Marlowe. The Long Goodbye
by William Van Wert
Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 10-13
Whatever happened to the “hardboiled” hero, the detective who sat in the dark with his mud-splattered shoes propped up on his desk or who took long walks with his hands in the pockets of a not-so-white trenchcoat with the collar turned up to his ears and the brim of his hat folded down over the eyes? Remember how it was always raining? Remember how everything looked like Chicago, no matter where it actually took place? (Our hero wouldn't be caught dead in New England or the Old South!) Remember how bald Bogie or George Raft looked when they took off their hats (castration?)? And how they chain-smoked, how they could get out three one-word sentences in one exhaled smoke ring, how the unfiltered Camel or Lucky Strike used to dangle from the corner of the tight and scabby lips, just as loose and cool as the pearled pistols used to dangle from Randolph Scott’s holsters? Remember how the light used to get to their eyes when they'd come back indoors, so that they'd either squint or else stare bleary-eyed like insomniacs? And how about the hack coughing, as often for dramatic effect as for any real phlegm they harbored in their holstered smoke-stack throats? Remember how they used to spit out the one syllable epithets at both cops and crooks with such practiced savvy? And how polite and prepubescently uptight they were with the women who looked like ex-prom queens but who, more often than not, turned out to be the ones whodunit?
You knew the art collectors were crooks and their henchmen were high school dropouts. You never suspected anybody of being really sexual. You were never bothered by Bogie’s poor nutrition or George’s lack of sleep, because they never got sick to their stomachs and they never yawned. You overtly admired these men of nails (while you secretly wanted to talk and walk like Peter Lorre). Those were the good old days, when a Spade was a spade. Nowadays Woody Allen wears a trenchcoat, and TV has thrown kinks into the hard-boiled detectives, who are now fat (Cannon) old (Barnaby Jones or otherwise ethnically Polarized (Banacek, Kojac). One of these days Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is going to write the ultimate American novel about how Bartleby the Scrivener was really a super sleuth in disguise.
Such generalizations about the hardboiled hero were possible with 30s detective films, but only in the 40s with the blossoming of a style called film noir did such generalizations become expectations in the minds of the mass audience. Film noir encompasses many things. Economically, it implies low-budget filming, which means a tight plot situation with an emphasis on action or atmosphere over dialogue, and with few or no name actors. The “grit” associated with film noir stems from both a visual philosophy and a thematic one. Such films looked low-key in terms of lighting; fewer lights were used in such films than in the traditional Hollywood studio films. Thus, film noir often means black-and-white film, in which the blacks are blacker than usual and the whites seem whiter than usual. The high-contrast lighting also gave such films their “gritty” look. Thematically speaking, such films were also “gritty” because they inevitably dealt with the social problems inherent in a big city capitalist setting.
Thus, the detective-protagonist set himself apart by the mere fact that he was almost never of the same social class as his client. Sometimes he worked for the very rich. More often, he worked for the destitute and down-and-out, the very dregs of society. So, money is always a big issue in such films, but it is always other people’s money. The detective’s fee, for example, is never very problematic. Often, he works for free. In other words, it’s not the fee but his sense of right and wrong or of duty and revenge that motivates the hardboiled detective. In sum, he is necessarily apart socially from other characters in the film. The perfect hardboiled detective is one who has upper-middle-class values and lower-middle-class (or even lower-class) manners.
All noir films present social controversy. They are exposure films, exposure to a to a seedier side of urban life than most of us are accustomed to: murder, narcotics, prostitution, prison, etc.. Thus, they are politically progressive, in that they expose society’s social diseases. But they are also conservative, because, while the hardboiled detective is often sympathetic to those outside the law, he nevertheless remains just on the inside edge of that law himself. His surly-sour manner thinly masks a romantic idealism inside. The hardboiled hero believes in love, honesty, free enterprise and fair play, even though he obviously knows better. Still he remains old-fashioned. He is steadfastly a self-made man. He may resort to some playacting or even to very basic disguises. But he never resorts to technology, that is, to the fast cars, trick weapons and other slick gadgetry associated with the James Bond type of detective. The hard-boiled detective remains, for the most part, excruciatingly blunt. He wears his soul upon his chest, as the German Expressionists would say. He is “bad breath and bare fists.”
It’s not difficult to see, then, that the visual and the thematic interlock in the traditional film noir. Actors are “typed” by their faces, their dress, their speech, even by their visual environment. Thus, you could gauge what the men were like the very first time you saw them on the screen. It was often more difficult with the women (perhaps on purpose, because the women often gave the films their unusual twist-endings by turning out to be the agents of betrayal).
