Philip Marlowe: You ain't seen the great detective this dishevelled before
Cast: Elliott Gould (Philip Marlowe), Nina van Pallandt (Eileen Wade), Sterling Hayden (Roger Wade), Mark Rydell (Marty Augustine), Henry Gibson (Dr. Verringer), David Arkin (Harry), Jim Bouton (Terry Lennox), Ken Sansom (Colony Guard)
Philip Marlowe: The Great Gumshoe as you’ve never seen him before. Altman has taken Chandler’s original novel and re-set it into the 1970s. Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is still a private eye but a sort of eccentric Don Quixote, an ambling, mumbling oddity too noble to take on “divorce work”. After he gives his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) a lift to Mexico, he is left facing police wrath after Terry’s wife is found dead. He is cleared only when Terry is found dead in Mexico, having signed a confession. But Marlowe can’t believe his friend capable of murder – and investigates further.
Altman’s Chandler adaptation was widely criticised at the time – largely because it was completely mis-sold as a mystery detective yarn, which it certainly is not. There are no clues, the mystery is pretty vague at best and the detective hero not only does virtually no detective whatsoever, but is such a naïve soul with such a trusting 1950s style code of honour that he seems swept along by events like a broken reed in a stream. Far from the Marlowe of Bogart or Mitchum, Gould’s Marlowe was an almost wilfully uncool, awkward social misfit, whose lack of engagement with the world stemmed far more from his own lack of understanding than any cynicism.
On top of that, the film is an unusual blend of old and new. Marlowe is a scruffy man out of time, constantly smoking (no one else in the film does) and shuffling from encounter to encounter. Vital conversations happen outside of our (and Marlowe’s) hearing. The camera roams as wilfully as its lead character, rarely standing still to let us absorb the action, but constantly offering us a series of subjective angles. Like much of Altman’s work, the naturalistic sound recording lets dialogue overlap and clash. The entire soundtrack is a riff on the themes in the title song, the music popping up throughout like pleasant musak. Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography is both an inversion of film noir with its California brightness and (through a technique of deliberate overexposure called ‘flashing’) a sepia infected look at the 1970s that draws a link back to the source material’s 1940s origins.
But the tone of the movie is the most unusual thing: a strangely addictive hipsterish take on Marlowe, in which the majority of other characters are as shallow and self-obsessed as you would expect of the 1970s: aside from Marlowe, the only character who seems to apologise or keep to his word at any point is the film’s least sympathetic and most violent character. The eventual killer reacts to being confronted with his crime with a blasé self-entitlement. Across the apartment from Marlowe’s bizarre old-school Hollywood apartment block, a commune of hippie ladies exercise topless outside at all hours; everywhere you turn there are clashes between the old and the new.
The film’s opening immediately establishes what the film is going to be like, and is also one of the best sequences in the film: a quiet, gently paced quest Marlowe undertakes to find cat-food in the middle of the night and his inability to persuade said cat to eat the “wrong” brand of food that he brings back home. This secluded existence is only broken by the arrival of Terry Lennox, who immediately beats Marlowe at a bet on the number of 7s in the serial number on a $10 bill (which he wins despite Marlowe having the higher number of 7s, as he successfully lures Marlowe into an incorrect challenge). It’s a wonderful summation of the film’s plot, as well as a series of clear insights into Marlowe’s personality: a man out of time easily manipulated by those around him, who can’t fool a cat or win a bet with the best hand.
Gould’s performance is absolutely central to the mood and tone of the film. His Marlowe is a counterpoint to the hard-bitten detectives of film noir. Instead, he is a scruffy mumbler, whose continual, conversational patter throughout the film feels more like a commentary he is running for his own amusement than any attempt to communicate with the world around him. Gould’s charm and otherworldly quality basically is the film: he’s hardly off screen and he “sets the tone”: the film’s ambling, slightly confused glances at the modern world, where dialogue and motives are both equally unclear, exactly match the beats of Gould’s interpretation of the character. It’s a perfect performance for the film, a sly gag that also has heart and character.
The film’s off beat tone and lackadaisical attitude are punctured at several moments by astonishingly sudden upturns in tempo, and scenes that sizzle with the threat of (or actual) violence. These moments are linked to Mark Rydell’s brilliant performance as fast-talking Marty Augustine, a man whose actions are totally unpredictable. He is responsible for the film’s only real act of violence – but it’s a striking moment of brutality that no-one sees coming (least of all the other characters, on whose shocked faces and stunned silence the camera lingers).
Rydell’s exceptional performance is the stand out supporting one here, but there is also some very good work from Nina van Pallandt as a woman who is part vulnerable wife, part femme fatale, and whose emotional state and motivations constantly seem to shift and change (at a pace the audience barely keeps up with, let alone poor Marlowe). Sterling Hayden’s Hemingway-esque author is one of those primal force-of-nature performances that can grate, but it works in a film where so many of the other characters are restrained.
The film is an absorbing character study, and at the same time a sly commentary on both the 1970s, the source material and film itself: Gould’s Marlowe at points seems to be pushing on the wall of self-awareness (most notably in a hospital scene late in the film, a masterpiece of misdirection): later, Third Man style, he walks past another character without offering a beat of recognition, before (as the credits roll) he inexplicably starts dancing down a boulevard, the camera watching him in long shot. Hooray for Hollywood (the only other music in the film) bookends the film.
It’s a fascinating and highly enjoyable film with a series of striking scenes and character moments that capture the attention and imagination. It’s a film that needs, however, a certain expectation going into it. Don’t expect a detective story, don’t expect detection even, but instead a unique merging of comedy, social commentary, satire and drama powered by an almost wilfully off-hand lead performance. It’s the sort of unique concoction only Altman could have made. There isn’t really anything else like it.