As the mid-70s drew near, Robert Altman had become so assured in his vision that he often seemed to be searching for scenarios and screenplays that actively defied his trademark elastic style, in order to test just how fluid and dynamic his outlook might become. In McCabe & Mrs Miller, he had tackled the western, which was classically driven by heroic individualism and stable horizons, both of which were inimical to his ensemble mentality. In Images, he had tackled the chamber drama, which was also inimical to his collective outlook, albeit in a very different way. In fact, these two films had complemented each other, since McCabe & Mrs. Miller dealt with the vast expanses of the western by bringing most of the action indoors, while Images dealt with the cloistered spaces of the chamber drama by resorting to the most cavernous and scopic landscapes in Altman’s entire career.
An even greater challenge was posed by his next project, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. No adaptations of Chandler’s novels had been made since the classical era, and while the adaptations to date had differed in their style and approach, they had all had to contend with the same basic fact – the narration of Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s iconic private eye. Few characters in twentieth-century literature exhibit such a precisely modulated mediation between themselves and the world around them. For all his forensic knowledge, Marlowe’s most precious attribute was his ability to let just enough of the world into his private life, and just enough of himself into the world, to solve his cases. This balance was all the more important in that Marlowe was operating in Los Angeles just as it was starting to sprawl into the decentered megalopolis that we know today, due in large part to the emerge of a new automobile infrastructure and extensive highway system.
In Chandler’s novels, Marlowe’s voice, and this automobile environment, are two sides of the same coin. While Marlowe’s voice can maintain itself in most parts of Los Angeles, it feels most natural behind the windscreen of a car, or when narrating events with the same observational fluidity that comes from being behind the windscreen of a car. In that sense, Marlowe’s voice was a voiceover from the outset, narrating the version of Los Angeles unfolding behind his windscreen much as a voiceover might narrate the version of Los Angeles, or any other city, unfolding upon a cinematic screen. The Marlovian voice was thus the voice of classical Hollywood, just as Chandler’s novels were written in a cinematic lexicon before they were ever adapted as screenplays. In fact, adapting Chandler’s novels for the big screen actually ran the risk of diluting their cinematic ambience if Marlowe’s voice, and his relation to his car and windscreen, weren’t preserved in exactly the right way.
The Marlovian voice, with its finely calibrated threshold between self and world, is thus even more inimical to the ensemble sprawl of Altman’s vision than the grand horizons of the western, or the tight constrictions of the chamber drama. What The Long Goodbye reveals, somewhat ironically, however, is that this is because Altman’s vision is so attuned to the ensemble sprawl of Los Angeles – so attuned, in fact, that it is forced to discard the distinctive features of Marlowe’s voice almost immediately, along with the special status of his windscreen. In effect, Altman’s film spirals out from the way in which he disperses and dispels this voiceover and the windscreen that accompanied it, resulting in a long and melancholy goodbye to the classical cinema that produced Chandler’s vision to begin with.
In other words, The Long Goodbye adapts and transforms the cinematic lexicon of Chandler’s novel, making it both more and less than a regular adaptation of a novel to screen. Despite bursts of jazz in the opening and closing scenes, the action is migrated to the 1970s, where Marlowe, played by Elliott Gould, lives in the High Tower in Hollywood Heights, rather than down in the Yucca Corridor, as occurs in the novel. We first meet this version of Marlowe in a comic sequence involving his cat and his neighbours. As the opening credits roll, Marlowe is woken up by his cat, who seems to be hungry, at four in the morning. Marlowe then makes him a dish of egg and cottage cheese, but the cat doesn’t seem to be impressed, leading Marlowe to put on his clothes and head down to the local supermarket, which he trawls for a while before bringing back some luxury cat food, along with some brownie mix for the nudists who live in the apartment across from him. As his cat climbs, crawls and clambers curiously all over his body, Marlowe immediately feels more domesticated than in any previous adaptation. Similarly, his familiarity with the nudists, and the errand he runs for them, indicates that this version of Marlowe is likely to be far less paranoid – less misogynist, xenophobic, homophobia – than any of his previous adaptations.