The genre has evolved. It’s no longer possible to read the more recent detective films in such a predictable way. In fact, directors now use the typage of traditional film noir to ironic advantage. Two recent Raymond Chandler adaptations will bear me out.
In the case of Paul Bogart’s MARLOWE (1969, scripted by Stirling Silliphant), we have an example of the softboiled detective hero. The traditional film noir’s directness between film and film audience in the is gone here, because James Garner as Phillip Marlowe constantly interrupts the action verbally. He steps between us and the film, giving us his interpretation of what is going on. In other words, we are never allowed to interpret the visuals independently of Garner-Marlow’s wry commentaries.
What keeps this Marlowe in the detective business is his gallows humor, his ability to play out the most sordid tragedies with an ironic quip. Garner as Marlowe embodies everything that Humphrey Bogart embodied in earlier detective roles. The chief difference is in the degree of updating. Garner’s Marlowe is much more verbally cynical than Bogart, much more flippant in the face of disillusionment or disaster, much less overtly sentimental than the Bogart persona. We know that inside Garner’s Marlowe is the expected hopeless romantic, who mistakenly lives in the gutter of twentieth century cities. We know he stays on the case, because he is an idealist and because he believes in his client’s innocence, not in the money he receives. Were we to analyze his actions alone in light of his environment, we would have to conclude that he is a fool.
But with the irony of his language, we can only conclude that he is a very intelligent fool, however much he destroys our image of the super sleuth by blundering into transparent traps, by allowing other characters to commit themselves rather than initiating action himself and inducing behavior from other characters. Garner’s Marlowe’s principal virtue is his off-beat wit. Thus the key to understanding MARLOWE is no longer in the visuals, as it would have been in the 40’s, but rather in the dialogue. Garner’s Marlowe is quicker and more cutting with his tongue than Bogart’s Sam Spade was in THE MALTESE FALCON, for example, because his environment is much more sordid than was Sam Spade’s. If THE MALTESE FALCON could be considered a morality play, then MARLOWE is an immorality play.
Garner’s Marlowe, thus, is softboiled in his verbal cuteness. His responses are always ironic comments on the codified (that is, expected) language and behavior of the traditional detective. He gives his calling card to Grant Hicks, a blackmailer and professional thief. The following dialogue ensues:
When Marlowe leaves the apartment of his eventual client, film actress Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt), he is confronted by the hoods of Mavis’s gangster boyfriend, Sonny Steelgrade. One hood says to Marlowe: Car! Marlowe retorts: Beep, beep! As the hoods rip Marlowe’s suit off, Marlowe asks one of them: “Does your mother know what you do for a living?” They beat him in answer and leave him. It is because these hoods are so typed and predictable that Marlowe’s comments seem so ironic and so funny.
Later, Steelgrade sends Winslow Wong (Bruce Lee) to Marlowe’s office. Winslow is a karate expert, sent by Steelgrade to offer Marlowe $500 to leave the case and to destroy Marlowe’s office if the detective refuses. Marlowe watches Winslow put holes in the wall and says:
Thus, each confrontation becomes more and more violent, more and more sordid. Garner-Marlowe never loses his composure. His lines become more and more cutting, more and more ironic to meet the situation. He is not the most moral of characters, but his wit keeps him from being infected by the immorality of other characters. Significantly, when he is confronted with coyness, he responds with sarcasm, as is clear in the following exchange between Marlowe and Dolores Gonzales (Rita Moreno), a burlesque dancer:
Conversely, when he is confronted with a real compliment, of which there are very few in the film, he responds with evasive coyness:
Again, I stress language over visuals. Visually speaking, the images reflect the whole tradition of film noir: the grittiness of Marlowe’s office, the cheap glamour of Mavis’ apartment or Steelgrade’s mansion, the seedy decadence of the El Dorado Hotel and the smoky theater where Dolores does her burlesque act. It’s in dialogue that characters momentarily step out of this film noir ambiance. At some point or other in the film, all characters, with the exception of Marlowe’s girlfriend, reveal through language their inherent anguish or evil. It’s as if, while staying totally in character within the linear progression of the plot, they face the audience and deliver a monologue, a declarative speech in which they bare their smutty souls. They may seem to be speaking to other characters in the film, but in reality they are speaking to the audience. These brief moments of confession are what stick in the viewer’s mind.
