Your weekday double feature: A Marlowe for all seasons
Elliott Gould and Nina Van Pallandt in “The Long Goodbye.”Film Forum/MGM
‘The Long Goodbye’ and ‘The Big Sleep’
Before the private investigator Philip Marlowe gets mixed up in two converging cases in “The Long Goodbye” (1973), Robert Altman’s loose-limbed Raymond Chandler adaptation (now on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video), he stumbles out of his apartment in the middle of the night. Finding the only brand of cat food his finicky pet will eat becomes a mystery within itself as Marlowe mumbles his way around a grocery store — a scene the Coen brothers echoed in the opening of “The Big Lebowski.” Not much later, the cat goes missing and never comes back. Another mystery, unsolved.
This nocturnal adventure, narrated uproariously by Elliott Gould’s Marlowe, is how Altman and the screenwriter Leigh Brackett prepare the audience for the idiosyncratic detective story about to unfold — and for the knockabout loser at its center. Altman and Brackett actually have the plotting of “The Long Goodbye” well mapped out, elegantly weaving together multiple threads including the alleged suicide of Marlowe’s friend (played by the former Major League pitcher and “Ball Four” author Jim Bouton), the disappearance of an alcoholic novelist (Sterling Hayden) and various sordid gangster dealings. But the film is much more interested in evoking the corruption and decadence of post-hippie Los Angeles, and the moral revulsion that even a cynic like Marlowe develops toward it.
Decades earlier, Brackett also had a hand (along with William Faulkner, among others) in adapting Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (1946) for the director Howard Hawks, although the script’s plotting is so famously convoluted that even Chandler himself couldn’t help sort it out. It hardly matters, though, because there’s so much atmosphere and style to Humphrey Bogart’s wisecracking Marlowe as he sorts through the lives of the rich and devious. The fun of “The Big Sleep,” beyond its sparkling dialogue, is how well Hawks, his writers and the stars — Bogart and Lauren Bacall especially — follow the letter of the Hays Code while blithely ignoring its spirit. This is noir at its sexiest and most suggestive. SCOTT TOBIAS
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