Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye: Adaptation or Travesty?

Robert Merrill

Of the ten films based on Raymond Chandler’s novels, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is almost surely the most notorious. Even people who like the film see it as a deliberate departure from Chandler’s literary intentions, and Chandler’s fans regard the film with what one critic calls “ontological loathing.”1 (Indeed, Leigh Brackett, who wrote the film script, once remarked that outraged reviewers seemed to think she had tampered with the Bible.)2Altman himself has apparently acknowledged his desire to transform his source: “I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him, a loser. But a real loser, not the false winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way.”3 Altman’s remarks about Philip Marlowe, the narrator-protagonist of Chandler’s seven novels and the hero (or anti-hero) of Altman’s film, would seem to confirm the prevailing view that as an adaptation Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a deliberate travesty of its source.

On another occasion, however, Altman said that if Chandler had lived to see the film he would have understood and appreciated it.4 Altman probably had in mind Chandler’s own experiences as a scenarist, experiences that taught Chandler the necessity of altering many details in translating a work of literature into film. But I think that Altman also meant to suggest that his film is “essentially faithful to the spirit of Chandler,” as one rather isolated critic has claimed.5 It is crucial to see that while Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is very different from the other film Marlowes (variously played by Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, James Garner, and Robert Mitchum), these other film incarnations are not necessarily closer to the Marlowe of Chandler’s novels. Indeed, I believe that a brief review of these earlier adaptations will allow us to appreciate the sometimes odd and very much undervalued ties between Chandler’s greatest novel and Altman’s film. In turn this will permit us to grasp the symbiotic but distinct natures of Chandler’s and Altman’s achievements. Finally, I hope that this sort of study will offer what I take to be a fascinating example of how adaptation may work best when it does not strive to be very literal or even, in some senses of the word, very faithful.

I

As William Luhr has noted, Chandler himself was not much concerned about a film’s “fidelity” to the novel from which it derived. He liked Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) despite the many changes Hawks made in his story and he disliked John Brahm’s The Brasher Doubloon (1947) despite Brahm’s relative faithfulness to Chandler’s The High Window (1942). Presumably Chandler would have joined most of his critics in disliking Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep (1978), even though Winner’s film includes more material from its source than any other Chandler adaptation. Luhr nicely describes how radically Chandler recast his own plot when working on the film script of Lady in the Lake(1947), the one occasion where Chandler adapted his own work.6 Chandler’s most famous adaptation, Billy Wilder’sDouble Indemnity (1944), reworks its source, James M. Cain’s 1936 novella, as though Chandler and Wilder’s task were to improve on Cain’s work rather than to be faithful to it.

It’s fortunate that Chandler did not expect a close correspondence to his works when they were made into films, for no film made during his lifetime was particularly faithful and the several efforts to be “true” to the Chandlerian source since his death in 1959 reveal apparently crippling problems in trying to achieve this end. The first Marlowe film, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944), is a telling instance, for this film’s loyalties to the Chandler text are such that Luhr speaks of its attempt “to appropriate not only the story line but also the mood and verbal textures of the novel.”7 The extensive use of voice-over, a staple device in film noir, allows Dmytryk to make heavy use of Chandler’s descriptions and dialogue, and to stress Marlowe’s (Dick Powell’s) evaluation of his own experiences as rendered in flashbacks not directly taken from Chandler’s novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940), but faithful to Chandler’s plot in general and evocative of his “mood.” Nonetheless, the essential differences here are strikingly like those we encounter in the more obviously revised adaptations.

There are two major, perhaps related differences. The first is that Dmytryk presents Marlowe as, in Luhr’s words, “tired, middle-aged, and down on his luck.”8 This will also be the case in some of the later films, in which the effect is more appropriate. Here, however, the result is to undermine Chandler’s narrative logic. The Marlowe of Chandler’s first two novels, The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely, is an active thirty-three-year-old who exudes confidence and relatively youthful idealism at the start of each book. The famous opening lines of The Big Sleep, as Marlowe calls on his new client, General Sternwood, are entirely to the point: “I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”9 Marlowe isn’t quite as exuberant at the beginning of Farewell, My Lovely, in part, perhaps, because he has undergone the sobering experiences chronicled in The Big Sleep; but he is not “tired, middle-aged, and down on his luck,” and in fact remains sufficiently curious about life that he pursues the “case” of Moose Malloy even though he has no client and therefore no reasonable chance for remuneration. Both The Big Sleepand Farewell, My Lovely dramatize this still energetic Marlowe’s deeply troubling engagements with the harder realities, that “nastiness” Marlowe invokes at the end of The Big Sleep when he acknowledges that he is “part of the nastiness now.”10 The Marlowe we leave at the end of each book is not “tired,” but he is certainly disenchanted. To begin the film Murder, My Sweet with such a figure is to undermine the narrative situation in Chandler’s novel.