One such revelation involves the police. After destroying the evidence that links Mavis to the murder of Steelgrade, Marlowe is given the shakedown by Lt. Christy French (Caroll O'Connor) and his partner, Fred. French knows what Marlowe has done and is completely frustrated, because he can't prove it. He loses his temper and delivers his monologue on how bad it is to be a cop. The poignancy of his speech is reinforced by the visuals that follow. French goes to hit Marlowe with his fist. Fred steps between them and he gets the blow instead. Fred gets up rubbing his chin and comments:
Marlowe’s own revelation is one of the most beautiful scenes in the film. In the darkness of his barren office, he lets Dolores massage his back while he verbally shatters the romantic image of the private eye.
The question in the mind of the film viewer after such revelations is: if that’s true, then why be a detective? Or, if that’s true, then why be a policeman? This particular scene is the one scene in which the question is actually asked within the film and ironically by Dolores, who turns out eventually to be the murderer.
Marlowe’s easy cynicism and gallows humor are the only valid answers possible in this film noir. They are reinforced by the fact that, through the revelations, we see that no one is what he or she appears to be. Orin Quest turns out to be a blackmailer and a murderer. Hicks turns out to be Mileaway, a common hood. Doctor Iagardie turns out to be the creator of the ice-pick murder method and the husband of Dolores. The women when undisguised are even more interesting. Orfamay Quest turns out to be disloyal to both Orin, her brother, and to Mavis, her sister. Mavis, suspicious from the start, turns out to be a victim, an innocent victim. And Dolores, sympathetic from the start, turns out to be Steelgrade’s former lover and also his murderer. At the same time that characters are never what they seem to be, they still remain the types you expected them to be, only more so.
It’s with this knowledge and under these conditions that at the film’s conclusion Marlowe goes after Dolores. Her revelation is all the more effective, because of the earlier scene in which she had listened to Marlowe’s confession, in which she had become, thus, in a certain sense the “conscience” of the audience. Her language is reinforced by the fact that the visuals are of her doing her striptease, On stage in the crude spotlight and the fog of cigarette smoke, she confesses to Marlowe while going through her bumps and grinds.
Dolores points to the fact that Marlowe is compromised, caught in a moral dilemma that the Sam Spades never had to face. If evil is all-pervasive in the dirty city, then good can never conquer evil. Marlowe is caught, as, realistically speaking, all detectives are caught in one irony or another. In order to expose Dolores (justice), he would have to expose and ruin Mavis (injustice). The film’s ultimate message of the film is that the forces of good cannot combat the forces of evil without somehow becoming contaminated by evil. Even when the jealous Doctor Iagardie saves Marlowe from an impossible situation by shooting Dolores and then shooting himself, the detective’s dilemma remains. Marlowe is a tragic antihero, because, in spite of the odds, he never quits trying. As Marlowe walks out of the burlesque hail and into the impersonal, dimly-lit big city, we realize that there is poetic justice even in perversion. All of the murderers in the film are eventually murdered by other murderers, and the last murderer murders himself. All of this occurs out of court, away from the police, in the twisted context of lawlessness-and-order, the lawlessness ultimately bringing about the order. Evil is everywhere. But eventually all evils momentarily cancel out, giving the false appearance that good has triumphed.
If Paul Bogart’s MARLOWE is an immorality play, then Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1972-73, screenplay by Leigh Brackett) is an amorality play, a satirical spoof of the genre, in which narrative counts for very little and style reigns supreme. Eliot Gould as Marlowe is a poached hero, which is to say that he is none at all. Altman seems to take advantage of Gould’s atrocious acting, stressing it at every turn. Gould’s Marlowe is the exact opposite of Garner’s Marlowe. Garner’s Marlowe keeps his cool, Gould’s constantly loses his. Garner-Marlowe’s wit is winning, because we know that he is always above the situation and apart from it. Gould-Marlowe’s wit always reinforces his childishness in relation to the other characters in the film. His wit reveals his ignorance, his buffoonery. Where Garner-Marlowe is always the “first one to know,” Gould-Marlowe is always the “last one to know.” THE LONG GOODBYE is, in fact, the tale of Marlowe as chump.
