I decided today to get into Robert Altman after realising I’d only seen McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Popeye by him. So I looked to see which films I had access to and this was the oldest film I could find by him.
Probably a bad start as I absolutely adored this movie, like loved it beyond all reasonable measure. I’m familiar with Marlowe as a character but only as played by Bogart and I never really got a feel for the character largely due to Bogart’s own personality sort of absorbing the role. Whilst Elliot Gould isn’t a direct match for the print Marlowe he feels a lot more authentic within the confines of this movie. He feels both a man completely out of time, he’s far more amiable and moral than any of the other characters, and also completely of his time, and how snarky and amiably disruptive he is. He’s essentially got the morality of a man from the 40s with the mischievous spirit of a counter-culture hero and it works perfectly.
I kind of love how brow-beaten Gould plays Marlowe, like life is just sort of collapsing in in him and it gives a nice through line to the various set-pieces and encounters which have a multitude of tones from the comic to the suddenly violent. Having Marlowe as essentially a straight man to the more offbeat and oddball supporting cast is just inspired because it anchors the film and sort of reinforces the notion of Marlowe as a permanent outsider.
I’m not a fan of John Williams but I love what he does with the score in this, just using the singular refrain and re-appropriating it throughout the film from radio-songs, to shopping muzak, to hippie chanting, to a mariachi band. It gives the film a sense of balance and stability and it allows the different off-kilter set-pieces to retain a sense of thematic cohesion. The film is full of so many great moments, but I kind of love the opening ten minutes as Marlowe sort of talks to his cat and goes out to get food. It’s a perfect microcosm of the film, presenting our amiable hero, the shifting style of the film, and introducing one of the major players and plot points.
It’s kind of amazing seeing Altman just completely control the tone of the film, balancing the general kooky field of the majority of Marlowe’s encounters with punctuated violence which reminds you that this really isn’t Marlowe’s world anymore and it all leads up to the final confrontation which is just shocking, largely because it’s the first time we really see Marlowe being proactive rather than reacting to a situation.
This is definitely going to become a personal favourite and it’s making me want to go back and start watching some of the more traditional film noir.