by Jim Ridley
on Tue, Feb 5, 2008 at 4:40 PM
Tonight on tap at the Belcourt in the Nashville Film Noir Festival: Robert Altman's 1973 Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye. James Wilson does the intro at 7 p.m.; Jonathan Malcolm Lampley leads the post-film discussion. It should be a blast. After the jump: a brief write-up on the film, which doesn't appear elsewhere online.
Robert Altman updates Raymond Chandler's detective novel from the greatest generation to the Me Generation, in another gem from his fertile early-'70s major-studio period. Altman's Philip Marlowe isn't the suave Bogie of The Big Sleep, or even unflappable Robert Montgomery from The Lady in the Lake. Instead, he's a disheveled Elliott Gould, shambling his way through a seedy El Lay underworld of quack doctors, eccentric authors and psycho gangsters to clear a buddy (baseball player Jim Bouton, of Ball Four fame) of his wife's murder.
When released (barely) in 1973, the movie was widely dismissed as a snarky goof on the detective genre, and Altman definitely kids its conventions. John Williams' witty score even provides a ubiquitous “Laura”-like theme song that hounds the hero. But Gould's Marlowe isn't the hapless stumbler everyone seems to think. In the last scene, after playing the patsy for most of the movie, Marlowe suddenly snaps to attention—and we realize Altman isn't dicking around with the detective's moral code. As critic Danny Peary noted, Marlowe's last act with a gun serves the same purpose as McCabe's in Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller: it shows the character wasn't out of his depth at all with thugs and killers, just biding his time until it mattered.
The same can be said for the movie, which turns from spoofy to shocking on a dime—especially with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond giving the reflective surfaces of nighttime L.A. a surreal, eerie glossiness. The cast includes Sterling Hayden, Henry Gibson, Nina Van Pallandt, and filmmaker Mark Rydell as a strutting little gangster who commits a horrific act of violence. And watch for uncredited appearances by David Carradine and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.