I was in line for a screening of something or other at the the Los Angeles County Museum theatre, way back in the good old rickety days when Ron Haver was running the film series. And some people were praising Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye (’73), a revisionist Phillip Marlowe flick with Elliott Gould, and I was joining in and saying “yeah, I love it…it understands the ’70s and the way things are now.”
And suddenly there was some snarly old guy putting the Altman film down for being an unfocused mess and saying it denigrated the classic hard-boiled chops of Raymond Chandler‘s Marlowe books, and saying that Howard Hawks‘ The Big Sleep (’46) was ten times better in this regard…a tougher, snazzier detective film with saucy writing and the right kind of noirish overlay.
I remember saying to myself “jeez, don’t ever become that guy when you get older…resentful of new attitudes and new ways of telling stories…don’t ever become the cranky guy who always says ‘the older films were better and the newer films suck.’ Always try to understand and appreciate the newer stuff. Or at the very least, don’t close yourself off to whatever’s new and developing. Keep an open mind.”
Here’s the problem: ’40s detective films had a certain proficiency and ’70s revisionist films (satires or whatever) had a certain attitude or flavor, but the films of right now don’t seem to have a great deal of flavor or conviction or anything…they don’t seem to stand up to the ’40s and the ’70s, quality- or intrigue-wise. I don’t know what’s going on now, but it doesn’t feel like much. Maybe things will change when theatres open up again, and maybe they won’t. Maybe we can’t go home again and it’s all streaming from here on.
Now I’m wondering if I’ve become that snarly LACMA guy.
But you know something? The Big Sleep was a better Phillip Marlowe film than Altman’s The Long Goodbye, even if Altman’s film was a richer, more ambitious film across the board.
Altman obviously wasn’t into the classic Marlowe brand…the romance and machismo and crusty attitudes. He was mainly using an old Chandler book to explore the way things were in mid ’70s Los Angeles, and making sardonic fun of the culture and how things seemed to be percolating at the time…Gould buying cat food at 3 am, cruising around town in a 1948 Lincoln Continental, Marty Augustine living in Trousedale Estates and “juicing guys so I can juice the guys I gotta juice,” hippie yoga chicks dipping candles, etc.
I’m basically saying that both films have aged fairly well, and that the old cranky guy wasn’t totally full of shit.