It is also to prepare for the second main difference between novel and film, the latter’s emphasis on romance. Like all too many of the Chandler adaptations, Murder, My Sweet is ultimately a love story which provides Marlowe with the lover Chandler never gave him—and better yet, a rich lover. (In this generalization I ignore the all but non-canonicalPlayback [1958], as do most students of Chandler.) This comic conclusion is a Hollywood convention Chandler ridiculed but also accepted, and the even more insidious romance element in Lady in the Lake actually derives from Chandler’s own uncompleted script.11 As we shall see in a moment, Hawks’s The Big Sleep absolutely depends for its narrative logic on the evolution of Marlowe’s (Humphrey Bogart’s) relationship with Vivian (Lauren Bacall), thus completing the pattern of all the 1940s Chandler adaptations, in which Marlowe inevitably ends up with the girl and a future without economic anxiety. No matter how “faithful” these films are to Chandler’s novels in other ways (and none of them is without other changes), it is hard to imagine alterations more fundamental—and unfaithful—than the narrative shift to romance, and successful romance at that.

Hawks’s The Big Sleep is a special instance, for the film is widely and perhaps justly praised, by Chandler’s critics as well as by Chandler himself. The elements taken from Chandler notwithstanding, however, this first adaptation ofThe Big Sleep is not very Chandleresque. Luhr notes that in Humphrey Bogart we get “a Hawksean hero, quite unlike the Marlowe of the novel,”12 but the changes are more thoroughgoing than even this remark suggests. Indeed, the entire structure of the film differs from that of Chandler’s novel, which perhaps explains why the film succeeds so admirably as an independent work of art. In his chapter-length discussion of The Big Sleep as film, Gerald Mast offers a brilliant explanation of how Hawks went about recasting the story so as to make it a film about the emerging partnership between Marlowe and Vivian, a relationship made possible by Vivian’s essential worthiness (Marlowe’s is never really in doubt) as rendered gradually throughout the body of the film.13 For critics such as Mast and Roger Shatzkin, Hawks discards the characters of Chandler’s novel but retains the brilliant image of a world at war with itself, then devises scene after scene in which Marlowe and Vivian (Bogart and Bacall) are portrayed as triumphantly “coping” with this world and thus earning our ultimate respect. In this way, Hawks prepares for and “earns” the comic elements in his conclusion.14

I agree with those who praise Hawks’s artistry, but I see little of Chandler’s novel in this film. The ending alone illustrates this point. There is first the question of what happened to Sean Regan, the object of General Sternwood’s concern. Hawks is so evasive about the answer to this question that critics as alert as Mast and Luhr reach completely conflicting conclusions, Mast assuming that Carmen killed Regan and Luhr taking the film’s late hints that it was Eddie Mars who shot Regan.15 The indictment of Mars is an especially meaningful change from novel to film. It justifies the shift in the action in which Marlowe thrusts Mars out a door to be shot down by his own men, and it radically simplifies the process whereby Marlowe becomes the patriarch-to-be of the Sternwood clan (now without the taint of a pathological killer). But the change could hardly do more damage to one of the more exquisite ironies of Chandler’s novel, the fact that Eddie Mars is morally responsible for virtually every unsavory event in the book but ends up untouched by any of the often fatal consequences. Peter J. Rabinowitz has developed this point in one of the best essays on Chandler,16 but nothing of what he says could be applied to Hawks’s film, which simply has a logic of its own.

