The title song to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is evoked constantly throughout the film. Notably, the song is used as both nondiegetic sound--accompanying Terry Lennox on his trip to see Marlowe early in the film, for example--and as diegetic sound, emanating (humorously) from the Mexican funeral procession, or from the eclectic group of people playing music at Roger Wade’s house on the beach. It is during these diegetic moments in particular that the viewer begins to understand the director’s intent. Just as Altman uses this song, taking the basic melody line and reapplying it to fit any given situation, The Long Goodbye is, simply, a variation on a theme. In fact, at one point the female singer blatantly asks: “The long goodbye/Can you recognize the theme?”
For his theme Altman has chosen to address the myth of the hard-boiled detective, as presented in the fiction of such notable writers as James M. Cain and specifically, Raymond Chandler, who wrote the book, The Long Goodbye, from which the film is derived. Consequently, Altman’s film emerges as a prime example of what one scholar, John G. Cawelti, refers to as “generic transformation.” Cawelti explains: “If a myth can be defined as a pattern of narrative known throughout the culture and presented in many different versions by many different tellers, then the hard-boiled detective story is in that sense an important American myth” (228). In this essay I will examine the way in which Altman utilizes the generic structure of the hard-boiled detective story in order to dispel, or demythologize, this tradition. Specifically, I will compare and contrast The Long Goodbye with Howard Hawks’s 1946 film, The Big Sleep--also a Chandler novel and arguably the prototypical hard-boiled film noir.
Altman wastes little time in separating his film and its main character, Phillip Marlowe, from its generic past. The Big Sleep opens just as the book does, with Marlowe, portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, being summoned to the house of General Sternwood who wishes to employ his services. Notably, most of the film’s principal characters--Marlowe, Sternwood, Vivian, and Carmen--are introduced almost immediately. The plot then officially begins when Marlowe is presented with and accepts the case. In contrast, The Long Goodbye starts with a seemingly absurd sequence, consisting of Marlowe being awaken by his cat, serving it some food, then leaving the house to buy the cat’s preferred brand of cat food. When he returns, having purchased a different brand, he unsuccessfully tries to convince the cat that he actually bought the right brand; as a result, the cat scratches him and leaves. The actual plot does not begin until more than twenty minutes into the film (where Chandler’s novel initially started) with Terry Lennox, Marlowe’s friend, asking for a ride to Mexico. Unlike the Marlowe of Hawks and Chandler, untrusting of everyone he meets, Altman’s character does not ask any questions and naively obliges his friend.
Before addressing further the numerous differences in the Marlowe character of The Big Sleep, and the Marlowe of The Long Goodbye, it may be helpful to understand a little about the two actors assigned to the task of portraying him, as well as the star system itself.
For most people, Humphrey Bogart is the ideal hard-boiled detective. This fact is due largely to his similar performance in another classic film noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941), in which he portrays detective Sam Spade. Cawelti, in fact, explains that these two films are “the two most remembered and perhaps the most memorable versions of a narrative formula that has been replicated in hundreds of novels, films, and television programs” (227). As a star, Bogart is traditionally characterized as a tough man, a man’s man even: women want him, and men want to be him. After the success of The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca (1942), in which he plays another tough, yet romantic character, The Big Sleep was tailor-made to suit Bogart. His casting in the role of Marlowe is what Richard Dyer would refer to as a “perfect fit” considering the star image movie studios had developed for him. Notably, another man’s man, Robert Mitchum, plays Marlowe later in the 1970s in Farewell, My Lovely (1973) and a remake of The Big Sleep (1978).
With the image of Bogart still lingering from the 1940s, the casting of Elliott Gould as Marlowe would have seemed a dubious choice to a 1973 audience. At this time, Gould was most famous for his role as the devious and lovable Dr. John McIntyre in another Robert Altman film, M*A*S*H* (1970). Even before M*A*S*H*, Gould was typically cast in comedies and certainly never played a tough guy. To put it in more recent terms, this choice is comparable to Michael Keaton playing Batman; “Mr. Mom” as the dark, psychological “Caped Crusader” was originally an understandable shock to most people. However, Altman’s casting decision can be understood as essential to the demythologization process. The private detective is no longer a dark knight in shining armor, searching for truth in a disillusioned world. Times have only gotten worse, and Phillip Marlowe has sunk with them.
