The Long Goodbye: Recreating Noir

The film noir protagonist is often jaded, morally ambiguous and obsessed. Inevitably he becomes so entranced with his goals and desires that he no longer is able to see the world from the outside in, becoming just as much a part of the noir landscape as the Venetian blinds or the sharp, cruel violence. From the beginning, Phillip Marlowe from Raymond Chandler‘s novels stood apart from the pack in this respect. While jaded, he had a clear set of morals, and was detached from the dark world he investigated. Although there were always moments of loss, or brief lapses in calm, he maintained his composure until the very end. He is a unique and particular facet in noir, never tempted by greed but rather a desire to do good. In Robert Altman‘s film, the Long Goodbye, this point is further emphasized as Marlowe’s familiar setting is altered beyond recognition. Manipulating the conventions of film noir, Altman further emphasizes Philip Marlowe as a sole force of good in a corrupt and indifferent society.

The Long Goodbye maintains the thematic associations of noir, while altering the physical environment. The location remains much the same, as the conventional noir, as the film is set in Los Angeles, and the urban setting plays heavily into creating mood and atmosphere. The most apparent change is no doubt the shift from black and white to colour. The added choice to expose the undeveloped film negative to additional pure light in post production, until the colours were softened and the darks faded, further differentiate the look with the genre’s original stylistic trademark. Instead of the high contrast, low key lighting that characterizes film noir, the film is almost washed away. This technique works at creating a similar atmosphere as the traditional noir model despite being so different. Life and existence lack all vibrancy, and the uniform shade of grey that seems to pervade every scene emphasizes the moral ambiguity of all those who inhabit the city. There is little difference between black and white, so everyone is living in a perpetually grey and faded environment, living between the traditional models of good and evil instead of clearly on one side or the other. Another obvious change to the noir model, is quite obviously the time update. While film noir in it’s purest form trickled out of existence towards the end of the 1950s, this film updates the setting to the early 1970s to rather drastic results. Compared to many neo-noir contemporaries, the film immediately felt less like a nostalgic journey, but rather a re-exploration of themes and characters that continued to be relevant in the modern world. In the short documentary, Rip Van Marlowe, Altman remarks that he wanted to update the setting but act as if Philip Marlowe had awaked from a twenty odd year slumber. This further ostracises the character, as he stands out not only by his unique moral conviction, but by his appearance, behaviour and also his array of nostalgic cultural allusions. The only moment he even hints he is aware he’s existing in the 1970s is when he demands to see the governor, Ronald Reagan. Even so, as Reagan was at the very least a familiar actor from the 30s and 40s, this reference is not entirely out of place for a detective from the past.

Gould’s incarnation of Marlowe however, is a far cry from the cool, nearly untouchable Marlowe of the 1940s. He allows his emotions to get the better of him, and not only pursues the case on his own volition, he cannot help letting his thoughts and emotions hang on his sleeve. Even the delivery of lines is more laconic, and far less comfortable. There is clearly a lot more disdain for his wise cracks, as characters constantly remark on their lack of cleverness or humour. Even when other characters attempt to usurp the unique stylized way of speaking they are met with disdain. While he is being interrogated by the police, this exchange goes on between two officers:

“He’s a cutie pie”
“No, he’s a real smart-ass”
“That’s what I mean”
“Why don’t you say what you mean?”

This short exchange is revisited in different forms time and time again in the film, as characters never say what they mean or are questioning the intentions of others. Most are manipulating and lying those they are speaking to, but Marlowe uses his words as shield to protect himself. Throughout the film Marlowe has a mantra that he repeats every time something happens that upsets or bothers him, often nonchalant he’ll quip “It’s okay with me”. The line works to create a dichotomy between what is said and what is done throughout the film. Marlowe says that it’s okay if his cat leaves, but spends much of the rest of the film looking for him. This happens time and time again, as he feigns disinterest to protect himself from the darkness that surrounds and inhibits him.

While efforts are made to physically distinguish Marlowe from the world around him by the way he dresses and behaves, even making him the only character to smoke during the entire length of the film, it is his unique sense of morality that truly sets him a part. Marlowe remains the measure of goodness amidst a sea of corruption and lies, but unfortunately people take advantage of his generosity and trust. The film establishes this in the film’s opening sequence as Marlowe goes out of his way to feed his cat, even trying to mask a generic cat food brand for his pet’s favourite in an effort to get him to eat. The cat, however, realising that he will not get what he wants promptly leaves never to be seen again. This pattern is repeated throughout the film, as everyone Marlowe trusts betrays him once he has exhausted his use.

This is a rather common theme in noir, the idea of using or abusing others to serve your own means. Carol Reed in particular explores this in both The Third Man and Odd Man Out, as the film’s respective protagonists are used as tools by those who surround them. In The Third Man, Holly Martin is used by Harry Lime as an alibi and essentially a patsy, who Lime believes is too stupid or trusting, that he would not even begin to question the validity of his friend’s actions or death. Odd Man Out similarly, is the story of a young Irishman who is a member of the IRA, who finds himself severely injured and alone in Dublin. As he attempts to find his way home he meets at least half a dozen people, each of whom desire to use him to serve their own agenda. Even the woman who claims to love him uses him disregarding his intentions or state of body and mind. Especially in the case of the Third Man, there is a moment of enlightenment when the protagonist becomes aware he is being used so heinously, and decides to take action. In the Long Goodbye, Marlowe takes this leap as well as he heads to Mexico where he finds Terry Lenox alive and well despite being assured of his death. He finds himself in nearly the same situation as Holly Martin, and is confronted with an incredibly moral dilemma (another staple of noir). His final decision is to kill him, and when he does the film ends rather abruptly. He is not offered time to explain, or mull over his actions so the audience is left to come to terms with the unexpected transformation of their lead character. Intentionally or not, Altman brings Marlowe to the level of the prototypical noir protagonist, plagued by moral doubt and uncertainty. By killing Lenox, he is in a way becoming all that he despises about the world, however also clearly demonstrating his attitude on how he has been treated, essentially his entire life, by all those he loved or trusted.

