Friday, September 28, 2007

The Long Goodbye

Long Goodbye posterPrivate Eye Philip Marlowe is woken in the small hours by his hungry cat at the opening of Robert Altman's neo-noir The Long Goodbye. He tries to fix him something to eat, but the cat will have nothing but his preferred brand of food. Marlowe stumbles out to the all-night supermarket, taking an order for brownie mix from the hippie girls who live next door, but the store is all out of Coury-brand catfood. He buys another brand and tries to fool the cat by spooning it into an empty Coury-brand can. Unfooled, the cat slips away and out of Marlowe's life through a catflap marked "el porto del gato." The pet is, it seems, some kind of Anglo-Hispanic hybrid.

This scene is intercut with shots of a guy in a sportscar, curious cuts to his face and bruised knuckles, heading out of an exclusive Malibu enclave. It turns out he's making his way to his old friend Phil's: Terry Lennox has a favor to ask; can Marlowe drive him down to Tijuana? They jump in the car and Marlowe drops Lennox at the border. "You take care of yourself," Marlowe says. "Don't worry about me," Lennox replies. "Hey, vaya con Dios, huh?" he adds before himself slipping away and also out of Marlowe's life.

For the next we know, Terry is dead, an apparent suicide in a small Mexican town somewhere to the South. His death seems to clear up a mystery: who killed Lennox's wife that night that he called in on Marlowe to help him across the border. But it opens up a new question: what happened to the suitcase full of money ($355,000 in all) that a bunch of LA hoods had charged Lennox with couriering down to Mexico City?

Marlowe doesn't believe that Lennox killed either his wife or himself. Nor does he have much clue as to the location of the money, though the hoods soon turn up on his doorstep convinced that he does. Adding to the confusion, a woman from the same Malibu community wants someone to track down her husband, Roger Wade, an alcoholic blocked writer who has also disappeared.

Fast forward. Wade returns but only to drown himself in the Pacific surf after yet another argument with his wife Eileen. Soft on Marlowe, it seems, Eileen suggests that it was Roger who had done away with Mrs Lennox. The gangsters turn the screws in their efforts to recover their mislaid cash, but the money shows up just in time to save our hero from yet another loss, as a knife-wielding side-kick is about to cut off his private dick. On the street outside, Eileen Wade doesn't want to stop her convertible long enough to talk. And it turns out she's moved out of her beach house in something of a hurry.

Long Goodbye still
Everyone, the police, the hoods, even the widow, is now happy that things are resolved. Everyone but Marlowe. And to find the truth he sets out again for Mexico... where he indeed discovers his old pal Terry, swinging in a hammock and apparently unconcerned about the trouble Marlowe had undergone while defending his good name back in LA. And Marlowe decides that he has had enough of such fair-weather friends.

At the time this film came out, Nina Van Pallandt, the Danish actress who plays Eileen Wade, was best known as the mistress of infamous hoaxster Clifford Irving. Irving, like Roger Wade something of a failed writer, had forged Howard Hughes's autobiography. And once the hoax started to unravel, it was Van Pallandt who "drove the nail in his credibility coffin by insisting that Irving had been vacationing in Mexico with her at the time he was supposedly picking Hughes' brains". So in life as in filmic fiction, a trip to Mexico proves to be a fraudster's undoing.

As with the cat slipping through his "porto del gato," the fantasy of losing oneself in Latin America, disappearing, hiding out, faking or actually committing suicide, is a constant temptation for those who live the North. It's as though the region offered a succession of dead-ends, false finishes, hidden refuges. The dramatic ending to The Long Goodbye suggests, however, that such farewells can only be postponed; they drag out, but in the end even in Mexico a sort of justice can be done.

YouTube Link: the movie trailer.

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