Both of those changes undercut the melancholy isolation of Marlowe from the world around him. For a moment, this isolation seems to be signalled by the spectacular vantage point of the High Tower, which sits at the end of a steep Hollywood street, offers a panoramic view of the city, and is so elevated that it actually has its own dedicated elevator. Once again, however, Altman has chosen a situation that is inimical to his own aesthetic in order to test his own aesthetic, as this sublime vantage point, which appears to be so conducive to an individual gaze, actually becomes the vehicle for an emergent and ensemble atmosphere that sees Marlowe take the stairs as often as he takes the elevator. Without that steady or stable panoramic vantage point, Marlowe’s voice is much wryer and more self-deprecating than in Chandler’s novels, and far less sequestered from the world. Slipping between monologue and dialogue, he’s always talking slightly to himself, and often sounds as if he is half-asleep, or mildly stoned, with most of his utterances occurring at the cusp between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, between voiceover and the world of the film. More porous and open to the world around him than Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell, he rambles just above and below conversations, untethering himself from any single or stable sonic plane. Like Brewster McCloud, he’s as much an antenna as a character, regularly riffing on speech, sounds and music around him, as if he is scatting in slow motion.
In other words, Marlowe’s voice is always trailing off into the ambience of the Los Angeles cityscape. This ambience is the perfect canvas for Altman’s zoom-and-pan approach, which not only captures the shifting planes of the investigation, but the contiguous nature of the Los Angeles suburbs, dissolving thresholds, hierarchies and perspectives into a single, slippery sprawl. Altman’s zooms, in particular, are more subliminal, but also more continuous, than ever before, as the camera perpetually moves back and forth, evoking a city that exists on the fringes of our focus. With a mise-en-scene so mobile, there’s very little need for the driving that forms such a key part of Chandler’s novels, allowing Altman to start off with predominantly interior scenes, typically shot at night. The first traffic light we see is an ornament, put up ironically by the nudists next door, while the momentum of the investigation is often absurd, and demands quite absurd body language from Marlowe, as when he crouches, weaves and dances his way into the back garden of a psychiatric facility.
That’s not to say that the windscreens of Chandler’s original are absent, but that they are deflected into the windows that take place in the background of the action. Ever since That Cold Day in the Park, Altman has used windows as a source of classical cinematic framing, tempting his audience, or characters, to be enthralled by their sharp symmetries, only to dissolve them into a more collective and ensemble outlook. That process reaches one of its high points here, especially in the scenes that take place in and around Malibu Colony, one of the key nodes of Marlowe’s investigation, which takes him to the house of Roger Wade, a writer played by Sterling Hayden, and his wife Eileen, played by Nina van Pallandt. Malibu Colony is presented as a distilled version of Los Angeles, in which everyone is connected “very slightly, like one knows most people on the beach,” as Altman’s camera finds its greatest challenge yet in the Wade house, whose enormous front and back windows are both an incitement and a riposte to classical cinematic framing, as well as a threshold between Altman’s residual classical impulses and the style he would shortly apotheosise in Nashville. No surprise, then, that the threshold to Malibu Colony also involves an exhaustion of classical cinema, since the entrance is manned by a guard who insists on regaling each newcomer with cinematic impersonations that become more tired with each new rendition.
The house itself, now located at 23844 Malibu Road is harder to describe. In some ways, it doesn’t feel like a real house, since it’s so attuned to Altman’s style that it appears to emanate out of his camera. In fact, it often doesn’t feel like a house at all, since Altman shoots it as a diaphanous sliver, a single sheet of glass suspended between street and sea. Altman starts the most bravura sequence in the film by shooting the back window through the front window, revealing a doubling framing that might initially tempt the audience, and Marlowe, into the pleasures of classical cinematic optics. Yet Altman quickly gets so close to the back window, and orchestrates the action so perfectly, that the camera appears to be in the window, or to be a part of the window, making it impossible to extricate ourselves, identity a stable perspective, or figure out how Altman has set up the shot. Meanwhile, the heave and shift of the sea in the background mirrors the subliminal zooms of Altman’s camera in and out, until Los Angeles appears to be literally breathing in and through the camera, dissolving the classical cinematic apparatus that was once used to control and contain it before our very eyes. In that sense, The Long Goodbye is perhaps the first properly post-cinematic version of Los Angeles ever committed to film, displacing Marlowe from the investigation and preventing him from every being completely present in the conversation taking place during this sequence, which also happens to be the most important in the film.
