The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman in 1973, is a revisionist and often darkly comic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s rather more hardboiled 1953 novel of the same name. The film was written by Leigh Brackett – one of the writers on the screenplay of exemplary film noir The Big Sleep in 1946.
In the fundamental central conceit of his picture, Altman envisaged his lead character as ‘Rip Van Marlowe’, waking up after a deep, 20-year sleep to a world (California – the early 70s, representing Hollywood values) that he simply doesn’t recognise. Out went the more restrained codes and practices of an earlier age, in came profanity, selfishness and confusing pot-addled New age-ism (personified in the group of scantily clad lady-hippies that live across the way from Marlowe). Consequently, Marlowe is a not only a walking anachronism clad in an outmoded JC Penney suit, but constantly a few steps off the pace when it comes to deciphering the plot. A likeable wise-ass, he is lied to, manipulated and, for a private detective, detects very little. Instead of a girl, Marlowe has a cat – a disloyal cat, too. When Marlowe can’t provide his pet with his favourite brand of cat food, it simply disappears; a smart comment on the self-absorbed era that Rip van Marlowe has found himself, and a foreshadow of the betrayal that awaits him in the story.
In presenting a hero who didn’t always have the right thing to say (Marlowe’s catchphrase is “It’s okay with me”, which can be roughly translated as “I don’t know what’s going on”), Altman stuck two fingers up at generic convention. Rather predictably, The Long Goodbye was also poorly received at the box office at the time of release. A misleading and unsuitable marketing campaign accentuated the traditional noir elements of the film (imagine WALL-E having a Transformers-esque poster campaign) and contributed to its initial failure. Furthermore, Gould’s ultra-laconic, mumbling performance was the antithesis of a hardboiled hero in the mould of Humphrey Bogart.
Much of the beauty of The Long Goodbye lies in the idiosyncratic detail and sharply observed minor characters, who comment upon the action and provide context in their own way. Take, for example, the security guard at the Malibu Colony, who badly (yet doggedly) impersonates figures from Hollywood’s past including Cary Grant and Walter Brennan in a defintie echo of the role that Gould’s Marlowe is playing. Any discussion of The Long Goodbye would be incomplete without a cursory mention of the bizarre, pec-flexing cameo appearance from a young Arnold Schwarzenneger. According to the director, Schwarzenegger refuses to talk about the film, or simply doesn’t remember it.
In presenting a detective story in which the chief investigative force is out of step with their time and not really sure what they’re up to, Altman created what I like to call a sub-genre called ‘shamble-noir’. Recent Park Circus re-release Cutter’s Way (1981), perhaps the very last significant picture of the vaunted ‘New Hollywood’ era, is such a film. In Cutter’s Way, the irascible, severely disabled Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard) and washed-up beach bum pal Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) embark on a doomed, whimsical hunt for the killer of a young woman, despite possessing nothing in the way of facts or evidence. These characters, with their sad interior lives, exist on the fringes of society and hurtle toward a tragic conclusion, never convincing as detectives, rather acting as architects of their own downfall.
Writer and head of film programme at the BFI Geoff Andrew has suggested that Cutter’s Way influenced the Coen Brothers’ madcap comedy The Big Lebowski, a film which itself functions as an update of The Long Goodbye. Certain noir archetypes ostensibly remain in place in Lebowski – a complex plot of cross and double cross, allusions to the femme fatale, gangsters (albeit gangsters moonlighting in a sub-Kraftwerk Krautrock outfit named Autobahn), and shady big business, but the general vibe is a relaxed one, with the narrative interrupted by frequent trips to the bowling alley and a host of wacky, discursive minor characters.
Jeff Bridges’ dishevelled, hapless Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski makes Gould’s Marlowe look like Robcop by comparison as he blunders from one dead end to the next, often in the company of his crazed friend Walter (John Goodman), like Cutter, a Vietnam veteran. The Dude, in the vein of Gould’s Marlowe, is an unlikely private dick, totally adrift in a world he is simply not suited to; The Big Lebowski is set in tumultuous Gulf War-era America, while The Dude is a relic of the 1970s hippy era. Our lovably shambolic anti-hero even has his own Marlowe-esque catchphrase: “The Dude abides”.
ln conclusion, The Long Goodbye is a refreshing, influential take on noir mythology, and a fantastic example of a film which, with distance, has gained deserved critical re-evaluation and cult classic status. Marlowe may have lost his cat, but he created ‘shamble-noir’ in the process.
