Robert Altman’s take on Philip Marlowe is a sun soaked California daydream. In a word, The Long Goodbye is lackadaisical, not to be confused with lazy. It’s twice as hard to make a film feel so effortless.
Still, I don’t know if that makes for commendable art or merely commendable craftsmanship. Technical brilliance aside, the film works for me mostly as a psychological piece, seducing the viewer into a similar mental state as its hero. Like Marlowe, we passively take things as they come. We float above it all. It is a privileged position
Elliot Gould plays Marlowe as an unflappable, moral man, jaded to the corruption and selfishness that surrounds him. He is charming, even enviable. He is constantly muttering to himself, as if unable to carry on a conversation with anyone but himself. It’s a form of arrogance common that reminds me greatly of many of the roles Bill Murray has played, with constant quips and insults hidden under his breath, a secret dialog between viewer and character. But, don’t we all wish to be so smart, so calm, so cool, so laid-back?
Two other characters come to mind when I think of Elliot Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe – Jeff Bridge’s “The Dude” and Gabriel Byrne’s “Tom Reagan”. Both are characters in Coen Brother films and I find it a tad curious that the Coen Brothers come to mind when I think of an Altman film. I’ve never really compared the two and I don’t think the comparison goes deep. However, these three characters, in each of their films, all work outside a larger network of characters whose lives overlap in complex, even confusing ways. The hero of each story, however, never gets emotionally attached or caught up. Each hero simply wants to bring things back into a state of balance, at least for themselves. The Dude wants his rug. Reagan wants stasis. Marlowe is looking for his cat. I guess I’m looking for something more.
When I was a teenager I watched Miller’s Crossing indulgently, marveling at Tom Reagan’s calculated coolness. I saw The Big Lewbowski in my 20’s, already a transformation in my film tastes was taking place and I found The Dude to be an grating, selfish, layabout. I didn’t find it humorous or likable. This of course put me (and continues to put me) at great odds with many of my peers and students who see The Big Lewbowski and The Dude as great comedy and an icon. In my 30’s I’m watching The Long Goodbye, and I’m comfortable with the character of Philip Marlowe, in so much that he is just a character. He is a man removed from the larger world, free from doubts, even emotions. He is a creation, a figment, something from the dream factory.
I don’t know who can really live their life that removed from everyone else.