“What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”
Robert Altman, apparently, once tattooed Harry Truman’s dog. In what sounds like a throwaway Pynchon anecdote, he and a man named ‘Skimmerhorn’ formed a canine ID’ing operation shortly after WW2, and apparently made it all the way to the top. Later questioned about whether he regretted giving it all up for filmmaking, he stated simply: “Well…they’re both about the same.”
Movie-making, for Altman, was no great shakes. He knew filmmakers and he didn’t want to be like them. Instead of shrines to dead legends, Altman made deconstructions, placing the essentials of cinematic Americana under the critical microscope. The war film (M*A*S*H), the western (McCabe and Mrs Miller), the musical (Nashville) and, of course, that slippery bastard: film noir. All are skewered and refigured under Altman’s singular and idiosyncratic vision. Yet each is a palimpsest; each bear visible signs of their original form.
Lets get one thing straight: Elliot Gould is the quintessential Marlowe. Bacall and Bogart certainly smouldered together, but Gould is the one. He is the essence of that broken-down, sardonic and neurotically obsessive figure of loneliness and defeat in a world gradually burning itself out around him.
“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.”
Altman perhaps found shadows of his own spirit in the character; a principled man in the wrong time, surrounded by people and institutions that have lost their values. Nobody smokes (inverting the laws of film noir) except Marlowe. For a private eye, he’s utterly conspicuous. His attitude towards many of the contemporary details, such as the topless hippie girls who live opposite, is almost one of resigned acceptance, reflected in his oft-repeated catchphrase: “It’s alright with me.”
Altman changed much for his version of The Long Goodbye, and the beginning is all him. This is a masterclass in mundanity; Marlowe trying to one-up his cat and failing completely. And where Bogie would have cracked off a one-liner, Gould’s shaggy-dog detective narrates his often pointless movements to himself, wondering aloud how he has come to be in the mess that surrounds him.
But by the close of the movie, something is finally ‘not alright’ with Marlowe. His laconic exterior is stripped away and we glimpse the principled man beneath. The blundering apathy of the film is suddenly shattered by a moment of clarity. As soon as he glimpses the true meaning of what he has become embroiled in, he takes action. The colours change. Some of the old Hollywood rules exist in Altman’s world; betrayal, a moral crime, is still punishable by death.
“Nobody cares but me,” he says, just before he pulls the trigger. Lennox responds: “Well, that’s you Marlowe. You never learn. You’re a born loser.”
And Marlowe just says, “Yeah. I even lost my cat…”