Tough guys, cute cats, and dark hippies in "The Long Goodbye"

By the time Robert Altman has dumped '50s leftover Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) into the '70s, the utopian dreams of the '60s are on the last legs of their own long goodbye. Hippie communalism has given way to new age self-help. The discourse of civil rights is being co-opted by institutions not particularly concerned with those rights. The outsider is just another arm of the law and Marlowe has barely survived the transition. Marlowe tells everyone "it's OK with me," tending his own garden, Candide-like, when the situation clearly calls for a head out of the sand—as much an end-of-'Nam isolationist as a "sure thing, boss" dupe that looked the other way when it happened. It's a drastic pivot from the changes demanded in '60s protest slogans, but fits with the Me Generation's self-inoculation against failed revolutions.

Marlow helps his friend Terry Lennox—notorious pitcher Jim Bouton plays Lennox, likely cast with a nod to his blacklist status from a career ending tell-all—skip town, no questions asked, in the wake of an apparently violent domestic dispute. Soon the questions start getting asked by others and Marlowe gets embroiled in a murder-mystery involving his friend's dead wife, the gangsters he owed money to, and a separate case involving an abusive, alcoholic writer (a stentorian Sterling Hayden) past his glory days that might not be as separate as it seems. Pretty soon, it's hard for him to be "OK" with anything.

Played by Gould, Marlowe is more of a hipster in the Norman Mailer sense, a white guy with a jazzy vernacular slipping in and out of the world of privilege he left behind. He's a gumshoe more for the wisecracks that keep his gums flapping than the word's origins in stealthy rubber-sole shoes. Gould offers a distinctly Jewish meditation on the PI, turning him into a peripheral dybbuk, a half-assimilated yid playing Greek chorus over the WASP shenanigans he's paid to sort out. He's The Big Schlep. Never overtly ethnic, the film develops a contrast between his covert infiltration of Malibu's white bourgeois milieu and the proud synthesis of outside identity with outside power represented by Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), a Jewish gangster whose money disappeared with Marlowe's friend.

Howard Hawks collaborator Leigh Brackett, working on her own here, turns the Marlowe of "The Big Sleep," which she co-wrote, on his head. In that film Marlowe doesn't think twice about slapping a female suspect but here he's surrounded by violence against women, and that sort of reckless masculinity he's turned a fraternal blind eye to becomes a question of privilege and who pays the cost of putting your bros first. The conspiracy in "The Long Goodbye" isn't something like the California water wars of "Chinatown" but instead the distance between boomer notions of self-improvement and the actual self-interrogation required to recoup from the failures of '60s activism, a schism that mostly seems to lead to self-destruction.

The only interrogation that does happen is one step forward, two steps back. Marlowe is arrested by a black detective and ushered into into the station by a black cop. On the way to interrogation he chats with another detainee, a black clerk he met buying cat food at the supermarket whose girl was "busted at a protest" (the only reference to any in the movie) so he "busted the pig who busted her." The white cop that interrogates Marlowe asks him if he's "a fag" because the cop's "a fag" too and can tell by the name. Not having anywhere to wipe his fingerprints, Marlowe smears them on his face and, recalling "The Jazz Singer's" tale of a Cantor's son escaping his identity by minstrelization of another, does an Al Jolson bit as protest during interrogation. The black cop, watching from behind a mirror, calls his white superior a "honky" out of earshot, though he could easily refer to Marlowe as such too. It's a snapshot of shifting discourse, with the demands of civil rights for oppressed demographics starting to become refracted through power, any association with authority a slippery slope toward communal fragmentation.

You feel it in the sound design too, with Altman's trademark of using multiple mics to mimic the rhythms of actual conversation. Yet unlike Hawks, who did the same for "His Girl Friday," it operates more as an internal monologue brushing up against snippets overheard in passing; the individual lost in the fray of strangers. In a film about a detective it makes more sense than in other Altmans. There's no noir voice-over, just Gould running a free-associative commentary under his breath (my favorite bit is a throwaway Hemingway gag in which a detective asks "what's this" while holding up a gold statue of a loafer and Marlowe responds "baby shoes").

Prior to the election, films like "Inherent Vice" and "The Nice Guys" dove back into "The Long Goodbye's" well of fractured idealism and melancholic paranoia, but where "The Long Goodbye" followed a decade of grassroots activism these films were released in the middle of a new civil rights movement and a massive left resurgence closer to 1968 than this film's 1973. As such it's worth revisiting as a cautionary reminder of a fate worth avoiding.

"The Long Goodbye" screens at the Charles Theater Aug. 3 at 9 p.m.

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