While the term “fllm noir” has been popularized to the point of meaninglessness, it originally described a group of Hollywood films from the late 1940s and early ’50s. The label referred to the literal blackness of the night time camerawork and the films’ dark vision of postwar America. Most are crime stories of some kind, often centered on a detective. Among the most famous are those in which Raymond Chandler was involved, either as a screenwriter (e.g., Double Indemnity) or as the author of source novels. His detective, Philip Marlowe, has become almost synonymous with the genre.
Produced during a revival of interest in noir in the 1970s, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is based on a Marlowe novel, though hardly in reverence. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, it is less a pastiche of classic noir (like Farewell, My Lovely) or even a luxurious revamp (like Chinatown) than a riff on both the original novels and their film adaptations. Elliot Gould stars as the character made iconic by Humphrey Bogart, but there is no effort to connect the two—no trench coats, no fedoras, not much of any recognition of the genre’s image save the occasional winking nod, like Marlowe’s antique car.
There isn’t even all that much “noir,” because the film’s collection of misfits and overgrown children often cavort in the bright Southern California daytime as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s creamy smooth camera constantly tracks and zooms around them, uncertain what to make of them. The corruption revealed by the film noir hero here is out in the open, accepted as the way things are. People are too high on celebrity and fantasy to care much about anything else.
The results may not satisfy the same way as a traditional treatment, but Altman uses Chandler to frame a vision of indulgent hedonism as morality. And unlike a Bogart’s ability to see clearly as he negotiates the muck, Gould’s Marlowe seems always to be at least a beat or two behind events. If he doesn’t participate in the fecklessness, it is less out of moral reservation than because he’s not in on the joke—which is effectively on him or anyone else naive enough to believe in something better. Even the cops seem to know more than he does about the “mystery.”
While many critics were not sympathetic to Goodbye’s twists, time has lent the film a scruffy charm. Altman is a little too assured of his hip smarts, but he compensates for his smugness by basking in the sexy sunshine of a world he knows like the back of his tanned hand. While Chandler devotees probably still hate it, audiences unfamiliar with the author can enjoy The Long Goodbye as an offbeat, oddball detective story that is just as dated in its way as the films Altman is kidding. Hip may not be hip any longer, but like the originals, it can still appeal.