Movieland—The bums’ Paradise
by Pauline Kael
Edmund Wilson summed up Raymond Chandler convincingly in a 1945 when he said of Farewell, My Lovely, “It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy which is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms. . . . It is only when I get to the end that I feel my old crime-story depression descending upon me again — because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough. It fails to justify the excitement produced by the picturesque and sinister happenings, and I cannot help feeling cheated.” Locked in the conventions of pulp writing, Raymond Chandler never found a way of dealing with that malaise. But Robert Altman does, in The Long Goodbye, based on Chandler’s 1953 Los Angeles-set novel. The movie is set in the same city twenty years later; this isn’t just a matter of the private-detective hero’s prices going from twenty-five dollars a day to fifty — it’s a matter of rethinking the book and the genre. Altman, who probably works closer to his unconscious than any other American director, tells a detective story, all right, but he does it through a spree — a high-flying rap on Chandler and the movies and that Los Angeles sickness. The movie isn’t just Altman’s private-eye movie — it’s his Hollywood movie, set in the mixed-up world of movie-influenced life that is L.A.
In Los Angeles, you can live any way you want (except the urban way); it’s the fantasy-brothel, where you can live the fantasy of your choice. You can also live well without being rich, which is the basic and best reason people swarm there. In that city — the pop amusement park of the shifty and the uprooted, the city famed as the place where you go to sell out — Raymond Chandler situated his incorruptible knight Philip Marlowe, the private detective firmly grounded in high principles. Answering a letter in 1951, Chandler wrote, “If being in revolt against a corrupt society constitutes being immature, then Philip Marlowe is extremely immature. If seeing dirt where there is dirt constitutes an inadequate social adjustment, then Philip Marlowe has inadequate social adjustment. Of course Marlowe is a failure, and he knows it. He is a failure because he hasn’t any money. . . . A lot of very good men have been failures because their particular talents did not suit their time and place.” And he cautioned, “But you must remember that Marlowe is not a real person. He is a creature of fantasy. He is in a false position because I put him there. In real life, a man of his type would no more be a private detective than he would be a university don.” Six months later, when his rough draft of The Long Goodbye was criticized by his agent, Chandler wrote back, “I didn’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people, about this strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.”
Chandler’s sentimental foolishness is the taking-off place for Altman’s film. Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is a wryly forlorn knight, just slogging along. Chauffeur, punching bag, errand boy, he’s used, lied to, double-crossed. He’s the gallant fool in a corrupt world — the innocent eye. He isn’t stupid and he’s immensely likable, but the pulp pretense that his chivalrous code was armor has collapsed, and the romantic machismo of Bogart’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep has evaporated. The one-lone-idealist-in-the-city-crawling-with-rats becomes a schlemiel who thinks he’s tough and wise. (He’s still driving a 1948 Lincoln Continental and trying to behave like Bogart.) He doesn’t know the facts of life that everybody else knows; even the police know more about the case he’s involved in than he does. Yet he’s the only one who cares. That’s his true innocence, and it’s his slack-jawed crazy sweetness that keeps the movie from being harsh or scabrous.
Altman’s goodbye to the private-eye hero is comic and melancholy and full of regrets. It’s like cleaning house and throwing out things that you know you’re going to miss — there comes a time when junk dreams get in your way. The Long Goodbye reaches a satirical dead end that kisses off the private-eye form as gracefully as Beat the Devil finished off the cycle of the international-intrigue thriller. Altman does variations on Chandler’s theme the way the John Williams score does variations on the title song, which is a tender ballad in one scene, a funeral dirge in another. Williams’ music is a parody of the movies’ frequent overuse of a theme, and a demonstration of how adaptable a theme can be. This picture, less accidental than Beat the Devil, is just about as funny, though quicker-witted, and dreamier, in soft, mellow color and volatile images — a reverie on the lies of old movies. It’s a knockout of a movie that has taken eight months to arrive in New York because after opening in Los Angeles last March and being badly received (perfect irony) it folded out of town. It’s probably the best American movie ever made that almost didn’t open in New York. Audiences may have felt they’d already had it with Elliott Gould; the young men who looked like him in 1971 have got cleaned up and barbered and turned into Mark Spitz. But it actually adds poignancy to the film that Gould himself is already an anachronism.
