Long established as a major achievement from Robert Altman’s early ‘70s hot streak (rightly so), it’s easy to forget the initial resentment generated by this smartly reimagined Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe deconstruction. (United Artists rushed in a larky second ad campaign from MAD Magazine’s Jack Davis to reposition the film; note our schizophrenic posters.) Whatever was the problem? A considerable step up from the last MARLOWE pic (James Garner/’69); traditionalists got a decent Robert Mitchum take from FAREWELL, MY LOVELY/’75. But this New Age California Marlowe offered a much needed jolt, often comic, but never stooping to guy the material, in Leigh Brackett’s screenplay. (After four scripts for Howard Hawks, including THE BIG SLEEP/’46, she’d next work on STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK/’80.)
Brackett plays the stories & characters very close to the vest before pulling the strands together (Marlowe helps a pal ‘disappear’ just as some stolen loot & a murder rap come to call), so the opening reels play out in the same California haze so atmospherically caught by Vilmos Zsigmond in his squint-your-eyes,‘flashed negative’ lensing. With the exception of Sterling Hayden’s Hemingwayesque writer, Altman casts the film, to striking success, with a series of unlikely dares. Elliot Gould, always at his best for Altman, effortlessly wears Marlowe’s ironic sadism (though his spiffy vintage car was a bad call) while the real-life notoriety of Nina van Pallandt comes thru as the lying femme fatale. Baseball’s Jim Bouton, LAUGH-IN’s Henry Gibson, and that mediocre director Mark Rydell as a vicious hood, all manage to freshen murder-mystery archetypes. Plus, a bonus in a bulked up, very young Arnold Schwarzenegger eager to strip down. Not everything works here, Altman doesn’t have the technical chops to run a tricky set piece where Gould, on foot in the streets of L.A., chases after a car. But there are many more hits than misses in this site specific, tone specific, era specific effort that busts open and honors its well-worn genre.
DOUBLE-BILL: After much wandering, Altman returned to form putting Chandleresque tropes inside the movie biz on THE PLAYER/’92, though Michael Tolkin’s cynical script hasn’t aged as well as Brackett’s.