After the 1940s there are no more adaptations of Chandler’s novels until 1969, with Paul Bogart’s Marlowe (based on The Little Sister [1949]). In one sense this film is transitional, as Marlowe (James Garner) does not end up with the girl, rich or otherwise, but is provided a continuing mistress by scenarist Stirling Silliphant and director Bogart. In the films of the 1970s, Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely (1975), and Winner’s The Big Sleep, there is barely a hint of romance and absolutely nothing of the comic romance tradition which informs the earlier films. Nonetheless, the fidelity to Chandler is extremely arguable, and not just with Altman’s film. In Marlowe, for example, we get an entire sequence centering on Bruce Lee, whose spectacular dive from a building not only has no precedent in Chandler’s book but also seems taken from a completely alien fictional universe. Farewell, My Lovelyappears to be an act of nostalgic celebration, with its early 1940s sets, its reliance on voice-over, and its use of many plot elements from Chandler’s novel. This film is untrue to the source novel in many crucial ways, however. As inMurder, My Sweet, Marlowe (here the much older Robert Mitchum) is again “growing older,” as he puts it, and depicted as having seen it all before he in fact sees anything in this particular work. Again there is no narrative movement so far as Marlowe himself is concerned, though this film does avoid the uplifting movement toward love and a blissful married future. Moreover, Richards revives the gangs which derive from the stories Chandler used in piecing Farewell, My Lovely together but which Chandler turned into red herrings in his novel. As a result, there is a gangsterish flavor to all the violent moments in the film, whereas all the murders in Chandler’s novel are committed by the original “lovers,” Moose Malloy and Velma Valento, who are thus much more central in the novel than in the film. (This is especially true during the finale, where Richards can hardly move fast enough in getting Moose and Velma shot and killed.) Finally, Winner’s The Big Sleep could hardly seem less Chandlerian, despite its almost fanatical reliance on lines and scenes from Chandler’s novel, because the London setting for this action is disastrously wrong (as almost everyone has noted) and Winner’s Marlowe is “elegantly dressed and socially facile,” financially well-to-do and moving about England in a Mercedes (as Luhr acutely notes).17 These implausible changes merge with the elements taken directly from Chandler’s text to make Winner’s film the most confusing of all the adaptations. With the other films, good or bad, one can more or less make out what the filmmaker was trying to do. With Winner’s The Big Sleep, the point to the adaptation remains as mysterious as who killed the Sternwoods’ chauffeur, Owen Taylor—indeed, more mysterious, for Winner inexplicably resolves this famous crux by presenting a flashback in which it is all too obvious that Owen committed suicide.

There is much more to be said about each of the Chandler adaptations, but I hope to have illustrated both the difficulty in judging fidelity to Chandler and the erratic correspondence between fidelity and filmic success. In their various ways, all of the adaptations cited above are unfaithful to the novel on which they are based and none succeeds in translating Chandler’s essential narrative structures and characters onto the screen. The most successful of these films, Hawks’s The Big Sleep, is the least concerned with telling the story told by Chandler. In this context, it will perhaps seem less odd to consider the possibility that Altman’s The Long Goodbye is similarly successful in telling a different story, although with Altman I will argue that the story told is distinctly Chandlerian in spirit if not in textual detail.

II

The differences between Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and Altman’s film are many and diverse. Altman’s Marlowe (Elliott Gould) always wears a disheveled suit and tie, chain-smokes incessantly (he is the only character who smokes), drives a 1948 Lincoln Continental in the early 1970s, refuses to do divorce work as a detective, and seems to have only two friends: the despicable Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) and a cat that abandons him. Indeed, the opening sequence, in which Marlowe tries unsuccessfully to appease his cat’s three-o’clock-in-the-morning hunger and buys brownie mix for his female neighbors, projects Marlowe as just the kind of comic figure Chandler’s devotees cannot abide. Like James Garner in Marlowe, Altman’s Marlowe seems “hopelessly out of step with his environment”;18 unlike Garner, however, Elliott Gould seems a kind of vagabond who can do nothing to resist the irrational movements in his environment. The film’s other characters and events are also very different. Altman and scenarist Leigh Brackett delete Sylvia Lennox’s father and sister, Harlan Potter and Linda Loring, thereby all but eliminating Marlowe’s diatribes against the rich and the one affair Chandler permitted Marlowe in the first six novels. More important, perhaps, they reverse Chandler’s solution to the mystery by presenting Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) as a relatively sympathetic figure who fears that her husband killed Sylvia Lennox and Terry Lennox as a brutal heel who did in fact kill Sylvia before taking off with $355,000 of Marty Augustine’s money. Most famously—or infamously—they alter the ending absolutely by having Marlowe execute Lennox for what he did to his wife. Altman’s Marlowe is thus twice-damned: a comic fool who murders his prime suspect!