The humor in Altman’s film may perhaps seduce the viewer on the surface, but it doesn't hold its power. It fades quickly, because it is as gratuitous (coming from a klutz, or poached hero, like Gould) as the sex and violence of the film. Where Garner-Marlowe uses humorous repartees only in answer to serious questions posed by other characters (he is the only “cute” character in the film), Gould-Marlowe often loses his temper (too self-righteously) when confronted by others, reserving his most “humorous” (a synonym for “gross” here) quips for when he is with his cat, when he is alone, or when he is walking away from other characters. He is a mumbling, pouting, sulking Marlowe, a Marlowe whose humor is often unsolicited and thus is often uncalled for. And he is but one (and perhaps the least) among many “cute” characters: his cellmate, Roger, Sgt. Greene, the black man from the supermarket, etc.. His humor fails, for curses replace wit. It fails, finally, for it does not reveal character in the way Garner-Marlowe’s lines do. The opening sequence with the cat, although episodic, is important, because it provides some structure and psychological insight into the characters. Our sympathy goes out to the cat. Once that is accomplished, Altman exploits our sympathy structurally. If cats are good, then dogs are bad, symbols of evil. The door to Roger (Sterling Hayden) and Eileen Wade’s (Nina Van Pallandt) house in Malibu Colony has a sign which reads “Beware of Dog.” For the audience, that should read: Beware of the characters who live inside. The dog, named Toro (a suggestion of Mexico?), predictably doesn't like Marlowe. When Marlowe first goes to Mexico in search of the missing Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), a seemingly gratuitous visual contains two dogs copulating, a metaphor for both the coroner-policeman complicity and the Terry-Eileen relationship.
The cat sequence also establishes sexuality patterns in the film, and all sexuality patterns are in some way or another deviant, perverse, off-color, or so Altman seems to be telling us. The cat is Marlowe’s sexuality. He is impervious to the nudity of his neighbors, equally oblivious to the come-on of Eileen Wade. Marlowe only jumps for his cat, Where Garner-Marlowe had a girlfriend and where his code statement to everyone was, “Because I'm a good detective,” Gould-Marlowe’s code statement to all the women in the film is “It’s okay with me.” When Marlowe here goes to the supermarket to get the Coury brand cat food, the exchange he has with the black who works there is also indicative of his sexuality.
Marlowe, himself, reinforces the cat-woman equation when Lennox comes to his apartment with scratches on his face. Marlowe says: “Hey, Terry, I was just feeding my cat. You oughta be feeding your cat more.” Later, as Marlowe is being let out of jail, the black from the supermarket is being put in. The black says: “How’s your cat?” Marlowe answers: “How’s your girl?”
The inference is clear. Marlowe’s cat is his girl, but his cat did not get him thrown in jail, as happened to the other fellow. There is no further reference to the cat until the last sequence of the film.
With that, Marlowe shoots Lennox and walks away. There are no metaphors in Altman’s film for evil and corruption other than sexual ones. The police try to rattle Marlowe’s nonchalance by accusing him of being a “fag.” When the police lieutenant comes in to question him, the exchange is totally sexual.
All relationships are both determined and tainted by sex.
Wade says to Eileen: “When a writer can't write, it’s like being impotent.” She responds: “I know what that’s like too.” He blows up: “Oh, you do, huh? ... Balls!” His exclamation is also his problem. Both of Marlowe’s confrontations with gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) are also sexual. In the first, Marty says to his moll, JoAnn (JoAnn Brody): “I sleep with a lot of girls, but I make love to you.” He then breaks a coke bottle on her face. He turns to Marlowe and says: “That’s someone I love. You, I don't even like.”
In the second encounter, Augustine demands that all the men undress in front of the patched-up JoAnn. Augustine provides a self-parody which is also a parody of the relationship between all gangsters and sex:
Everyone’s got kinks in this film. Everyone plays out elaborate stylized roles (detective, cop, writer, doctor, gangster) in order to cover up sexual fears or inadequacies. Altman parodies each of his characters by exposing their sexual Achilles heel.
But the chief vehicle of satire in this film is the metaphor of film itself. Where Bogart’s film is clearly a film noir, Altman’s film is a fantasy, a film about films. The big city is replaced by Hollywood, and all of the actors are using pseudonyms for their real” names. Terry Lennox’s real name is Lenny Potts; Roger Wade’s real name is Billy Joe Smith; Marlowe, himself, tells the police his name is Sidney Jenkins, We will return to these name changes.
When Marlowe is taken to police headquarters, he is photographed in one of those dime store four-for-a-quarter machines. He clowns and makes faces. After he is fingerprinted, he wipes the ink all over his face and does an abbreviated impression of Al Jolson singing “Sewanee” . The cop at the gate of Malibu Colony does film impressions: Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Walter Brennan. Malibu Colony, itself, is famous for its movie star inhabitants. For Roger Wade, Marlowe becomes Marlboro, the Duke of Bullshit. He pinpoints Marlowe’s role when he says: “I wish you'd take that goddamn J. C. Penney tie off.” (Note Altman’s irony: when Marlowe goes in to try to save Wade from drowning, all that he takes off is his tie. Wade drowns anyway.)
