“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Flick Lit # 131: The Long Goodbye

“The realist in murder,” wrote Raymond Chandler (right) in 1950, “writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities . . . It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.” Originally a man of action in taut, streamlined plots in novels such as The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Long Goodbye (1953) finds PI Philip Marlowe ruminating at length on the relevance of his attitude and philosophy. Plot had never been Chandler’s strength but in The Long Goodbye the plot becomes a rambling, shambolic paean to the tattered grandeur of a man out of time, whose idiosyncratic sense of morality has outlived its usefulness and relevance. Marlowe’s code of honour had always cherished truth and loyalty above all other traits; called upon to help a friend, Terry Lennox, to escape a tricky situation, Marlowe offers his support unquestioningly. When Lennox commits suicide in Mexico, the consequences plunges Marlowe into a complex tale of double-cross and triple-cross; but where the earlier Marlowe would have cut through the bluff with some snappy dialogue and a back-hander to the face, the Marlowe of The Long Goodbye appears hamstrung by a growing realisation of his own ineffectiveness at imposing justice on the mean streets. Bitter and confused, with his precious code of behaviour tarnished, Marlowe retreats to contemplate his own demise, and by extension that of the traditional literary private eye. Abhorred on its release by Chandler purists, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) simply spun the writer’s theme out to its logical conclusion. As played by Elliott Gould, Marlowe is a spaced-out social casualty who is incapable of discovering his cat’s favourite brand of tinned food. The detective’s philosophy, attitude and loyalty have become bad jokes in a Los Angeles where corruption is so endemic as to be irresistible; but while Chandler’s Marlowe was at least aware of his irrelevance, Altman’s Marlowe is reduced to a blinkered, bumbling patsy in Terry Lennox’s great scam. Where Chandler’s novel can be read as the tale of a writer trying to make sense of a mid-life crisis, Altman’s movie cocks a snook not only at the then outmoded genre of the private eye movie, but also mercilessly skewers the pretensions of a bloated, self-important movie industry that was sleepwalking towards the abyss. If the Marlowe of old had raged against an LA that was too often heartless, the new Marlowe can only shrug at an LA that has become spineless, gutless and bloodless. “In Altman’s world,” claims Kevin Hagopian, “every citizen is an inmate, and society is only a way to multiply the psychological infirmities and pathologies of its members.” In The Long Goodbye, LA plays the same role as the military hospital as lunatic asylum in MASH (1970), country-and-western’s ‘lawless frontier’ of 1975’s Nashville, and the deranged Wild West tent show of Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). As Altman’s film unfolds, the impression created is that of Marlowe wandering the grounds of a madhouse and peering enviously through the windows. What the Chandler purists objected to most strongly, however, was Altman’s finale. When Marlowe discovers Terry Lennox’s treachery, he pulls a gun on his erstwhile friend and – in a total perversion of Marlowe’s precious code of honour – shoots Lennox dead; in a long, lingering shot, as Marlowe walks away, a tinny version of Hooray for Hollywood gathers strength on the soundtrack. The facile gesture was, for Altman, a mercy shot to conclude the process Chandler had begun; the logical, final nail in the coffin of a code that had long since outlived its relevance.- Michael McGowan

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