“Let me tell you something else. It’s a minor crime, to kill your wife. The major crime is that he stole my money. Your friend stole my money, and the penalty for that is capital punishment.”
When Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice came out, a few movies kept popping up in reviews, The Big Lebowski, and two film adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s super sleuth, Philip Marlow, The Big Sleep and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Now, I was a teenager in the 90s, so I’ve seen The Big Lebowski. A lot. And a few years ago, I went through a Bogart phase, catching The Big Sleep. But The Long Goodbye had until now passed me by. And it’s one of those late discoveries that makes me angry that it’s taken me so long to catch up with it, while at the same time also being stoked to have had this awesome discovery be so fresh and new.
Philip Marlow (Elliot Gould) is a 40s noir gumshoe archetype, living in 70s LA. When a friend (Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox ) asks him for a lift south of the border, down Mexico way, Marlow is more than happy to help. But once home, he’s immediately arrested. It turns out that Terry’s wife is dead, Terry is the prime suspect, and Marlow is in the clink charged with conspiracy. Once Terry is found dead of an apparent suicide, it should be back to normal for Marlow. But he’s not convinced it’s as cut and dry as all that.
The plot thickens when he’s hired by socialite Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her eccentric author husband, (Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade). Not only is her story obviously a half truth, it turns out the Wade’s were neighbours and acquaintances of the Lennoxes. Add to that local gangster, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who decides the debt owed to him by Lennox is now Marlow’s, and that’s a lot of balls in the air. Which is kind of the point.
It’s also what made me understand the connection between The Long Goodbye, The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski in so many reviews for the Inherent Vice. These are stories where the central private dick character is gasping for air as they get more and more smothered by every aspect of their increasingly complex cases. So how better to make the audience feel that, than to overwhelm them as well?
Robert Altman loves an ensemble piece, full of seemingly disconnected stories, until they become ultimately connected in some satisfying way with a big reveal in the last act. Here, it’s kind of the opposite. The stories are clearly connected from the get go, but it’s up to Marlow and the audience to figure out how. It’s also clear, like in The Bigs (Sleep and Lebowski), that we shouldn’t expect every loose end to be tied up. There’ll always be some mystery or ambiguity long after the end credits have rolled.
Elliot Gould makes a surprisingly effective cool as ice badass. He somehow portrays unflappable confidence on the outside at all times, while you know that on the inside, the wheels are frantically spinning, trying to figure out how to stay alive long enough to get to the bottom of everything. Seeing The Long Goodbye made me like Inherent Vice even more in hindsight. The combination of The Long Goodbye’s darkness and The Big Lewbowski’s shaggy dog sensibilities in Inherent Vice seem somehow more impressive with the context of Altman’s film.