Thinner and more lithe than in his brief fling as a superstar (his success in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and M*A*S*H led to such speedy exploitation of his box-office value that he appeared in seven films between 1969 and 1971), Gould comes back with his best performance yet. It’s his movie. The rubber-legged slouch, the sheepish, bony-faced angularity have their grace; drooping-eyed, squinting, with more blue stubble on his face than any other hero on record, he’s a loose and woolly, jazzy Job. There’s a skip and bounce in his shamble. Chandler’s arch, spiky dialogue — so hardboiled it can make a reader’s teeth grate—gives way to this Marlowe’s muttered, befuddled throwaways, his self-sendups. Gould’s Marlowe is a man who is had by everybody — a male pushover, reminiscent of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. He’s Marlowe as Miss Lonely- hearts. Yet this softhearted honest loser is so logical a modernization, so right, that when you think about Marlowe afterward you can t imagine any other way of playing him now that wouldn’t be just fatuous. (Think of Mark Spitz as Marlowe if you want fatuity pure.) The good-guys-finish-last conception was implicit in Chandler s L.A. all along, and Marlowe was only one step from being a clown, but Chandler pulped his own surrogate and made Marlowe, the Victorian relic, a winner. Chandler has a basic phoniness that it would have been a cinch to exploit. He wears his conscience right up front; the con trick is that it’s not a writer’s conscience. Offered the chance to break free of the straitjacket of the detective novel, Chandler declined. He clung to the limiting stereotypes of pop writing and blamed “an age whose dominant note is an efficient vulgarity, an unscrupulous scramble for the dollar.” Style, he said, “can exist in a savage and dirty age, but it cannot exist in the Coca-Cola age . . . the Book of the Month, and the Hearst Press.” It was Marlowe, the independent man, dedicated to autonomy — his needs never rising above that twenty-five dollars a day— who actually lived like an artist. Change Marlowe’s few possessions, “a coat, a hat, and a gun,” to “a coat, a hat, and a typewriter,” and the cracks in Chandler’s myth of the hero become a hopeless split.
Robert Altman is all of a piece, but he’s complicated. You can’t predict what’s coming next in the movie; his plenitude comes from somewhere beyond reason. An Altman picture doesn’t have to be great to be richly pleasurable. He tosses in more than we can keep track of, maybe more than he bothers to keep track of; he nips us in surprising ways. In The Long Goodbye, as in M*A*S*H, there are cli- maxes, but you don’t have the sense of waiting for them, because what’s in between is so satisfying. He underplays the plot and concentrates on the people, so it’s almost all of equal interest, and you feel as if it could go on indefinitely and you’d be absorbed in it. Altman may have the most glancing touch since Lubitsch, and his ear for comedy is better than anybody else’s. In this period of movies, it isn’t necessary (or shouldn’t be) to punch the nuances home; he just glides over them casually, in the freest possible way. Gould doesn’t propel the action as Bogart did; the story unravels around the private eye — the corrupt milieu wins. Maybe the reason some people have difficulty getting onto Altman’s wavelength is that he’s just about incapable of overdramatizing. He’s not a pusher. Even in this film, he doesn’t push decadence. He doesn’t heat up angst the way it was heated in Midnight Cowboy and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Pop culture takes some nourishment from the “high” arts, but it feeds mainly on itself. The Long Goodbye had not been filmed before, because the hook carne out too late, after the private-eye-movie cycle had peaked. Marlowe had already become Bogart, and you could see him in it when you read the hook. You weren’t likely to have kept the other Marlowes of the forties (Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery) in your mind, and you had to see somebody in it. The novel reads almost like a parody of pungent writing — like a semi- literate’s idea of great writing. The detective-novel genre always verged on self-parody, because it gave you nothing under the surface. Hemingway didn’t need to state what his characters felt, because his external descriptions implied all that, but the pulp writers who imitated Hemingway followed the hardboiled-detective pattern that Hammett had in- vented; they externalized everything and implied nothing. Their gaudy terseness demonstrates how the novel and the comic strip can merge. They described actions and behavior from the outside, as if they were writing a script that would be given some inner life by the actors and the director; the most famous practitioners of the genre were, in fact, moonlighting screenwriters. The Long Goodbye may have good descriptions of a jail or a police lineup, but the prose is alternately taut and lumpy with lessons in corruption, and most of the great observations you’re supposed to get from it are just existentialism with oil slick. With its classy dames, a Marlowe influenced by Marlowe, the obligatory tension between Marlowe and the cops, and the sentimental bar scenes, The Long Goodbye was a product of the private-eye films of the decade before. Chandler’s corrupt milieu — what Auden called “The Great Wrong Place” — was the new-style capital of sin, the city that made the movies and was made by them.
