Releasing films at a mile-a-minute in the ’70s, Robert Altman was more aged than his New Hollywood contemporaries, but certainly no less rambunctious. If anything, his age only fulfilled a craving desire to destabilize the industry even further, a goal Altman set about predominantly, although not exclusively, by inverting the classical Hollywood genres of his youth. His best film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, is a lyrical, impressionistic Western stripped of individualism that relies on dream imagery, like many Westerns, but not to reiterate the American Dream, as so many Westerns of the past had done. Instead, Altman interrogates a counter-myth where opium-caked red dreams are necessarily, and often falsely, clouded refuges from the cold blue expanse of an outside realm that humans never really conquered, but simply hid from. His next genre deconstruction was something of a follow-up, but one that met with a much different fate. While people who didn’t fully understand McCabe still fell in love with its poetry, 1973’s The Long Goodbye, a noir grabbed by the neck and set down in a time period antithetical to itself, only produced befuddlement when it didn’t instigate outright hatred.
Getting people riled up was the Altman way though, and The Long Goodbye, erroneously but pointedly billed as a detective film, wastes no time riling with an introductory, bravura crawl where Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is tasked not with solving a mystery or uncovering the decrepit inner core of modern day LA, but with waking up at 3 AM to drive to an all night supermarket so he can feed his cat. He engages in riddles and lies like many noir protagonists, but here they take the form of placing another brand of cat food into his cat’s favorite container so as to trick the feline sleuth into believing nothing is wrong. More clever than Marlowe, the cat is unconvinced; he sees right through his owner’s facade and deceit, and he escapes through the cat door.
The rest of the film pursues a similar line of rambling, anti-narrative episodism, where Marlowe is rudimentarily tasked with a case and fails outright or succeeds in spite of himself only to wallow as his temporary, circumstantial success is rendered entirely mute. Thus is Altman’s world, where the long-lived loner hero of old Hollywood ways is not only dead wrong but thoroughly inconsequential in a modern LA where treachery and deceit are not only more present than in the heyday of the ’40s, but have transmuted into different forms. Altman, ever the bellicose sort, descends not only into a morally ambiguous LA but denies even our fiction – our mythological dreams and harbingers of sanity and safety – marking Marlowe the fictional hero as irreconcilable with this modern day. The individualist hero that had been contested in McCabe (and would again be secretly debated in that film’s quasi-remake, 1980’s viciously underrated Popeye) is now completely emasculated in The Long Goodbye.
This description almost envisions The Long Goodbye as Altman-by-numbers, which is anything but true. One look at the audio track for the film already finds Altman rejecting and even opposing his famous overlapping-dialogue-of-insanity that characterized both McCabe and his breakthrough film M.A.S.H. Instead of combative, combustible strains of dialogue engaging in free-form battle throughout the floating audio space of the film, denying us the centrality of the main character’s voice, The Long Goodbye over-emphasizes Marlowe’s mumbling perspective in the mix, reclaiming him as the focal point of the frame so much so that we have no escape from his typically inconsequential muttering and self-observation. In The Long Goodbye, in contrast to so many Altman films where words are so overabundant they lose understanding, every word is intelligible to us even when the characters who are supposed to hear the dialogue clearly can not. As a result, every character, Marlowe especially, seems to be talking only to themselves and the audience, not so much speaking past one another, as in many of Altman’s films, but remarking to no one. Although the technique is different, the view of a toxic world where human communication is impossible is as pointed and prevalent as ever.
The Long Goodbye also reflects on, and perverts, McCabe’s Leonard Cohen’s songs with a poignant and ironic song by John Williams, sharing the film’s name, that despondently laments the passing of noirs long gone. Until, of course, it enters the diegesis of the film again and again, almost invading the cinema itself as it distorts into, for instance, Supermarket Muzak or a mariachi number, rendering its initial lounge-act shuffle irreconcilable with the modern world as well. Combined with the mise en scene of the film, not as luminously longing as McCabe even though both were filmed by Vilmos Zsigmond, The Long Goodbye constructs a world out of abstract, even Dadaist spaces that provide no semblance of reality or sanity to LA’s hedonistic life. McCabe’s apartment, a refuge of disheveled normalcy, is itself mocked by the bizarre walkway leading to an external elevator always visible from his apartment windows, tempting Marlowe with the oblong outside world and disconcertingly exploring how irrelevant Marlowe’s apartment is in a world that has no use for it. Meanwhile, a “get better soon” wellness center quickly manifests into a collage of uneasy spaces where walking down one forested hallway leads nowhere but to the loss of the soul.
Add to this Altman’s Renoirian ever-roving, destabilizing camera, never stopping and always suggesting a continual upheaval of stability as we are never granted a sense of closure, beginning, ending, or stoppage. The camera implores us to remember off-screen space, dislodging the audience from Marlowe as a stable narrative center and reminding us that space can never be known in full by a camera, that threats persist just outside the screen (the worst threat of all being that our fiction cannot contain society and must be prey to the world outside the frame).
All of which adds up to a contested milieu of LA as a hot house of cool, cruel dissonance and dissatisfaction, with one dreamer wandering around and falling prey to his own good-natured belief in the persistence of social ties and friendship. In contrast to McCabe, whose reconnaissance of the town of Presbyterian Church only reveals his perpetuation of gender and class oppression, Marlowe is a fundamental humanist plopped into an inhuman world, a city that descends into out-and-out homoerotic surrealism in a sequence where a collection of male characters are asked to undress for no apparent reason. So many Altman films invest in the collective, exhibiting keen interest in people as they inhabit space in relation to one another. Yet they do not expose community; people live around one another, but not with one another. In the end, they’re all alienated from each other. Marlowe too spends most of the film interacting with others, but there isn’t a single frame where he isn’t totally alone. Even his cat uses him and leaves.