My Favorite Crime Movie
The Long Goodbye isn't the best crime movie ever made. The first Godfathers 1 and 2 are hard to beat in that category. It isn't the best film Robert Altman ever directed either; McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville are more likely contenders. And it certainly isn't the best adaption of a Raymond Chandler novel—how could anyone top Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep? But it was the right movie at the right time for me.
It came out when I was thirteen years old, a big sluggish kid with a keen interest in baseball and not much else. An early enthusiasm for reading had started to sputter out, thanks to premature exposure to the Brontë sisters, disruptions at home, and an excess of wretched television. I think the only book I'd read cover-to-cover up to that point in 1973 was Jim Bouton's tawdry baseball expose, Ball Four, with its tales of pill-popping and Baseball Annies.
I was deeply suspicious of the adult world, which seemed corrupt and confusing to me (I grew up in Manhattan), but my only entry point for understanding came through some of the more sophisticated R-rated movies of the time, which I could get into because I was already shaving. I somehow learned that Bouton was in a movie and took my three-dollar allowance down to the Baronet Cinema on Lexington Avenue to see what it was about.
As anyone who's seen the film knows, Altman was not paying slavish homage to the genre. The basic plot updates Chandler's story about Philip Marlowe doing a favor out of loyalty for his friend Terry Lennox (played by Bouton in the film) and getting beat up, arrested, caught up in nefarious doings by decadent Californians, when all he wants to do is get the right cat food for his cat. Elliot Gould plays Marlowe as a stumblebum shlub, mumbling and shrugging at a world that he doesn't belong in. Big ID check mark for a misfit kid. Marlowe keeps saying, "okay by me," even though things clearly aren't. Along the way, he runs into Sterling Hayden playing a raging alcoholic, Henry Gibson from Laugh-in playing a sinister rehab shrink, a very young Arnold Schwarzenegger (already offering intimations of a more brutish future), Mark Rydell committing an act of truly shocking violence, and Nina Van Pallandt, whose golden smile and air of glamorous intrigue (she was involved in a real-life scandal involving a fake Howard Hughes memoir) sealed the enchantment deal for me.
I'd like to think I also appreciated the jazzy soundtrack and nostalgic color scheme, but really I was just a kid getting off on the jaded atmosphere. But I think what struck me the most was that at a certain point it wasn't okay with Philip Marlowe anymore. After all the muttering and shrugging, this rather Jewish version of Marlowe's hero finally decides enough is enough and erupts out of a personal code of honor. And he doesn't do it in a cornball movie hero way like John Wayne, but with a kind of bitter irony that seemed completely true and appropriate to the world I was living in.
From the film I went to Chandler's novel and discovered all that lush gangster poetry he wrote. And from reading I eventually went to writing.
So basically, a movie about a guy trying to feed his cat changed my life. And I've never even had a cat. Go figure. What goes on in the dark is always a mystery.
© Peter Blauner