“When Some Passerby…Invites Your Eye” — The Opening 28 Minutes and of Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’
There is an idea of America as one long night.
The opening minutes of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, released in 1973, are my favourite stretch of film from the decade. They do what all great movies do: give more than the story is telling, and take us through a series of moments, allowing us to sleepwalk through a place we’ve never been, and a time that could only ever exist once, one way. It’s a dream. It’s full of energy. It’s entirely beaten-down and hopeless. It’s lively with pulpy thrills. It’s a neighbourhood that can be yours, for a little while.
The Long Goodbye (1973) trades on the passivity of the noir hero, one of the most telling features of the genre. The idea of a man who’s pushed around, swept up into something, never that shocked, never that surprised. In the morality play version of it (a la Double Indemnity), he’s a dope, and his path is marked by betrayal, generally at the hands of a woman. In the tougher rendition, he’s a thug (Bogart’s Spade in The Maltese Falcon).
But the most refined, purified version of a noir lead has to be Marlowe as we see him in The Long Goodnight, where he knows the score, knows the block, and operates during everyone else’s off hours, a zone where his shabby alertness combined with his ability to be part of all the small things around him empowers him.
Everyone else is at their tensest, tiredest. They’re off their game. They need to sleep because they have ordinary business to accomplish once the sun rises again. Marlow was never really that awake. And so, now, he’s in his element.
28 minutes into a modern film, even if it’s no blockbuster, you are deep into the plot. Even a mid-sized budget film today can easily cost 40-plus million dollars. That makes 28 minutes a $10,000,000 investment. Can you imagine that kind of money put towards observing someone for a couple of days of their life, during which they accomplish nothing, are at the will of others the entire time, and are most concerned with acquiring the right cat food? Furthermore, would you believe that it’s more enthralling, engaging, and a better case for why cinema is uniquely able to convey a story’s momentum than its peers?
Noir is so tied to its origins that they bear mentioning. This moodiest of genres was formed after the great wars when it was proposed that a mean man should walk the mean streets and be the only fellow dirty-palmed and tough-minded enough to keep sensible folk safe in the absence of reason.
The idea is that a working man, never resting, never sleeping, always cynical, is capable of seeing through enough of the rigmarole of day to day society that he can trace any outliers. Marlowe’s not above this mess. He stumbles as often as he walks straight. Runs himself ragged, but still falls down at the finish line. He doesn’t bumble, and he’s never out of it, he’s just also never really with it. It would be too generous to suggest that he has a plan all along. But as a moral centre, there’s a safety that he earns. He’s the shabby ferryman who’ll get you through the dark passageways of the afterlife. He knows the prices and the menus. He’s both chummy pals with the doormen and also unintimidated by the gentry.
When the film was releases in 1973, it was one of the most unlikely and apt matches of filmmaker to content. Robert Altman, whose M.A.S.H. had introduced the world to overlapping dialogue (though his Nashville was two years shy of being made), took on the task of bringing Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye (he of The Big Sleep) to the screen again. And his route to doing so developed one of the most poetic impressions of California ever committed to the screen. The economy of what is presented and communicated is unbelievably compact.
At the same time, Altman’s ear for people allows the story more human room to breathe than if it were strictly plot-driven. The risk of noir is always that it’s so compact and event-based that it’s reduced to the chase, one step at a time. And of course, the final thing, famously, necessarily, doesn’t matter. But here, via Altman, we have time to dwell with figures like Nina Van Pallandt’s Eileen Wade, an extraordinarily performed character who sits like a block of reality and reason among the wildly emotional, petty men of this world. Marlowe, likewise, is level-headed around a set of boozers, cheats, would-be cult leaders, and egoists.
Across from Marlow, the real counterpart in this world is not any of his various opponents, but the resolved, nurturing Eileen. Van Pallandt’s performance makes a difficult task look easy: so well does she play against the blustering Sterling Hayden as her lush of a husband (a glamourless Hemingway deconstruction for the ages), but also against Marlowe.
. Her apprehensions and ultimatums have weight, and we can see the years that this woman has spent as she plays against Hayden.
