[In celebration of the forthcoming release of L.A. Noire, Flixist has teamed up with its sister sites Japanator and Destructoid to give a bit of background on what noir (we’re spelling it that way) is all about. Throughout the next week and leading up to L.A. Noire’s release, we’ll be reviewing/analyzing classic noirs set in L.A., explaining exactly what noir is and a few more awesome things.]
The detective fiction genre is one of the oldest and noblest of American literary genres. The genre has gone through various phases, from the earliest of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories (The Purloined Letter) to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s magnificent collection of Sherlock Holmes stories to the typical and defined hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler. The problem concerning all types of film adaptations is trying to strike a balance between including as much information as possible from the source material while also condensing long stories into an entertaining, yet satisfying end product for the masses to indulge.
Unfortunately, a lot can be lost in translation, and Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is an example of what happens when too much of the source material is altered. While Sam analyzed exactly what defines film noir, I’m going to analyze the difference between Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Altman’s Philip Marlowe and how that difference affects the conventions of the genre as a whole.
The main crux of both the hard-boiled detective and film noir genres is the protagonist. In any typical film noir, the protagonist is a detective of sorts, seemingly existing outside of the trappings of the society surrounding him. In Chandler’s brilliant essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” he writes, “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. […] He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” The Long Goodbye is no different in following this convention. The main character, Philip Marlowe (played by Elliot Gould in the film adaptation), is a struggling private investigator with a quick quip for any occasion. However, it seems as if the similarities between Chandler’s Marlowe and Altman’s Marlowe ends here.
The reason for this falls on the tone and overall direction that the novel and film take. The novel, published in 1953, takes place in the late 40s, whereas the film is adapted to a contemporary 70s setting. Obviously, the difference between the double decades leads to a generational gap for the stories. Altman made a conscious decision to set the film in the 70s, but structures Marlowe’s personality around the typical 50s film noir protagonists. However, this just doesn’t work for the film as a whole. In an attempt to illustrate and sort of satirize the conventions of the film noir detective, he just alienates Marlowe.
Earlier, I mentioned that the hard-boiled/film noir detective chooses to live outside of society, but Altman’s Marlowe is always an outsider looking in rather than being aware and understanding of the game, but choosing not to play it. In fact, to even consider Altman’s Marlowe a detective is a bit of a stretch. Yes, he’s initially hired to investigate the whereabouts of a missing person, Roger Wade, but once he’s found, all forms of detective work end. He’s on a personal mission to clear the good name of his friend, Terry Lennox, but rather than investigate the case, he falls into a series of events that ends with the incidental discovery of the true nature of Terry Lennox. I don’t buy it one bit.
The main problem I have with this film depiction of Philip Marlowe is how the film concludes. After going through hell trying to clear Terry Lennox’s name, he finds him in Mexico, hiding away from the rest of the world, so to speak. After his admission of guilt, Marlowe shoots and kills him. This completely goes against what we’ve expected out of Marlowe throughout the film’s narrative. It’s way too out of character. The viewer doesn’t achieve a sense of redemption or that Marlowe truly found a bit of closure in this. The only way I could possibly find justification of Marlowe’s act is if he simply grew tired of defending Lennox, just to find out he was guilty all along. Bland.
Thusly, we’re left with the question, “Is The Long Goodbye a film noir?” To that, I would say no; rather, I’d consider it a neo-noir. There are still some conventions left over from the genre that Altman included and satirized, such as Marlowe’s sarcastic, loner, detective character; the femme fatale who possess inside knowledge unknown to the rest of the cast in the form of Nina Van Pallandt’s Eileen Wade; and the implication (but not blatantly obvious) of the seedy underbelly of society in the film’s creation of the Marty Augustine character and his group of goons (with a cameo by a very young Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Further evidence of Altman’s satirical take of the film noir conventions is in the musical number of the eponymous song, “The Long Goodbye.” In fact, the majority of the songs played through the film involve various renditions of the theme song, whether it’s played by a jazz piano or a capella. Other visual characteristics of the typical film noir, like black and white/heavy dark shadows/chiaroscuro don’t exist in The Long Goodbye, but again, that’s because of the decision to move away from the trappings of the film noir genre.
Enough about whether or not The Long Goodbye falls in line with the rest of the genre or whether or not it can compare to the novel it’s based on (it doesn’t, in case you’re interested). Rather, as should always be the case for all types of film, is whether or not it’s any good or entertaining. Is it entertaining? Definitely. Elliot Gould is great as the sarcastic Philip Marlowe, full of witty one-liners for any event. In an earlier scene, he asks a grocery attendant if he had a cat, and the following exchange played out:
Grocery Attendant: “What do I need a cat for? I got a girl.”
Philip Marlowe: “Oh haha, he’s got a girl, I got a cat.”
It’s this kind of wit that makes you yearn for a film noir/neo-noir starring somebody like Robert Downey, Jr. The rest of the cast is… hit or miss, to put it lightly.
Out of the list of films we’re covering for our special film noir week, I’d have to say that The Long Goodbye is the weakest. If you’re expecting a straight-out detective film, you won’t find it here. However, as a whole, it’s an interesting film to watch and see how it plays along with the conventions of the genre and how it’s different from other straight black-and-white film noirs (both visually and thematically). If you enjoyed The Long Goodbye, I recommend other Raymond Chandler novels and film adaptations, like the classic Humphrey Bogart film, The Big Sleep.