A Series of Crimes: The Long Goodbye, by Aaron Pinkston
Up until this point I’ve only looked at films where the criminal was the narrative focus, but that really only tells half the story. The private eye flicks of the 1940s were just as brutal, vibrant and violent as the gangster stories, building heroes of authority that were badass and slick. In some films, it was incredibly difficult to see any difference between the man of crime and the man of law. Of course, private detectives aren’t the police, there is an important distinction to be made. The private detective worked wholly outside the system, usually as an antagonistic figure to the police, always making trouble and getting in the way. They typically didn’t take on the glamorous crimes that would be portrayed in films focused on the criminals, but the murky cases that always tested the moral ground of the detective. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a representative of the craziness of the hard boiled genre, even as it completely tears it apart.
The crime elements of The Long Goodbye are difficult to decipher, mostly by the design of the genre and especially this interpretation of it. Many crime films are all about the process — a team comes together, they hatch a precise, step-by-step plan, and then execute it. Crime films from a police perspective are similarly about the process, though referred to as the procedure, with the cops putting together evidence until they solve the case and capture the criminal. Classic private detective films are never so easy, however. Typically the crime plot is so involved and crazy that the process doesn’t seem to matter, even though it still exists. The most known Marlowe film, The Big Sleep, is almost incomprehensible from a crime standpoint, where something like Kiss Me Deadly is so crazy and violent that everything becomes blurry.
The plot of The Long Goodbye is surprisingly complicated and neat when you put it all together after the fact, but it often feels like nothing important is going on. It meanders without showing much care and a complete lack of structure — in both the narrative and the central character. What other crime film would make a major sequence out of going to the store at 3 am to buy some cat food? Or a group of criminals literally stripping down in a long, drawn out speech to make a point that could be more easily and efficiently made by pointing a gun?
Sure, things happen throughout The Long Goodbye, which focuses on a murder-suicide, thousands of dollars stolen from gangsters, etc., but none of it seems more important to Altman than portraying a time, place and vibe (a more appropriate word for this particular film than “mood” or “tone”). Specifically, 1970s Los Angeles: the convergence of a disillusioned mass in a city where no one seems to care about anything important regardless of the era. The most memorable characters in the film are a security guard who impersonates a number of classic Hollywood stars and a group of druggie-hippie-yoga women who are always in various states of undress. None of these characters seem to know what is going on around them — either because of a hash brownie haze or because one is too consumed by popular culture to care about the sinister real life happening inside the community entrance.
Moreover, every classic crime film deals with the confrontation between the criminal and the status quo. The bad guys inevitably are taken down and the moral order is restored by the government or police or upstanding citizens. There are criminals in The Long Goodbye, but the status quo is frightfully missing. Being the 1970s, the real world didn’t have much of a status quo — millions were being killed in an endless and fruitless conflict in Asia while the President of the United States (the ultimate form of the status quo) recently used his status to become a criminal. In The Long Goodbye, the police are mostly absent. They show up at the beginning of the film to rough up Marlowe a bit, bring him downtown and bully him some more. After this point they disappear until the end, after Marlowe has finally connected many of the dots. Still, even in their absence, they figure out the crime before Marlowe does. On the other hand, our strong hero and moral compass private eye has no authority.
The Long Goodbye reevaluates the classic dick Philip Marlowe as Elliott Gould, the loser smartass. Gould’s version of Marlowe talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk. He’s not a tough guy or a ladies man, which happen to be the two most defined traits of the classic private eye. To his credit, he doesn’t back away from dangerous situations and hangs through it all, but he’s bullied by the cops, beat up, and never really in control. Hell, his cat doesn’t even seem to respect him much. You’d never see Bogart like this. Though attractive and available women seem to be constantly around, Marlowe doesn’t have the know-how or desire to sexually attract. There is always this genre’s expectation of the hero detective rolling into the dame’s house and instantly seducing her. That character type definitely exists here, and the film constantly plays with this expectation, making it seem like Marlowe and the client could end up together. In a bit of irony at the end, she ends up with a very different type of character. At one point, Marlowe’s sexual orientation is brought into question, and though it is done solely to insult him, it’s a question without a definitive answer.
Without context, The Long Goodbye must be an excruciating film to sit through. It’s slowly paced, doesn’t seem to have the right priorities and the characters are all wrong. But by knowing the tropes of the classic private eye film, The Long Goodbye becomes an incredible comment on it. It plays with all the expectations of crime films, using the normal characters and narrative elements to tear down cinematic icons. In a way, The Long Goodbye is one of the best films about crime that doesn’t seem to care all that much about crime.