The question remains: just how different is The Long Goodbye as adapted to the 1970s and recast in Altman’s satirical version of the American scene? The absence of Linda Loring and the changes in Marlowe’s relationship with Terry Lennox require detailed comment, and I mean to look at these alterations in a moment. Otherwise, however, I would remark how little real difference Altman’s changes make. Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) is no doubt a 1970s gangster, living across the street from Richard Nixon and sending his wife to a fat farm at $1,000 a pound; but he is little more than a modern version of Chandler’s Eddie Mars, the all too assimilated gangster/businessman of The Big Sleep. Altman’s Eileen Wade is a rather different character, apparently innocent of all crimes until Lennox sends back Augustine’s money for her to return; but her role in the film matches her role in the novel, for in each case she is the beautiful enigma Marlowe must penetrate or at least understand to find out what really happened to Sylvia Lennox and so exonerate the supposedly innocent Terry Lennox. Altman’s Eileen is simply the anxious, vulnerable person sheappears to be in Chandler’s novel. She is stripped of her history with Terry Lennox so that the film can focus exclusively on Marlowe’s relationship with Lennox—and is not this relationship at the heart of Chandler’s novel as well? Finally, I think we must question how different Altman’s Marlowe is from Chandler’s (as opposed to Bogart’s or Mitchum’s). As Brackett says, “Gould’s Marlowe is a man of simple faith, honesty, trust, and complete integrity. All we did was strip him of the fake hero attributes.”19 Like Alan Karp, however, I cannot square our response to Gould’s character with Brackett’s statement unless the “fake hero attributes” are again those of Bogart’s Marlowe rather than Chandler’s.20 As we should see by looking more closely at the key and representative changes involving Linda Loring and Terry Lennox, Altman’s Marlowe is very close indeed to Chandler’s.

We’ve already seen that whereas the early Marlowe films provide major romantic interests (and climaxes), the post-1960 films all offer an isolated Marlowe without a love interest.21 Altman achieves this dramatic situation by cutting Linda Loring and her brief affair with Marlowe, so this might seem a major instance of Altman’s deviation from his source. In fact, however, Altman’s instinct here was sound and his fidelity to the spirit of Chandler’s text exemplary.

The whole point to the Linda Loring episode is that Marlowe, unlike Terry Lennox, cannot be bought by the prospect of short-term sexual pleasure. Though Linda knows that they would probably not last six months together, she asks Marlowe to marry her nonetheless. Marlowe must say no even though he knows how decent Linda is as opposed to her more beautiful sister Eileen and how unlikely it is that his quest for personal fulfillment will turn up anything more promising. Marlowe knows—indeed, they both know—that Linda is not in love with him. Marlowe cannot marry under these circumstances any more than he can give up trying to exonerate Terry Lennox. Quite simply, this is the way he is.22 Marlowe may look foolish in turning Linda down, but Chandler himself once said that his book is about “how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.”23 Indeed, Chandler’s letters are filled with evidence that he shares Marlowe’s values, perhaps most obviously in a letter written several years after The Long Goodbye: “Right now I’d like to sleep with almost any pretty soft gentle woman, but of course I shan’t do it (even if I had the chance) because there has to be love. Without that it is nothing.”24 (I should add that at the end of Chandler’s next novel, Playback, Chandler chose to reunite Marlowe and Linda, but that is definitely another and immeasurably less persuasive story.)

