An Essay on The Long Goodbye

by smARTfilms curator Tova Gannana


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The world is a broken vessel. To heal our bodies we sleep. Robert Altman begins his 1973 California noir with Philip Marlowe asleep, asleep because he was last played by Humphrey Bogart in 1946. Bogart not the man in the American sunshine but the moon man inside him shadows. Is there anything as beautiful as Bogart in a suit and hat spotting the angle? To his young wife Lauren Bacall Bogart said “Talent is no good in the living room you’ve got to get out and do it.” Dick Powell played Marlowe in 1944’s Murder My Sweet, the first film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Private Eye.


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“Sounds like a fag name,” a police officer says to Altman’s Marlowe. This isn’t the 1940’s on film. Altman’s Marlowe played by Elliott Gould was not the studio's idea of an ideal. For one thing he didn’t smoke. “All I did generally in the movie was to keep continuity with the cigarette.” Gould’s Marlowe stays in a suit and tie patterned in tiny American flags. For Gould the role was gold “To play a character that had a history and a history that I had watched and I’d observed and then also to have this great American maestro Robert Altman take me through it and let me go through it.” Altman’s Marlowe is the man in the film with the problem. All the other characters are doing what comes naturally. Marlowe is the one who is conscious with a conscience. Because we first see him asleep, the film could also be seen as a dream. Marlowe snoring in his room, above his bed one interrogating lamp. He is awakened by an animal. His cat comes in and meows. Marlowe scratching his head lighting a cigarette. They are both domestic. His cat has to eat. His kitchen blue, he leaves open the refrigerator. He wants to feed his cat cottage cheese and raw egg, an improvisation, adds a pinch of salt. The cat won’t go near it except to fling it to the ground. He gives him a line about all the starving tigers in India. The cat doesn’t buy it. And that according to Altman is what the film is all about.


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This is Los Angeles in the seventies, California in its sunset decay. Everything is crumbling including relations between people. Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” is a hand waving to American culture. To structure. To fabrics made without plastic. To hair combs in back pockets and formal dialogue. To speaking from your diaphragm. To buying other people's lies. Marlowe’s cat did not appear in Chandler's book but both Altman and Chandler had a love of cats. The first twist that turns into a tangle is when Marlowe drives his friend Terry Lennox with a bag of money to Tijuana in the middle of the night. Lennox is all scratched up and says something about trouble with his wife. In Chandlers language in 1953 Marlowe sees his friend Lennox at the story’s end. In 1973 Marlowe kills him. By 1973 Marlowe no longer wears a hat and neither does the American President. A decade after Kennedy was assassinated and the American Public no longer believed the official story.


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“I do believe there is nothing of value but what we have to share.” Gould in an interview said years later. “It’s one thing to share goodness and accomplishments. It's another thing to share a problem. And this film is about a problem on so many different levels.” The song sung throughout is “The Long Goodbye” written for the film and is sung between many people and in many voices. It feels like an old American song. The only one in the film not humming is Marlowe. Gould’s Marlowe interpretation speaks on and off camera as though he is a Talmudic commentator adding notes not an explanation per se but as in this is related to that. “It’s always the same story.” said Altman, which is to say “human nature.” Gould grew up on Bogart films. At Bogart's funeral a replica of his boat “The Santana” represented him as his request had been cremation. “The Santana” had once been Dick Powell's. The script for “The Long Goodbye” was set in the time period Chandler had written it in. “What he does is show life taking its course,” Gould said of Altman, so Altman carried the 40’s into the 70’s. The one who keeps his hardboiled code is Marlowe. “I’ve got a tin ear,” he says. Is it Marlowe who is out of tune or is it the world?


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The one who really goes under is Roger Wade, played by beautiful Sterling Hayden, stand in for the American people. Alcoholic, owing money, betraying and betrayed. Jean Paul Belmondo was a Marlowe in Jean Luc Godard's 1960 film “Breathless”. To a picture of Bogart at the movies Belmondo nods. His comment on human behavior “Models model, burglars burgle”.


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In the end Marlowe becomes like his cat. Unwilling to eat what is an imitation. “I’ve come for the truth. You’ve sold me wood story and shown me pretty pictures but I’ve come for the truth.” Marlowe our only hope. TV never on. Naive maybe but still thinking.

—Tova Gannana, curator

Join us on October 31st at 7:30 PM for The Long Goodbye.


Tickets: $10 Member, $12 Non-Member

Dinner seating in Bistro begins at 5:30 PM. Reservations recommended - 206-451-4011.
Auditorium opens at 7:00 PM
Movies at 7:30 PM