Right down the line, Altman’s film eliminates all of Marlowe’s defining characteristics. In his novels, Chandler reveals that Marlowe has the appearance of a former prizefighter. Fittingly, Carmen asks Marlowe if he had ever been a boxer in the opening scene of Hawks’s film. Whereas this statement seemed plausible with Bogart portraying Marlowe, Gould could never be mistaken for a fighter. Furthermore, Bogart always appears in control, no matter who or what he is faced with; when he is hurt, it is only if he is outnumbered and taken by surprise. Gould, on the other hand, is pushed around, physically and emotionally, by police officers.
Moreover, not once does Marlowe ever attract the desire of any women in The Long Goodbye. The biggest compliment Gould gets about his appearance is from Roger and Eileen Wade; both remark that he has a “good face.” This trait is more a testament to his honesty, however, than his good looks. In contrast, both Carmen and her sister, Vivian, approach Marlowe in The Big Sleep, not to mention virtually every other woman he encounters, including the woman in the bookstore and the taxi driver.
Marlowe’s lack of virility is significant since it serves as one of the most distinct indicators of the changing times. His treatment of women stems largely from the social climate of the 1940s, a time when the role of women in society was rapidly changing and men felt their power declining. Consequently, sex became a problematic issue that dominated the American consciousness. For Altman, this anti-women sentiment and hang-up concerning sex simply no longer exists. How mysterious and complicated can women be if Marlowe can look out his window everyday and see a group of them completely naked?
Throughout The Long Goodbye, it becomes clear that Phillip Marlowe--that is, the traditional generic character--is an anachronism in the 1970s. His car, a 1948 Lincoln Continental, is outdated. His clothes and name are even criticized by a police officer who explains: “You know, you don’t tie in…What’s with this suit and the name, Phillip Marlowe?” His office has been transformed from a neatly kept space downtown to a run-down bar, and his home is a disaster. He dresses badly, and for all intents and purposes, he is a complete slob. His humor and intellect also do not match the Marlowe one finds in The Big Sleep. Whereas Bogart gives the impression of being clever and witty, Gould is viewed as simply a being a smart-ass who needs to keep his mouth shut. To put it another way, no one in the film gets his jokes. Perhaps in 1946 people would have found him funny, but not in 1973.
He is also consistently one step behind the police. For example, the cops knew that Roger had been with Sylvia Lennox the night she was killed long before he informs them. In The Big Sleep, the cops rely heavily on Marlowe for information. Furthermore, Marlowe has ceased to become the viewer’s only navigator through a corrupt world. Altman represents this new reality most effectively in a scene at the beach house when Roger excuses Marlowe in order to talk with his wife. Traditionally, the viewer would have been forced outside with him-- rarely in a hard-boiled story does the viewer ever get any information that the detective does not process first. In this case, we remain inside as Marlowe is excluded from the conversation.
Undoubtedly, however, Altman’s master stroke comes at the end of the film. Although The Big Sleep also ends with Marlowe causing the death of the “bad guy,” the remarkable aspect of The Long Goodbye is Marlowe’s unabashed cheerfulness after killing Terry Lennox: he walks away from the body and begins playing a harmonica. Altman cleverly reinforces Marlowe’s cavalier attitude with the soundtrack, which begins playing “Hooray for Hollywood”--the final blow to the myth of the hard-boiled detective. Phillip Marlowe is not a super-man, on a quest for truth and justice; he may have been once, but that is no longer possible. He is a mere mortal, betrayed by his cat, his friend, and seeking revenge to justify his pain. The final verdict seems to be that we cannot rely on the heroic private detective to provide us with the answers anymore. He is as lost as we are.