Having revised Eileen Wade’s character and role in his film, Altman did not need Linda as the contrasting sister. Eileen herself is the film’s Linda Loring figure. Critics sometimes wonder whether Altman’s Eileen was in conspiracy with Terry Lennox from the first,25 but I think the film makes it clear enough that Eileen did not know that Terry killed his wife (she in fact fears that her husband Roger killed Sylvia), did not know about Terry’s faked suicide until Terry sent her the money to return to Marty Augustine,26 and turns to Terry at the end only because her husband is now dead and Marlowe himself has rejected her. Indeed, Marlowe interrupts Eileen’s seductive appeal as abruptly as Chandler’s Marlowe cuts off the much more obvious Vivian Regan in The Big Sleep. Luhr and Stephen Pendo note the parallel but draw no conclusions from it,27 though Luhr also notes that in Hawks’s film Bogart’s interest in Lauren Bacall is sufficiently clear that we do not take his interruption here as final. In Chandler’s novel the breach is final, however, and this is also true in Altman’s recreation of the same moment in his adaptation of another work. Chandler’s Marlowe asks the seductive Vivian, “What has Eddie Mars got on you?” and proceeds to tell her, “The first time we met I told you I was a detective. Get it through your lovely head. I work at it, lady. I don’t play at it.”28 Altman’s Marlowe asks the extremely sociable Eileen Wade why Marty Augustine visited her the night before. He makes no speech about being a practicing detective, but his point is as clear as in Chandler’s first novel. In deleting Linda Loring, then, Altman practiced a simple form of economy by using Eileen Wade to fulfill the functions of both sisters. The thematic impact of the Linda Loring episode is in fact reproduced in Altman’s film.

It may seem that the changes in the novel’s conclusion are too sweeping to be explained in similar fashion. After allowing Marlowe to identify Eileen Wade as the novel’s murderess some fifty pages before the book ends, Chandler develops what many have seen as an extended, anticlimactic denouement in which Marlowe talks for the last time with Terry Lennox and refuses to continue their friendship. By contrast, Altman has Marlowe identify Terry as the killer in the film’s final scenes, then shoot Terry when it becomes obvious that no other form of retribution is available. Even the nature of Marlowe’s relationship with Terry is altered in the film. Whereas Chandler’s Marlowe meets Terry only a few months before Sylvia Lennox is murdered and Terry flees the country, Altman’s Marlowe has been Terry’s good friend since they were teenagers. For many critics, this change makes the entire relationship harder to fathom, as it seems odd that Marlowe fails to perceive the true character of his life-long friend. Luhr even refers to Marlowe’s kindness toward his old friend as “stupid.”29 In Altman’s film, then, Marlowe is guilty of stupidity in trusting an old but obviously unreliable friend, then guilty of nothing less than a shocking murder when he shoots Terry. Where is Chandler in all of this?

Altman’s ending is obviously very different from Chandler’s in many ways, but I do think that Altman’s conclusion echoes Chandler’s in several crucial respects. In each case, for example, the narrative structure stresses Marlowe’s unrequited loyalty to Terry Lennox. This parallel may not be obvious, for the means employed are almost polar opposites. By allowing Marlowe to solve the novel’s murder so far from the end, Chandler goes out of his way to underline the concerns Marlowe continues to pursue after Eileen Wade’s suicide: clearing Terry Lennox’s name and confronting Terry himself. The resolution of Marlowe’s relationship with Terry turns out to be the real solution to the novel’s thematic concerns if not its several murders. In Altman’s film, by contrast, the climax to the mystery is also the climax to the story of Marlowe’s stubborn loyalty to an old friend he cannot believe guilty of his wife’s vicious murder. By making Terry the killer, Altman literalizes the implications of Chandler’s text, for of course it is Terry who is the guilty party in Chandler’s novel—guilty of endangering Marlowe and Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), who is in fact murdered by Eileen; guilty of fleeing from his problems as he has always done; guilty of manipulating a friend whose loyalty is as deep as it is irrational or at least hard to explain.