That process allows Altman’s camera to absorb much of the probing, provisional and peripatetic quality that made Marlowe so distinctive in Chandler’s novels. It also untethers Marlowe’s voiceover from the film once and for all, dissolving the windscreens that sustained his voice into a glassy fluidity that the camera can only participate in, rather than document in any classically cinematic manner. Yet this doesn’t exactly disempower Marlowe, since it partly permits him to be more relaxed than in earlier adaptations, content to set himself adrift on the currents of the city and see what they yield, like an improbable evolution of the flaneur for a metropolis driven by car travel above all else. It also lifts the fantasy of pre-war masculinity, giving Marlowe a vulnerability, but also a freedom, that imbues the film with a wonderfully ethereal and mercurial quality in turn. While noir adaptations of Chandler tended to revel in the opacity of his cases like they was a material objects as plastic and unquestionable as Bogart’s squat stature, Altman turns his attention to the sheer fragility of the skeins of the investigation as they unravel – the elusiveness of the case as it disperses into something almost unimaginably diffuse, as distended the Los Angeles cityscape itself. Glimpsing this case, or grasping this case, doesn’t depend upon evidence, but on maintaining enough momentum to discern it, for a moment, in its entirety.
Unlike the classical versions of Chandler, and unlike most American film to this point, Altman’s vision is not really driven by narrative, character, or even by mise-en-scene. Instead, his directorial vision is driven by dynamism, momentum, and internal rhythm, perhaps explaining why so many of his later works would often dissolve into music or dance instead of coming to a stable or discernible conclusion. Each charactersis in their own semi-sequestered space, halfway between monologue and dialogue, remote one minute then disclosing some part of themselves the next, as Los Angeles becomes the living, breathing embodiment of the ensemble outlook that Altman was seeking to evoke and encapsulate. From this point onwards, Los Angeles would thus become a integral principle in Altman’s career, culminating with The Player and Short Cuts, his last two great ensemble dramas, and his last two sustained reflections on the legacy of classical Hollywood. At the same time, this version of Marlowe would become a blueprint for how Altman disposed of character, making this the apex of his work with Gould, but also ensuring that Marlowe never feels exceptional here, as he does in other adaptations of Chandler, or in Chandler’s own novels.
Instead, Altman’s Marlowe simply knows how to position himself a little more fluidly at the cusp between public space and his private self than the characters around him, taking us through a series of situations that grow ever more hushed even as they seem to comprise the broader life of the city as well. Without that sense of exceptionalism, perhaps the strangest thing about Altman’s vision is that Marlowe is no longer hard-boiled. Instead, he’s devoid of the bitter cynicism of Chandler’s novels, which is largely deflected into Roger Wade, the Hemingway-like character played by Sterling Hayden, who continually resorts to the macho hubris of classical Hollywood, but is just as perpetually involuted by infantile displays of abject abandon. With the cynicism gone, however, the lyricism and languor of Chandler is more burnished than in any adaptation before or since, as is the pointed sense of humour, resulting in a third act that becomes more beautiful and farcical until it almost leaves the realm of crime fiction altogether, only for one last provisional gesture from Marlowe to keep the connection to Chandler, but keep it as elastic and as open as possible.
Meanwhile, the misogyny of Chandler’s world is even starker for not being partly endorsed by Marlowe’s voice. In many scenes, Altman seems to replicate iconic moments of violence from Chandler’s novels, and from the canon of noir more generally, but untethers them from Marlowe’s voice, so that they float against the ambience of the city with no easy resolution. While Chandler revelled in narratives that defied resolution, his treatment of women, and the accompanying anxieties around homoerotic proximity between men, never felt as open or as pregnant as they do here. In two of the most unusual and confronting moments in the film, a gangster smashes a glass across his girlfriend’s face, before instructing all of his men to take off their clothes to make it even more dramatic when he castrates Marlowe. Like so many of the scenes in the film, this one shifts and modulates before it can be resolved, but its import lingers across the later part of Altman’s vision, which doesn’t merely dispense with classical cinema, but jettisons the most violent and brutal impulses of classical cinema into a strange figurative freefall. Call it his apology for the conservatism of MASH, or his recognition that MASH was more indebted to classical cinema than initially appeared, especially alongside this gloriously original and melancholy release, which has to be one of the most idiosyncratic literary adaptations ever committed to film.