Simultaneously an act of revisionism as well as a parody of then-revitalizing neo-noir, Robert Altman’s adaptation of pulp legend Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is perhaps the director’s most audacious act of genre deconstruction in a career filled with contenders, most of which are accompanied by ampersands: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, O.C. & Stiggs, and Vincent & Theo. There’s no “and” to pair off with Elliot Gould’s interpretation of Philip Marlowe. Though the film opens on a note of camaraderie and trust between Marlowe and his friend Terry Lennox, who appears to be in a major pinch but who Marlowe whisks to Tijuana no questions asked, the rest of the film punctuates the complete dislocation of traditional noir masculinity from the cultural snooze button that was post-1960s California.
In Chandler’s books, Marlowe’s composure in rat-a-tat-tat surroundings was cool and disarming. In Altman’s Los Angeles of Hemingway knock-offs, thousand-dollar-a-day psychiatric playground retreats, Barbara Stanwyck-impersonating parking attendants, cats with gourmet tastes, and topless Yoga bimbos with a penchant for pot brownies, Marlowe’s persona is not only a relic, it’s nearly uncool. Altman’s “Rip Van Marlowe” is said to reveal just how much had changed In the two decades between Chandler’s 1953 novel and Altman’s 1973 film, and the casting of Gould (over producers Jerry Bick and Elliott Kastner’s preferred choice of Robert Mitchum) works in spite of the notion that a Jewish Marlowe might seem as much a sign of the times as one seedy character’s reference to then Governor Ronald Reagan. (Bick and Kastner would have the chance to go back to their original intentions when they cast Mitchum in 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely.)
The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, who also scripted the Bogart adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, streamlines a lot of detail out of what might be Chandler’s densest tome, and not only the material that would draw attention away from the anachronism of a 1970s Marlowe. Gone are subplots and minor characters and, in fact, the story’s mystery ends up a great deal simpler in the film version. It’s all to make room for Gould’s funny, free-associative performance. He mumbles wildly just like Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, essentially negating what was one of Chandler’s most enduring traits: his icy, precise verbiage. Still, for all the film’s revisionism, one tenet of the film noir genre remains a holdover, existing in Altman’s film without revision or irony. For a man to be betrayed by another man when the two held a previously honorable agreement is a moral crime, punishable by death. However, when a man is betrayed by a woman—in Marlowe’s case, when he’s played for a patsy by the woman he thought was as sweet and soft as the dried apricots she served him—it’s so taken for granted and upsets his worldview so little, it’s hardly worth a whistling tune on the harmonica.