents the film-noir style made popular by Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944), Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), and Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake (1947). The actors and the films in the 1940's film-noir period conformed to genre conventions, and it wasn't until Robert Altman directed Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye that the detective genre had changed.

It is very interesting to note how the conventions of 1940's hardboiled private eye fiction translate into the 1970's. The low-rent drabness of the genre loses much of its allure. The dark shadows and long nights of urban Los Angeles become the bright lights and warm sunshine of Malibu beaches. The detective's normally snappy dialogue turns into joking asides. Marlowe's hardboiled narration becomes the self-conscious mutterings of a lonely man talking to himself. The romantic myth of a man set apart from the city is turned on its head as a pathetic man living alone with his cat.

Elliot Gould plays private investigator Philip Marlowe, who uses his smart-aleck detachment carried along by a natural wave of 1970's California that Altman exercises for both humour and social commentary. Rich drunks, drugged out youth, multicultural gangsters in touch with their heritage and their feelings, people more than willing to use their friends, all indicate a self-obsessed society, a force as relevant in the 1970's as the ever-present title song.

Originally, Hollywood backed Altman, the eccentric director of M.A.S.H and Nashville, in the hopes that a gritty detective film would cash-in on the success of Dirty Harry. Unfortunately, the studio didn't get its wish. Altman instead produced a satirical essay on changes in American society reflected through the changes in the Marlowe character from The Big Sleep, with Bogart taking the lead role of Marlowe in 1946, to the 1973 version of the detective played by Elliot Gould. The Big Sleep has been called a classic. It is a film that is memorable because of the dialogue between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, a couple with proven sexual chemistry, as well as the feverish, driving pace of the plot. In the 1940's, Marlowe is the handsome, tough, and hard-boiled detective we love and expect. The illusion is complete when he dons a felt hat and hits the mean streets to get the bad guys. He is omnipotent. Watch Altman's version, and the illusion is shattered in subsequent viewing. Marlowe's demand for only $25 per day plus expenses; his shabby apartment, his dirty clothes, and his old, beat-up car all prove that this Marlowe is not the ultra-cool, suave detective that everyone knows. In fact, he is a bit of a bum.

When Marlowe is interrogated at the station, he is the center of the frame while the police circle about him like gnats firing questions. All the while Marlowe plays with the inky smears left by the fingerprinting procedure, jokingly referring to Al Jolsen. He does this while looking at his reflection in a two-way mirror, as if to demonstrate his contempt for the police authorities he knows are watching on the other side of the glass. Later, when he confronts the police face to face at the scene of Wade's suicide, Marlowe drunkenly waves a wine glass in their faces while they exhibit little expression.

Even in a "post-noir" context, The Long Goodbye evokes the emotions of a mainstream film noir. The powerlessness of its independent protagonists, Marlowe and Eileen Wade, to untangle a moral dilemma in a modern, corrupt world makes them prototypically noir. While Marlowe may not verbalize his sense of anachronistic despair, he shares the ability to endure physical and emotional punishment. As a private investigator, Marlowe is expected from genre convention to understand and discern a solution to this puzzle; but even the police know more than he does. For example, the police "solve" the murder before Marlowe can, and even though he is sure he is right, Marlowe is told to "Go back to your gumshoes," by the police chief, an example of self-reflexivity which is quite prominent in genre revision films.

In order to revise a genre, a director must first understand the conventions of the genre in order to reflect upon them. Altman proves he knows hardboiled detective dramas in one of the earlier scenes in the movie. When Marlowe is forced into his apartment by police officers, he deadpans around until the actual hardboiled detectives (the police officers) get serious. While one officer ogles at Marlowe's topless hippie neighbours, Marlow is forced down onto a chair, and asks the policeman,

"Is this the part where I say, 'What's this all about?' and then he says, 'I'm the one who asks the questions.'?"

Where Howard Hawks defined the hardboiled detective genre in 1946 with The Big Sleep, Altman tears it apart in 1973's The Long Goodbye. Temporally Altman joins the past with the present. The viewer is not simply made aware of the generational gap between 1946 and 1973. Instead, the two are placed together in a single moment by Marlowe's out-dated dress, as well as his car (a late 40s Lincoln Continental). The two intermingle as the traditional plot engine of the detective film, a murder, binds the Marlowe, circa 1946, with the 1973 edition. Time is slower; Marlowe is more lethargic. The linear



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