The Long Goodbye also features other noir staples like the femme fatale, the convoluted storyline and the criminal element. The film is focused primarily on it’s protagonist, and his experience as a character in the modern world. Philip Marlowe’s psychological journey is complex, and strays from the original model of his character. However, even with the many changes brought to the genre, the core remains the same, cementing the genre’s continued resonance in an ever changing world. The pervading darkness and nihilism continues to speak to audiences, as does the jaded central characters who are looking to make their dreams come true, or do the right thing in life, only to be met with failure or death.

14 responses to “The Long Goodbye: Recreating Noir

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  4. Excellent review: very perceptive and extremely well-written. You clearly reveal Altman’s take as an investigation of Marlowe and not simply a reprise of noir motifs.

  5. Thank you very much, Marlowe has always been one of my favourite characters and I’ve always found Altman’s take on him fascinating. Both him and Gould expressed a desire to reprise the project, but the critical and financial failure of the film prevented it from happening. Perhaps it’s for the best, as the end of the Long Goodbye feels so appropriate.

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  7. I love the analogy between The Long Goodbye and The Third Man, two films I absolutely love, but had never thought of together before. Holly Martins is just a little bit more of a loser than Marlowe, but in the end, both are loyal to friends who take advantage of this loyalty, and pay the prize in the end.

    Great piece!

  8. haha, I used to have the exact same avatar. Love Jules et Jim. Martins is, and I think somehow his betrayal is far more ruthless than Marlowe’s. It’s almost selfish and the Third Man is so complex in terms of perception and relationships. Wonderful film. I don’t know how I connected them initially, I think because I wrote a ton of stuff (that I never put together, maybe I should) on that idea/ theme in The ThirdMan/Odd Man Out a while ago. It’s an interesting idea.

  9. I basically did the same exact thing you did here in an essay about The Third Man: analyze its status as a neo-noir and basically run down the list of noir elements (like the city, the femme fatale, the morally ambiguous characters, the pro/antagonist who’s an outsider with his own set of morally gray values, etc.) and how the film uses these elements, subverts them, or both. Thinking about it now, it’s remarkable how two films like The Third Man and The Long Goodbye are so different, especially when it comes to Holly Martins and Philip Marlowe, and yet are entirely similar as sort of the next stage of noir, to the point that they almost parody it. Holly Martins is the ignorant cowboy-type trying to exact vigilante justice while Marlowe is completely burned out and just goes through the motions…either way, they’re clearly alienated by their surroundings and come to terms with a world that’s cruelly unfair and violent, so that both of them are mocking the image of noir anti-hero and embracing it at the same time.

  10. Just wanted to say that this is an excellent, well thought out piece which makes me want to go take another look at the film…even though I probably watch it way too much anyway. My compliments. I look forward to more like it.

  11. The Third Man is fascinating in many of them same ways, despite the films being so different. Both use a lot of humour to subvert the genre, but are still quasi-serious underneath the surface. Martins is a great character, and I appreciate his complexity each time around. The Third Man works with these broad strokes, and then complicates them as the film progresses and I think the Long Goodbye does much of the same. Beautiful films!

    I thought you’d like it Mr. Peel, I don’t know what exactly why though :p I don’t think you can watch the Long Goodbye too many times, so go wild! I have a lot of free time now, so I’ll be watching more films and writing more too. It should be fun.

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  13. I too always thought the Third Man and Long Goodbye were inter-linked to the extent I think Altman has created a kind of homage to Reed’s classic . Both are about a loner-outsiders who try to prove that thier dead friend is not the monster society-police believe him to be. Both, in trying to resurrect their friend’s reputation, discover that their friend faked their own death, and not only prove they were indeed monsters but wind up killing them . Even the final scene –with Martins waiting at the side of the lane while his dead friend’s girl walks by him on her way back from Lime’s funeral (Third Man), is eeerily similar to the Long
    Goodbye’s Marlowe, again at the side of the road as his friend’s girl drives by him on her way to finding out that her man has been killed. The shots, both from a distance, even look the same, so I can’t imgine Altman didn’t intend to evoke the Reed film.
    Of course, there is no comparison in terms of quality, as much as Altman is admirable. Not having seen The Third Man in many years, I can still clearly recall about a dozen scenes/shots that are among the most powerful and dramatic in film history…and who can forget the Graham Greene dialogue, with such lines as, “She ought to go careful in Vienna. Everybody ought to go careful in a city like this.” Or the cuckoo clock speech.

  14. I think both films are exceptional, I actually think I prefer The Long Goodbye. Aesthetically, both are quite different, but I think they’re on par.

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