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this is the largest police car I've ever seen - it's like a gold chariot
on 11 July 2017
The whole tone of this film is pretty crazy, which is much better than any other Altman could have adopted; in fact, it's not so far from MASH, or the kind of playful quality you get in John Cassavetes films. You can imagine Peter Falk walking into the frame at any moment and the semi-comic banter just carrying on ... Instead it's Elliott Gould, of course, as Philip Marlowe, played with a sexiness right from the first shots of him recumbent on his bed, abundant curls playing around his head in the lamplight. He then gets up to feed his cat in an extended riff focusing on the fussiness of the pet, which will only eat a certain brand. Marlowe, so in control in the original Big Sleep, so cool (if, for me, profoundly uninvolving), here has a freewheeling charm, is unflappable, frankly groping, but unfazed, even by three nights spent in police custody for no good reason. He just ambles through it, with a hint of the breeze. The story is quite a bleak one, were it not for the absurdity that frequently shows up. Marlowe is trying initially to find the writer husband of a glamorous wife, then the former walks into the sea and he makes connections between the wife and another man, who seems to have committed suicide in Mexico, having killed his wife.
In the end, it isn't so hard to follow, which is a relief after The Big Sleep. The ironic posture - this is a film noir played for laughs, but not so obviously that it loses its shine - is continually fascinating. Mark Rydell pops up as a gangster, at one point very violent, even if briefly, which I hated, but the consequences don't seem as bad as you might have feared. He is totally cracked, and suggests in one scene that they all strip for the sake of greater honesty. It also means that there is something to balance out the picture of Marlowe's neighbours, a group of girls hanging out on their balcony topless. It could hardly be more 70s. Anyway they do start to strip, one of them being Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has a non-speaking part, but is wearing a superb pair of underpants on his very buff body, that looks like a girdle. All this is revealed quite casually, picked up on by a later scene where we see Marlowe emerge from a hospital bed in the same style of underwear. It is typical of the consistent look that Altman achieves here, which extends also to the music. What a beautiful song The Long Goodbye is - heard in innumerable versions throughout the film to reflect changes in mood. There is beauty everywhere here, including the Mexican landscape which we see as the Mexican police car rolls through it ... everything is kept in motion, apparently to give the sense of the viewer being a voyeur. Whatever, I think we should have had more shots of Arnie, in his absolute prime ... and Gould also ... what style, what gentle unflappability - a character transformed! It seems incredible that the film didn't do that well on first release, it looks so extraordinary now.