In Chandler’s period (he died in 1959), movies and novels interacted; they still do, but now the key interaction may be between movies and movies — and between movies and us. We can no longer view ourselves — the way Nathanael West did — as different from the Middle Westerners in L.A. lost in their movie-fed daydreams, and the L.A. world founded on pop is no longer the world out there, as it was for Edmund Wilson. Altman’s The Long Goodbye (like Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love) is about people who live in L.A. because they like the style of life, which Comes from the movies. It’s not about people who work in movies but about people whose lives have been shaped by them; it’s set in the modern L.A. of the stoned sensibility, where people have given in to the beauty that always looks unreal. The inhabitants are an updated gallery of California freaks, with one character who links this world to Nathanael West’s — the Malibu Colony gatekeeper (Ken Sansom), who does ludicrous, pitiful impressions of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (which was Chandler’s first screenwriting job), and of James Stewart, Walter Brennan, and Cary Grant (the actor Chandler said he had in mind for Marlowe). In a sense, Altman here has already made Day of the Locust. (To do it as West intended it, and to have it make contemporary sense, it would now have to be set in Las Vegas.) Altman’s references to movies don’t stick out — they’re just part of the texture, as they are in L.A. — but there are enough so that a movie pedant could do his own weirdo version of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake.
The one startlingly violent action in the movie is performed by a syndicate boss who is as rapt in the glory of his success as a movie mogul. Prefigured in Chandler’s description of movie producers in his famous essay “Writers in Hollywood,” Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) is the next step up in paranoid self-congratulation from the Harry Cohn- like figure that Rod Steiger played in The Big Knife-, he’s freaked out on success, L.A.-Las Vegas style. His big brown eyes with their big brown bags preside over the decaying pretty-boy face of an Eddie Fisher, and when he flashes his ingenuous Paul Anka smile he’s so appalling he’s comic. His violent act is outrageously gratuitous (he smashes a Coke bottle in the fresh young face of his unoffending mistress), yet his very next line of dialogue is so comic-tough that we can’t help laughing while we’re still gasping, horrified — much as we did when Cagney shoved that half grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s nagging kisser. This little Jewish gangster-boss is a mod imp — offspring of the movies, as much a creature of show business as Joel Grey’s m.c. in Cabaret. Marty Augustine’s bumbling goon squad (ethnically balanced) are the illegitimate sons of Warner Brothers. In the Chandler milieu, what could be better casting than the aristocratic Nina van Pallandt as the rich dish — the duplicitous blonde, Mrs. Wade? And, as her husband, the blocked famous writer Roger Wade, Sterling Hayden, bearded like Neptune, and as full of the old mach as the progenitor of tough-guy writing himself. The most movieish bit of dialogue is from the hook: when the police come to question Marlowe about his friend Terry Lennox, Marlowe says, “This is where I say, ‘What’s this all about?’ and you say, ‘We ask the questions.’ ” But the resolution of Marlowe’s friendship with Terry isn’t from Chandler, and its logic is probably too brutally sound for Bogart- lovers to stomach. Terry Lennox (smiling Jim Bouton, the baseball player turned broadcaster) becomes the Harry Lime in Marlowe’s fife, and the final sequence is a variation on The Third Man, with the very last shot a riff on the leave-taking scenes of the movies’ most famous clown.
The movie achieves a self-mocking fairy-tale poetry. The slippery shifts within the frames of Vilmos Zsigmond’s imagery are part of it, and so are the offbeat casting (Henry Gibson as the sinister quack Dr. Ver- ringer; Jack Riley, of the Bob Newhart show, as the piano player) and the dialogue. (The script is officially credited to the venerable pulp author Leigh Brackett; she also worked on The Big Sleep and many other good movies, but when you hear the improvised dialogue you can’t take this credit literally.) There are some conceits that are fairly precarious (the invisible-man stunt in the hospital sequence) and others that are waywardly funny (Marlowe trying to lie to his cat) or suggestive and beautiful (the Wades’ Doberman coming out of the Pacific with his dead master’s cane in his teeth). When Nina van Pallandt thrashes in the ocean at night, her pale-orange butterfly sleeves rising above the surf, the movie becomes a rhapsody on romance and death. What separates Altman from other directors is that time after time he can attain crowning visual effects like this and they’re so elusive they’re never precious. They’re like ribbons tying up the whole history of movies. It seems unbelievable that people who looked at this picture could have given it the reviews they did.