The apparently irreconcilable endings are in fact very similar. In each case Marlowe is forced to confront his own blindness if not stupidity in giving his friend the benefit of the doubt. In each case Marlowe must judge Terry harshly and irrevocably. When Terry laughs at Marlowe about the neatness with which everything has been arranged, Altman’s Marlowe responds tersely, “Nobody cares but me,” then executes Terry. Chandler’s Marlowe does not shoot Terry, who is not a murderer, after all, but he does label Terry a “moral defeatist” and refuses to judge him lightly.30The moral judgment implicit in each ending is decisive and seems in fact much the same judgment. But of course novel and film have told much the same story throughout. In each case Marlowe endures humiliation and physical abuse because of his faith in a friend (recent or longstanding). In each case Marlowe refuses to accept the official judgment against this friend and persists in trying to clear the friend’s name, even spending his own money toward this end. (In Chandler’s novel the amount spent is $300; in Altman’s film the ante is up to $5,000. The difference is misleading, however, for Chandler’s Marlowe has no intention of spending the $5,000 Terry sends him before supposedly committing suicide, so in each case Marlowe gives up $5,000 in pursuing the truth and what he hopes will be justice.)

I see only one significant difference between Chandler’s and Altman’s conclusions. Once he shoots Terry, Altman’s Marlowe seems almost “satisfied,” as one critic puts it,31 and proceeds to play his harmonica and dance a jig while walking briskly away. Chandler’s Marlowe is as depressed at the end as he is at the conclusion of The Big Sleep, where he finds that he is “part of the nastiness now” because of everything he has learned and his decision not to turn in Carmen Sternwood for the murder of Rusty Regan. It might seem that Altman’s Marlowe should be far more subdued if not similarly depressed at the end of the film. Among Altman’s critics, only Helene Keyssar rejects this reading, and I think that she misreads the scene in her own way. For Keyssar, Marlowe’s harmonica-playing does not signify his callousness or what she calls “the sweet taste of revenge”; rather, it represents Marlowe’s dignity, “earned by his holding fast to the rules that shaped his relationship to Lennox throughout.” Keyssar compares Marlowe’s music to “the bittersweet hymn to anarchy and narcissism that will sound at the end of Nashville,” speaks of the harmonica as “a gift from a fellow-sufferer” (the man clothed in bandages in the hospital), and argues that Marlowe’s playing declares his own survival and reminds us that “gestures of human relationship are not entirely obliterated.”32Keyssar sentimentalizes this sequence a bit, for the bandaged man does not “give” Marlowe the harmonica (Marlowe in fact takes it), and so it can hardly be seen as a gift from a fellow-sufferer. But I think Keyssar is right to see Marlowe blending back into life as he has known it, for better and for worse, declaring his own survival even as he implicitly acknowledges that dramatic gestures such as shooting Terry Lennox are not for everyday and that it will continue to take harmonica-playing and gratuitous dancing to get him through the days and nights. Finally, of course, this interpretation does not really differ so very much from most readings of Chandler’s ending, so perhaps even this one major “exception” to the general rule is not really an exception at all.

Each in his own way, Chandler and Altman depict Marlowe’s stern assertion of the code of personal responsibility against a former friend who pleads that he had “no choice” in what he did (whether fleeing an ugly scene or actually murdering his wife). The Marlowes who do this are in fact the same character, a man trapped in a hostile, amoral environment but unwilling to be defined by the values of this world. Throughout Altman’s film Marlowe mutters “It’s okay with me” in response to example after example of modern evasiveness or irresponsibility—when his neighbors ask for their brownie mix, when his cat won’t eat the “wrong” kind of cat food, when it’s time to meet Eileen Wade, when Dr. Verringer’s nurses provide no help in finding Roger Wade, when Marlowe comes upon a patient counting off her steps (“618”), when Roger Wade sends him off to the beach so that Roger can talk with his wife, when Roger invites him to have a drink, when Marty Augustine invites Marlowe and Augustine’s men to take off their clothes, when Augustine’s mistress declines a cigarette, when Eileen Wade’s moving ladies decline to say where she is, when Marlowe rather acutely remarks that his female neighbors “aren’t even there.” At the end, when he shoots Terry Lennox, Marlowe reveals that it is not okay with him. I am confident that Raymond Chandler would have understood and approved.

III

Again, why the conspicuous differences between Chandler’s novel and Altman’s film? I would offer two possible explanations. One is that Altman somewhat misread Chandler and supposed that his novels in general and The Long Goodbye in particular authorized the Bogart/Mitchum tradition in playing Philip Marlowe. It’s not entirely reassuring to be told that Altman admitted to never reading The Long Goodbye from beginning to end.33 If one accepts this explanation, then Altman is “responding” to the media Marlowes and not the protagonist of Chandler’s novels. This would still leave us guessing as to why Altman used Elliott Gould and chose to make him so apparently passive and unheroic.

