I have come to the point of comfort with myself that I can come out and say: I pretty much hate Robert Altman’s films. There are ostententatiously showy directors like De Palma that invite you to share in their fun, or like Scorsese that constantly invite you to marvel at their genius, but Altman seems want you to marvel at his genius AND come to believe that his way is the way movies SHOULD be. His style remains constantly calling “Look at me! Look at ME!” and somehow carries a sense of shaming if you DON’T like it.
I came to this one through my foray into noir film and literature. This is an adaptation of a late Raymond Chandler novel that has been updated for the 70s, and apparently deviates from the source material enough to infuriate Chandler purists. There is word that apparently Altman didn’t even bother to read the novel to the end, finding it all somewhat silly. And it soon becomes clear that this is intended as both a neo-noir and a critique of noir and Hollywood conventions, although it led one critic at the time to say something along the lines of: “The things Altman is criticizing are things he can only aspire to.”
We open with a brassy Benny Goodman version of “Hooray for Hollywood,” which we know immediately is ironic. Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe is woken by his hungry cat… and many interpret this as a sign that Chandler’s recurring hero has been asleep since the 40s, and woke up now in the 70s. Marlowe lives in the typical dingy apartment, and serves his cat cottage cheese, raw egg and salt, which the cat refuses [can you imagine?], causing Marlowe to step out to run to the store. On the way out, he passes a group of scantily-clad pothead babes who all live the apartment opposite, doing yoga and meditating all day. We follow Marlowe to the store and back [he drives an incongruous 40s roadster], with that Altman-esque slowness that we are to understand is what makes it art. Marlowe is also constantly muttering to himself, in a way that is supposed to approximate noir hard-boiled voice-over updated for the grimy 70s, but may have you thinking “Will you just SHUT UP!” only five minutes in.
Intercut with this is footage of Marlowe’s friend, Terry Lennox, leaving his apartment and coming over to Marlowe’s house. We are also hearing several versions of the title track, by John Williams and Marvin Hamlisch, in a lush string-laden version, a pop version on the radio, and a muzak version at the grocery store. Different versions of this song comprise the only score the film has, until the repeat of “Hooray for Hollywood” that closes the film.
Terry is waiting at Marlowe’s when he gets back, says he’s having trouble with his wife, and asks for a ride to Tijuana, right then, no questions asked. Marlowe complies, and is met by the police upon his return. It seems that Terry’s wife has been murdered, Terry is the number-one suspect, and Marlowe is now accessory after the fact.
That this story is supposed to serve as a critique of Hollywood conventions is indicated when Marlowe quotes typical cop dialogue to the cops and asks them if that’s what they’re going to say. He is brought into the jail and booked, muttering snidely the whole time, cigarette eternally hanging out of his mouth.
Three days later, Marlowe is released, because Terry is dead. He shot himself in Mexico. Marlowe doesn’t believe he killed his wife, and he doesn’t believe he would kill himself. But he is soon hired in a seemingly unrelated case. Eileen Wade calls his to the rich seaside “Malibu Community,” which is guarded by a guy who is always doing Hollywood star imitations—more of the Hollywood satire this is supposed to be. Eileen is blonde and gorgeous, with a big bruise on the side of her face that she got from her missing husband, a famous writer and drunk who has been unable to write anything lately. It takes Marlowe two shakes to find the husband, Robert Wade, who is being kept drugged by a mysterious and creepy Dr. Beringer. Marlowe breaks him out handily and brings him home to his wife, whom he immediately ignores.
SPOILERS > > >
When Marlowe returns home he is greeted by this mobster Marty Augustine and his band of henchmen. This guy and entire subplot are not in the novel. Marty tells his girlfriend Joanne to stay in the car. They go upstairs, where they start tearing up the place looking for some money Marty is owed by Terry. The doorbell rings, and it’s Joanne. She got “scared” in the car and came up, and asks for a Coke. They fetch an empty Coke bottle from the kitchen, which is all Marlowe has, and Marty abruptly breaks it across Joanne’s face! Marty gives Marlowe a new assignment: find the money Terry owes him. Marlowe trails them to… Eileen Ward.
The next day he goes out to the Wade’s and they tell him to go walk on the beach while they talk. We stay with them and hear about their failing marriage—the first and only time we leave Marlowe’s perspective in the movie. Then he receives a $5,000 bill in the mail from Terry, possibly mailed before he died, but it makes Marlowe suspect that he’s still alive. He goes to Mexico and interviews the police in the case—outside a Mexican funeral plays “Long Goodbye”—and bribes them for information.
He returns to the Wade’s for a beach party, where Beringer shows up and demands that Wade pay him. Things get ugly and the party abruptly ends. Marlowe and Eileen are talking while we see, in a reflection, that Wade is walking into the sea. He dies, and once he’s dead, Eileen spills that Wade was having an affair with Terry’s wife, and killed her. When Marlowe returns home, Marty Augustine is there again. One of his thugs is an uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger. Joanne is still with him, all bandaged up. They’re about to cut off Marlowe’s dick when suddenly all their money appears. It was dropped off by Eileen.
Marlowe chases after her… for what feels like forever… and finally gets hit by a car. But Marlowe finally puts it all together, and heads down to Mexico. There he finds Terry, who DID kill his wife, then faked his death, covered it up, and Marlowe’s trauma this whole movie has just been the unfortunate side effect. Terry is unrepentant, telling Marlowe “no one cares about you… you’re a born loser.” Marlowe blows him away. As he is walking away, we see Eileen driving the other direction… she was in on it with Terry. By the way, this whole ending was not in the book, and the prime target for what infuriates Chandler fans about this movie.
< < < SPOILERS END
If it sounds intriguing, that’s probably because the molasses-like pace that makes you grab your head and moan “My God, will it EVER end?” does not come through in a review. But say that I did, when I thought it MUST have exceeded two hours by now, but discovered that I still had 45 minutes left to go. For me, the pacing of this and many of Altman’s movies is so slow that I stop CARING what the answer to the mystery is. The story is fairly decent—that I credit to Chandler—but the telling so grindingly annoying I just wanted it to be over. Elliott Gould, one of the main reasons I wanted to watch this as well, was also massively annoying, with all his smart-ass mumbling throughout and incessant [in the true sense of meaning without cease] smoking. And all of it points to Altman, with his insistently drawing your attention to him and poking you, saying “Aren’t I clever? Don’t you agree that this is how movies SHOULD be?” that one just starts to hate HIM.
It’s hard not to notice every woman in this film is nothing but a pretty, vacuous pawn to men, or just pretty and vacuous without a man. I suspect that this is part of the satire of Hollywood in the 70s, and the reflection on noir conventions, since some of Altman’s other films contain deep and rich female characters.
This movie was released in L.A. with a fairly conventional marketing campaign that featured Chandler and Marlowe’s names prominently, and portrayed the whole thing as a standard noir. The movie flopped, but some of the reviews they got, which understood the satiric elements, caused them to withdraw the film and revise the campaign for the New York release. This time they got an artist from Mad Magazine and portrayed the whole thing as a wacky send-up. The before and after posters are above. I feel sorry for anyone who was drawn into sitting through this thinking it was going to be wacky or funny in any way.
So there you go. Many people love this movie. Many people love Altman in general. I for one am glad I will never have to sit through this movie again as long as I live, and I’m not sure I’ll ever bother watching another Altman film.
Up to you. It won’t kill you… though it’ll damn well try.