A longtime friend of mine -- a professor in Tacoma who worked with me at Hunter's Books in La Jolla when he was going for his PhD and his divorce at the same time -- recently e-mailed me a question. "List," he asked me, "the ten most influential books in your life, please." Influential, not best, and I took the request literally and typed, "These books influenced my behavior, attitudes, style, etc. I'm not saying they should have, just that they did." On the fiction side appeared The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler. Immediately following that novel was The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley: "Essentially the same story," I added, "by Crumley's own admission." I had re-read each of them at least once, and that is an indulgence I've kept to under a dozen titles in fiction.While I would surely love to see a film version of The Last Good Kiss, it hasn't been done. Robert Altman, however, directed The Long Goodbye, or an Altman- and early-1970s-informed facsimile featuring Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe. As fans of the character know, Humphrey Bogart was Marlowe; Robert Mitchum was Marlowe, too; and James Garner in The Little Sister. We'll allow this more slowly, but allow it we will. (Fans of the character might be considered quieter, less gaudy versions of Star Trek fans.) Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell. No and no. Elliot Gould? Hell, no.
This Friday night I have the VHS of Altman's The Long Goodbye from Kensington Video and, of course, the book in my lap. If you've ever said, "The book was better than the movie," this is a fun Friday-night exercise if, say, you are a lonely loser with no life.
The 1973 film, written by Leigh Brackett (who, along with William Faulkner, wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep, Chandler's first novel, and later, The Empire Strikes Back), opens with Marlowe/Gould being awakened by his cat. The long opening scene involves Marlowe buying cat food, chain-smoking, and talking to himself, repeating, "It's okay with me."
Chandler's opening scene involves Marlowe picking up a drunk but polite Englishman named Terry Lennox (eventually appearing in the film played by ex-Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton), taking him home, sobering him up, and getting him temporarily on his feet. In the movie, Gould drives Bouton to Mexico.
In both versions, Lennox's wife turns up dead (a good phrase), and Lennox is the prime suspect. Marlowe doesn't buy it. Meanwhile, Marlowe gets hooked up with some rich, former neighbors of Lennox; alcoholic writer Roger Wade, played perfectly by Sterling Hayden, and his wife, played by Nina van Pallandt. While the long opening cat food scene is maybe Altman's way of introducing Marlowe's "character," it was done in three pages in the book and, while amusing, can't compare with, say, Paul Newman establishing his private eye's character in Harper (William Goldman screenplay) by simply recycling yesterday's coffee grounds.
The music by John Williams features a theme song co-written with Johnny Mercer that becomes something of a cameo character itself as it appears in different guises from scene to scene: Mercer is crooning the boozy, noirish lament on Marlowe's car radio. Marlowe gets out, enters the grocery store, and there is a Muzak version of the same song. At a Mexican funeral there is a kind of mariachi dirge version of it, etc. I picked up my electric guitar and figured out the dozen or so signature notes and put together a heartbreaking yet rousing blues instrumental version not unlike Ronny Montrose's treatment of Town Without Pity, but where was I?
The fun scenes are with Hayden, a man probably close to Chandler's heart, in theory anyway. Wade was probably a self-portrait of a kind, and Hayden was a serious writer himself, a drinker and a man who exuded boozy, macho romanticism.
You can spot the current governor of California toward the end in a non-speaking part: a thug who takes off his shirt when the bad guy (an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to author Richard Price) orders him and Elliot Gould to get naked.
Gould's Marlowe says "fuck" and "motherfucker" and at the end shoots Lennox/Bouton in cold blood. While happy to see Bouton go, Marlowe only shot a man once in seven novels and that was in The Big Sleep. Chandler never had him do it again. Marlowe had language and didn't resort to obscenities. Gould resembles Marlowe possibly in that neither are convincing as cold-blooded killers. But other than this, Gould as Marlowe? Hell, no.
Did I ruin the end? Not me. It's okay with me, but Marlowe wouldn't buy it. Altman did a ballsy thing, and the movie stands as a unique document of the '70s, maybe; but hey, Ridley Scott, do a Blade Runner on this with your friend Russell Crowe.
Playing Roger Ebert-meets-Jacques Barzun (Wait a minute. Forget him. Barzun suggested once that Marlowe enjoyed getting beat up by cops a little too much, or something like it) or, say, playing Wilfred Sheed by oneself on a Friday night is terrific fun, and I recommend it. Invite the neighbors, let the kids play too, impress your date. The movie has to go back to Kensington, but the novel will remain on the shelf, and the apartment will echo with the mournful strains of my soulful Epiphone.
"The long goodbye...it happens every day...even as she smiles a quick hello, you let her go." A great cornball paean to self-pity I like to hum to myself with my collar to the Santa Ana's, cigarette locked between my determined lips, squinting at some torrid tomato who wasn't born when the movie was made and 20 years after the book was published.