My second explanation addresses Altman’s method. Acutely sensitive to the differences between print and film, Altman must have understood that no technical device, not even voice-over, can properly render the sensitive understanding of the world projected through Chandler’s Marlowe. Therefore Altman could not hope to build his film around the contrast between Marlowe and his amoral environment by introducing Marlowe as the morally sturdy Bogart or Mitchum. Instead, he had to structure his film so that Marlowe’s grasp of things—indeed, his ability to unravel the puzzle—only becomes gradually apparent. In a very real sense, it becomes apparent only at the very end, when Marlowe accepts Terry’s contemptuous assertion that he is “a born loser” and yet proceeds to act anyway. Marlowe’s judgment on Terry is also his judgment on the world in which Terry is all too successful. Like Chandler, but by different structural means, Altman concludes with this judgment and gives it as much prominence as his non-didactic art can tolerate. Neither Chandler nor Altman presumes to think that his art will change the world he depicts, but each offers up the sort of precise judgment on his world Chandler’s better novels always render and Altman’s film movingly reproduces.

NOTES

1. William Luhr, Raymond Chandler and Film (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982), 164.

2. Leigh Brackett, “From The Big Sleep to The Long Goodbye and More or Less How We Got There,” Take One, 23 January 1974, 28.3.

3. Quoted in Brackett, 28.

4. Quoted in Brackett, 27.

5. Philip French, “Media Marlowes,” in Miriam Gross, ed., The World of Raymond Chandler (1977; New York: A & W Publishers, 1978), 78.

6. For Chandler’s views about adaptation, see Luhr, 186; for a summary of Chandler’s work on the Lady in the Lake film script, see Luhr, 60-63.

7. Luhr, 114.

8. Luhr, 11.

9. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939; New York: Vintage, 1976), 1.

10. The Big Sleep, 216.

11. For Chandler’s ridicule of the romance element in detective films, see Frank MacShane, ed., Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 93-94.

12. Luhr, 13.

13. See Gerald Mast, Howard Hawks, Storyteller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 269-95.

14. Roger Shatzkin, “Who Cares Who Killed Owen Taylor?” in Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, eds., The Modern American Novel and the Movies (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978), 94.

15. See Mast, 284, and Luhr, 134.

16. See Peter J. Rabinowitz, “Rats Behind the Wainscoting: Politics, Convention, and Chandler’s The Big Sleep,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 22 (1980), 224-45.

17. Luhr, 181, 180.

18. Luhr, 165.

19. Brackett, 28.

20. See Alan Karp, The Films of Robert Altman (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1981), 101.

21. Luhr again anticipates this point; see 155.

22. For the relevant scene, see Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953; New York: Ballantine Books, 1971), 293-300.

23. Selected Letters, 315.

24. Selected Letters, 401.

25. See, for example, Stephen Pendo, Raymond Chandler on Screen: His Novels into Film (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1976), 147; Daniel O’Brien, Robert Altman: Hollywood Survivor (London: B. T. Batsford, 1955), 53; and Robert Phillip Kolker,A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 346.

26. Brackett confirms that this was intended in her original script and presumably in Altman’s final cut; see 27.

27. See Luhr, 168, and Pendo, 156.

28. The Big Sleep, 143.

29. Luhr, 176.

30. The Long Goodbye, 310.

31. Gerard Plecki, Robert Altman (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985), 64.

32. Helene Keyssar, Robert Altman’s America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 107-08.

33. See Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 364.

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From Howard Hawks’ version of the Big Sleep (1946) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Stills appear courtesy of MGM CLIP+STILL.

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From Howard Hawks’ version of the Big Sleep (1946) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

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From Michael Winner’s version of the Big Sleep (1978) with Robert Mitchum and James Stewart.

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From Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) with Elliott Gould and Mark Rydell.

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From Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) with Elliott Gould and Nina van Pallandt.

Tom Samet_opt

February 20, 1948 – February 27, 2000

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