The Private Eye With The Private Elevator. Notes On Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

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Bursting on the screen to the opening, bombast strains of Richard A. Whiting’s ‘Hooray For Hollywood’, Robert Altman’s radical and unorthodox reinterpretation of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character is as an impressive a piece of American cinema as was produced at the time.

The Marlowe character forms as much a part of the modern American mythology as jazz, comic-books and the automobile. It’s apt then that the Lincoln Continental Convertible Cabriolet that Marlowe drives, named for the former president and as iconically American as anything else, remains one of the lone relics of the source material’s heritage. See also as a Coke bottle becomes a ferocious weapon, and note the casting of former baseball player Jim Bouton in the role of Terry Lennox, the MacGuffin of the piece. American iconographia fills the picture.

Altman isn’t solely concerned with enforcing as vision solely steeped in Americana. The Long Goodbye might be the closest American cousin to the Nouvelle Vague, with Elliott Gould’s Marlowe owing as much to À bout de souffle as it does Bogey. The dysfunctional nature of the film’s opening sequence, which essentially amounts to ten minutes of a man feeding his cat, coupled with a final scene that acts as a playful doff of the cap to Carol Reed’s The Third Man, draws the picture away from the archetypical.

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This dual pictorial heritage manifests itself in Altman’s use of reflective surfaces. An early interrogation sequence shot from either side of a two-way mirror subverts the traditional cop/robber relationship, but at the same time remains curiously traditional in the sense that it’s accessible and broachable. Windows in general for an important part of the aesthetic code of The Long Goodbye. The master plan at the heart of the film’s great mystery plays out in the reflection of the dramatic slates of glass that surround the Wade’s beautiful home, offering a viewpoint of death and solution. So impressive is the technique that the film almost grinds to a halt to bask in the bombast of the sight of an awkward Marlowe finding something to do on the beach while the dysfunctional Wade’s argue on the other side of the pane.

John Williams score, as omnipresent as Marlowe’s chain smoking, bounces between the diegetic and the none, with characters on-screen performing the instantly familiar dead-circus show tune before the ambition of the notes themselves take over and it flees to the safety of the external sound track, observing and commenting on the goings-on from as removed a perspective as the viewer.

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The Long Goodbye, as impressive an “all-rounder” as there ever has been peaks particularly in two places. The first is the memorable imagery, which presents a Los Angeles upturned and on its head, with the only real semblance of convention being that opening refrain of ‘Hooray For Hollywood‘. From the private beaches of the wealthy celebrity, to the shores of a hidden river in Mexico, Altman’s Neo-noir avoids the cliches and the tropes of a well-worn genre, with only a single bullet fired and not a trench coat in sight.

Said bullet is fired by a career-best Elliott Gould, the film’s second killer application, in a performance that stands amongst the finest ever committed to celluloid.

 

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