A couple of months ago, I contributed to the Guardian’s Clip Joint feature, suggesting five moments of nicotine-based greatness and remarking that smoking femmes fatales (yes plural, because this is French) were such a prominent trope that they deserved their own clip joint. Luckily, along comes the Park Circus Film Noir Blogathon as the perfect excuse for me to fulfil that promise and recycle my early notes.
Vamps and cigarettes are the sublime combination of two indispensable ingredients of any self-respecting noir, and if the number of YouTube videos dedicated to sensual legends of Hollywood’s golden age lighting up is anything to go by, this is already quite a common film deviance.
Without further ado, let’s brace ourselves for some fetishistic viewing, from classic noir to neo-noir via L.A Noir, proto-noir, kind-of-noirish and any other shade of black you care to think of.
Let’s kick things off with this slick POV shot of the best of them all, Lauren Bacall, inhaling suggestively while eyeballing the camera. Sorry – what was she saying again? (also, if someone can name the film from which this excerpt has been taken that’ll be great. There’s a metaphorical cinephile cookie to win.)
Yes, I know, Shanghai Express is not in the strictest sense a film noir, and Marlene Dietrich’s character is not technically a femme fatale - but the seeds of the genre are here; it’s the birth of a filmic cliche.
Gilda smokes too much because she’s one of these “frustatred, lonely people”. Yeah right.
I could not omit the brilliant Chinatown from this list, with its smorgasboard of holders, unfiltered cigarettes and post-coital fags.
Admittedly it’s not the smoking that stayed in the public’s mind after watching this notorious scene from Verhoeven’s sleazy take on LA Noir, but rather Stone’s invisible knickers. Still, it works as a postmodern reinterpretation of the iconic tobacco-fuelled innuendo (“what you gonna do, charge me with smoking” she asks) reaching back in time to the flappers of the Roaring Twenties using smoking as the ultimate gender/sexual transgression. Or something like that.
Linda Fiorentino’s career defining turn (for the best and the worst really, as this sort of doomed her career): Wendy Kroy is the most sex-crazed, nicotine-addicted, machiavellian femme fatale, bar none. Like a sultry version of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, Fiorentino amped it up to 11 on all levels in John Dahl’s cult neo-noir…
In his nihilist post-noir cult classic, David Fincher introduces the women at the centre of Edward Norton’s inner menage a trois with an ominous slo-mo on Marla Singer lighting up then slowly releasing the thick smoke off her lungs dressed as the archetypal black widow. Can’t really do darker than that.
Jim Jarmush plays with the visual codes and conventions of the genre in this sketch showcasing the beauty and charisma of comic book artist Renee French: an empty New York cafe with checked sheets on the tables, a mysterious women sitting alone, sporting a beehive that’ll make Amy Winehouse jealous whilst holding a fag, having a coffee and browsing a guns’ catalogue – pitch perfect.
Scarlet Johansson’s pinacle? “Who’s my next victim?” she asks, though she’s only talking about ping-pong, before taking one of the most dangerously sensual inhalations immortalised on film. If her character only knew what she walked into at that precise moment. Ah, sweet tragic irony.
Last but not least, and possibly my favourite of them all, the most striking three-second insert of recent cinema. The Clash in the background, the dangling fag, Eve Mendes’s effortless swaggering strut, the chriasoscuro, the frame-within-the-frame provided by the narrow corridor: a glimpse of absolute film greatness in a sadly flawed thriller, courtesy of James Gray, who indeed has his moments, as is the case here.
To mark the digitally restored re-release of Gilda, leading distribution company Park Circus have come up with a great idea and are hosting a Film Noir Blogathon – a chance for bloggers around the world to write about any aspect of the genre. To find out more and get involved, simply click here.