With a Little Help From My Friends
After kicking off the 2010 Pajiba Neo-Noir Retrospective with an analysis of Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight (1996), I felt the strong desire to put his film in dialogue with the neo-noir of his mentor Robert Altman: The Long Goodbye (1973). Oddly, this comparison yielded more differences than similarities, as Anderson's film came off as classical in its use of noir tropes: former hood seeks the good life only to find his new life upended by the inescapable past of his horrific deeds. Admittedly, Anderson tells the rather conventional thriller story unconventionally by favoring the minimalist approach of French noir director Jean-Pierre Melville over the direct approach taken by the bulk of Hollywood cinema. Yet, in the end, and I don't intend for this line of thought to be a criticism, Hard Eight feels more like a classical noir than neo-noir, as the themes of the genre remain intact and have simply been given a temporal makeover. This, of course, begs the question: What is neo-noir's relationship to film noir? I would argue that neo-noir films takes a self-reflexive approach to the narrative and stylistic tropes of the classical era.
This self-reflexive approach has been aided by the fact that noir conventions have become acknowledged and dissected, both in academic and popular discourses, during the past forty plus years. Moreover, many neo-noir filmmakers are often conscious of the act of making a neo-noir and speak about the genre's conventions and what modern interpretations they see themselves bringing to the material. In contrast, many classical noir directors classified their noir films as thrillers or melodramas. At the time, noir wasn't a thing, it was an adjective. In the end, without a map of a genre, how can it be consciously reflected upon?
This said, Altman's film, along with Chinatown (1974) a year later, are prime examples of what I interpret neo-noir to be. The Long Goodbye begins with Raymond Chandler's classic private detective Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) being asked to drive his good friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) from Los Angeles to the Mexico border. When Marlowe returns home, he is confronted by two police detectives, accusing Marlowe of aiding and abetting a fugitive. According to the detectives, Lennox brutally murdered his rich wife. In utter disbelief, Marlowe refuses to offer any information as to the whereabouts of his friend and finds himself locked up in jail. A few days later, Marlowe is released. Mexican police officers have found Terry Lennox dead, allegedly from his own hand. Marlowe thinks it's a set-up and, over the course of clearing his dead friend's name, becomes involved in two subplots, one involving the search for an alcoholic novelist (Sterling Hayden) and his trophy wife (Nina Van Pallandt) and the other involving a sociopathic gangster (Mark Rydell), which may or may not have a connection to his predicament.
Altman's film transports Marlowe from his native temporal habitat of the '50s to the early '70s. While he wears a suit and tie and drives a 1948 Lincoln Continental, his neighbors practice yoga and ask Marlowe to pick them up brownie mix for a recipe that would make Alice B. Toklas proud. Essentially, Altman presents to us a classical Marlowe, albeit out of place, in this contemporary period. Even the majority of the set-up is torn from Chandler's original book: Marlowe, the hopeless romantic, comes to the aid of a friend in need and will not stop his investigation until everything is handled morally.
Yet, Altman (and screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who also wrote The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back) use the original set-up as a means of misdirection as the film continues. As Roger Ebert writes in his "Great Movies" essay, Altman "attacks film noir with three of his most cherished tools: Whimsy, spontaneity and narrative perversity. He is always the most youthful of directors, and here he gives us the youngest of Philip Marlowes, the private eye as a Hardy boy. Marlowe hides in the bushes, pokes his nose up against a window, complains like a spoiled child, and runs after a car driven by the sexy heroine, crying out "Mrs. Wade! Mrs. Wade!" As a counterweight, the movie contains two startling acts of violence; both blindside us, and neither is in the original Raymond Chandler novel." Ebert's comment regarding narrative perversity is what I would like to briefly embellish upon. As aforementioned, the Marlowe of Chandler's books and the films of the classical noir period was a moral romantic and that is how he starts The Long Goodbye. By the end of the film however, Marlowe becomes jaded, his worldview has been obliterated. He becomes the complete opposite of what we always assumed to be, one might argue rightfully so, as he has lost everything, even his cat. The Long Goodbye is a neo-noir quite simply because it deconstructs everything the classical noir Marlowe stood for.
So, one might facetiously ask, why does that make The Long Goodbye a good or (in the case of Ebert's evaluation) great film? Personally, I find that Altman's film pays off on multiple levels. The dialogue, much of it overlapping of course, retains Chandler's snappy tone. Elliot Gould, who we originally write off as being the fool on the hill, shocks us with some strong moments in the final half of the film. Yet, when all is said and done, The Long Goodbye is a great film because it, like all the best neo-noir, acknowledges the tropes of the genre and yet spins them into something fresh (particularly The Third Man here). It doesn't so much change the fabric of the material, just the cut of the dress. That said, I would agree with Ebert who wrote that The Long Goodbye should not be anyone's first film noir. Yet, I'm not sure any neo-noir film should be a viewer's first noir. That would be like going to Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles and ordering a turkey sandwich; you might get some enjoyment out of it, but you're not appreciating the essence.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.