The out-of-town failure of The Long Goodbye and the anger of many of the reviewers, who reacted as if Robert Altman were a destroyer, suggest that the picture may be on to something bigger than is at first apparent. Some speculations may be in order. Marlowe was always a bit of a joke, but did people take him that way? His cynical exterior may have made it possible for them to accept him in Chandler’s romantic terms, and really — below the joke level — believe in him. We’ve all read Chandler on his hero: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” He goes, apparently, in our stead. And as long as he’s there — the walking conscience of the world — we’re safe. We could easily reject sticky saviors, but a cynical saviour satisfies the Holden Caulfield in us. It’s an adolescent’s dream of heroism — someone to look after you, a protector like Billy Jack. And people cleave to the fantasies they form while watching movies.
After reading The Maltese Falcon, Edmund Wilson said of Dashiell Hammett that he “lacked the ability to bring the story to imaginative life.” Wilson was right, of course, but this may be the basis of Hammett’s appeal; when Wilson said of the detective story that “as a department of imaginative writing, it looks to me completely dead,” he was (probably intentionally) putting it in the wrong department. It’s precisely the fact that the detective novel is engrossing but does not impinge on its readers’ lives or thoughts that enables it to give a pleasure to some which is distinct from the pleasures of literature. It has no afterlife when they have closed the covers; it’s completely digested, like a game of casino. It’s a structured time killer that gives you the illusion of being speedy; The Long Goodbye isn’t a fast read, like Hammett, but when I finished it I had no idea whether I’d read it before. Essentially, we’ve all read it before.
But when these same stories were transferred to the screen, the mechanisms of suspense could strike fear in the viewer, and the tensions could grow almost unbearable. The detective story on the screen be- came a thriller in a much fuller sense than it had been on the page, and the ending of the movie wasn’t like shutting a hook. The physical sensations that were stirred up weren’t settled; even if we felt cheated, we were still turned on. We left the theater in a state of mixed exhilaration and excitement, and the fear and guilt went with us. In our dreams, we were menaced, and perhaps became furtive murderers. It is said that in periods of rampant horrors readers and moviegoers like to experience imaginary horrors, which can be resolved and neatly put away. I think it’s more likely that in the current craze for horror films like Night of the Living Dead and Sisters the audience wants an intensive dose of the fear sickness — not to confront fear and have it conquered but to feel that crazy, inexplicable delight that children get out of terrifying stories that give them bad dreams. A flesh-crawler that affects as many senses as a horror movie can doesn’t end with the neat fake solution. We are always aware that the solution will not really explain the terror we’ve felt; the forces of madness are never laid to rest.
Suppose that through the medium of the movies pulp, with its fìve-and-dime myths, can take a stronger hold on people’s imaginations than art, because it doesn’t affect the conscious imagination, the way a great novel does, but the private, hidden imagination, the primitive fantasy life — and with an immediacy that leaves no room for thought. I have had more mail from adolescents (and post- adolescents) who were badly upset because of a passing derogatory remark I made about Rosemary’s Baby than I would ever get if I mocked Tolstoy. Those adolescents think Rosemary’s Baby is great because it upsets them. And I suspect that people are reluctant to say goodbye to the old sweet bull of the Bogart Marlowe because it satisfies a deep need. They’ve been accepting the I-look-out-for-No. 1 tough guys of recent films, but maybe they’re scared to laugh at Gould’s out-of-it Marlowe because that would lose them their Bogart icon. At the moment, the shared pop culture of the audience may be all that people feel they have left. The negative reviews kept insisting that Altman’s movie had nothing to do with Chandler’s novel and that Elliott Gould wasn’t Marlowe. People still want to believe that Galahad is alive and well in Los Angeles — biding his time, per- haps, until movies are once again “like they used to be.
The jacked-up romanticism of movies like those featuring Shaft, the black Marlowe, may be so exciting it makes what we’ve always considered the imaginative artists seem dull and boring. Yet there is another process at work, too: the executive producers and their hacks are still trying to find ways to make the old formulas work, but the gifted filmmakers are driven to go beyond pulp and to bring into movies the qualities of imagination that have gone into the other arts. Sometimes, like Robert Altman, they do it even when they’re working on pulp material. Altman’s isn’t a pulp sensibility. Chandler’s, for all his talent, was.
The New Yorker, October 22, 1973