In one exceptional passage; we’ve followed Marlowe as he comes to visit, tracked him, and are told by everything filmicly, grammar-wise, that we should anticipate this man’s actions. Then, he arrives, and is asked to step outside. This is she moment he would have a big confrontation, usually, as our hero. Instead the momentum shifts to her.
He walks to shore and smokes, and the Wades engage in pure melodrama. The real heft given their interaction, and the superb acting give away the fact that this is no more of a noir than it is any other genre.
It’s just Marlowe in the world of people. In the world of tension, cutting through, giving everyone a break for a little bit, and offering a brief encounter with someone who’s got no skin in the game.
Falling back to those first scenes, the opening minutes, it becomes clear that what’s being offered here is a solution to loneliness.
Wandering into this world, everything we need to know is communicated about Marlow. His environment. Even the social politics of life around him. He’s quintessentially what you want your Noir Man to be. Wanted and desired by the cool and the fast, but immune to their charms. Tough, yet incapable of saying no to somebody in a jam. There is a sense that the only thing keeping him from his cat is this very quality: the fact that the lowly of the world know that he’ll dig ’em out of whatever quandary they’ve found themselves immersed in.
What this figure meant in 1973 was not the same as what he meant in the 40s and 50s. Here, it’s necessarily an apolitical thing.
Where could you put your trust? Everything was one side or the other. Establishments ran foul with corruption. Opponents dropped out more than they tuned in. On one side: the old guard had fallen to brutality and small thinking. On the other: the kids smoked more than they acted, and love and peace were only their game when they cost nothing.
Establishments here aren’t good worth a damn beyond kicking Marlowe around, but it’s not like his hippie neighbours can find his cat: they’re self involved and shallow on their own level.
In the middle of it, you get Marlowe. He was never handed anything, and he’s no drip, but he also sees through the game that The Man is playing. He won’t let you down because he isn’t keeping score.
He’s knocked around. Almost right away. Marlowe takes a beating at the hands of a pair of local cops, and then furthermore at their jailer associates. This plays out in long, circling-camera moments where accusations are flung to lazily that it’s hard to feel their sting. The signs of the era are telling: Marlowe’s questions come at him right away with accusations of what would have been considered sexual deviance (“Are you a f*g?”) to which he calmly and blithely retains his status as uncategorizable, save for being the type who doesn’t snitch. And of course, the question has nothing to do with romantic proclivity, and everything to do with the fact that you’re explainable if you’re X, Y, or Z, and the nasty secret of the state is that they won’t stop you from being whatever you are, they just need to be able to pen the label into their rolodex.
This reminds of Casablanca, in which Rick neither takes the confrontational bait, nor kowtows to the Nazis, by answering, when asked:
“What nationality are you?”
“I’m a drunk.”
The point isn’t to avoid evil, but to slip in and around its cheap and insecure cracks.
As The Long Goodbye begins, Marlowe is awakened at 3:00 a.m. by his hungry cat. He wakes, groggily searches for a way around things, offers the cat alternate options, realizes there’s nothing to be done, passes by some fast-living neighbours, heads to the corner store for cat food and the brownie mix the neighbours requested, and comes home. He is met there by a pal who’s in the doghouse with his wife, again, and who askes Marlowe to help ferry him across the border to Tijuana. Marlowe, once home, reconciles all of this just in drowsy time for a pair of cops to show up, plant a charge, and haul him, all bruised up, in for questioning. He doesn’t say much, takes the beating, does his time, and is let go. He sits down at a favourite watering hole, smoking, and listens to the piano player sing.
And that’s the shape of the first 28 minutes of this film.
Altman repeats the motif of the song, bathing the scenario in the words and the music that define it. The sweet-dark tone and sentiment of the song are all over every frame. There is restlessness in the movement. Voyeurism in the push and pull and of the long cut-less takes. Kindness in the casting of a slouching, brotherly type as your hero. Swampy charm in the depraved but harmless surroundings.
All threats are charmable. All seductions redundant and best dealt with through a tip of the hat. All loyalties matter, enough to take a beating, but not enough to lie.
Lying won’t help nobody, nowhere. Truth, and its spilling, is the chief aim and pleasure of the long California night. It’s all either truth in the end or it’s nothing. Absolutely nothing.