Marlowe, himself, criticizes both sides of the law based on film stereotypes. He tells the police: “Is this where I'm supposed to say: ‘What’s this all about?’ and you say ‘Shut up, I'll ask the questions!?’” Marty Augustine’s hood, Harry, looks like a film hood with his pin-striped dark suit and his white tie. Because of his dress, he looks out of place in this Hollywood fantasy. Marlowe tells him: “Harry, Harry. You're a first-grade hood.” Altman exploits this typage for a film joke within the film. Marlowe tells the cop at Malibu Colony that the man following him is a Walter Brennan fan. Harry, of course, cannot guess the impersonation, since he is a “gangster-type” and since Walter Brennan is a “western-type” . Thus, Marlowe uses film to temporarily “ditch” Harry. Later, when Marlowe goes for his second confrontation with Marty Augustine, he hears Augustine begin: “What we have here is a problem of communication...” (COOL-HAND LUKE). And when Marty demands that everyone strip, one of his boys suggests that “George (Raft) never took off his clothes.” A gangster without his clothes is no longer a gangster.
Still later, Marlowe is hit by a car. Altman has another joke at our expense. The next visual is of a man in a hospital bed, bandaged from head to foot. We think it is Marlowe. The camera pans right to show Marlowe in the next bed, (This is still better than Altman’s other camera joke when Roger Wade says: “I'm all I'm all... I'm all turned around,” and the camera turns around as he turns around.) Marlowe gets out of his hospital bed and dresses quickly. He says to the bandaged figure: “You're gonna be okay. I seen all your pictures too,” a reference to The Mummy (mixing the genres again!).
The last film allusion is another set-up by Altman. Throughout the film, the music we hear is that of the theme song, “The Long Goodbye.” But at the film’s conclusion, as Marlowe walks by Eileen Wade in her yellow car, the fading music of the film is “Hurray for Hollywood.” Marlowe, himself, is the conductor, giving the cue for the song by blowing on the miniature harmonica that the “Mummy” had given him in the hospital.
But Altman is not content with an internal spoof (satire that exists within the film). He constructs an external spoof too: a level of satire that demands that the viewer have some extra-cinematic knowledge as well to appreciate the film. The use of pseudonyms for “real” names is the key. Within the film we learn that Terry Lennox’s real name is Lenny Potts. Altman is suggesting a real name beyond that: Jim Bouton, When Marlowe and Lennox play their game of trivia in Marlowe’s apartment, what does Marlowe ask for his trivia question? “Who were the three DiMaggio brothers?” Lennox, of course, knows the answer, for he is Jim Bouton, former baseball pitcher for the New York Yankees and author of Ball Four, the book that told all about baseball players. When Marlowe discusses Wade’s name-change and writing with Eileen, the discussion again becomes double-edged, because we know that she is Nina Van Pallandt, former lover and confidante of Clifford Irving, whose fake biography of Howard Hughes “told all” too. Henry Gibson,, as Doctor Veringer, wears the same white suit he wore all the time on television’s Laugh-In. We expect him to come out with a daisy and deliver a made-up poem on clean air. Roger Wade makes other allusions when speaking of him: “Oh no, it’s Minnie Mouse. The White Knight. Derringer. The White Pistol.” Nobody takes anybody else seriously in this satire.
The one allusion which still intrigues me comes in the final credits: “With special remembrance for Dan Blocker” (Hoss in the old Bonanza series). Did he help the cop with the Walter Brennan impression? Was he in a crowd scene somewhere? Or did he die when the film was being made?
Tracing the sex metaphors and the film allusion is about all one can do with Altman here. Everything (the beautiful photography, the horrible acting, the “hip” but horrendous script) “works,” if you're thinking “satire” when you see the film. The problem, however, is this: Bogart’s MARLOWE works very well as a film noir on its own; in addition, it works as a satire. With Altman’s film, there is only the satire, for the plot is flimsy and the suspense transparent. We know from the outset that Lennox is guilty, that Eileen is implicated, and that Marlowe has been had. The only surprise left is that Marlowe doesn't know, and further that he even has the guts to shoot Lennox at the end., It’s not enough to change our opinion of Gould-Marlowe. He remains poached.