By Steven Goldman
“There’s a body on the railing
That I can’t identify
And I’d like to reassure you
But I’m not that kind of guy.”
—Robyn Hitchcock, “Raymond Chandler Evening,” 1986.
At the conclusion of John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) turns the woman he has come to love (Mary Astor) over to the police for murdering his partner. She refuses to believe he’ll betray her, asking, “How can you do this to me, Sam?” He responds:
You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once and give it up… When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere… I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over, but that’ll pass… I won’t [let you go] because all of me wants to, regardless of consequences.
Spade is giving voice to the ethos of the hardboiled detective, the uncorrupted man who patrols the margins of a fallen world. The genre, which Hammett and Raymond Chandler helped found, would prove to be enduringly popular. They transformed the effete sleuths of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers’ drawing rooms into the tough shamuses of the alleyways. The crimes their characters investigated were not unrealistic locked-room murders but the basic, impulsive cruelties that human beings commit out of greed, anger, and corruption. In other words, they embraced realism in all its uncompromising sordidness. As Chandler, whose own signature detective Philip Marlowe would be embodied by Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), wrote in his 1950 exegesis of the detective story, “The Simple Art of Murder,”
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
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.
The problem is that the definition of realism—and sordidness—is always changing as we uncover new layers of perversity. Chandler wrote that the successful detective story did not merely surrender to reality:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption… Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.
Within a quarter of a century of Chandler writing these words, this great cynic would seem naïve. It wasn’t his concept of the detective that dated, but the idea that the man of honor could defeat evil, or even contain it.
From the time of The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe not only solves the crime (mostly; neither Chandler nor the filmmakers knew who committed one of the murders) but gets the girl to the revision of the genre that came with The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), and Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975), a great deal had changed. The American Century that had supposedly begun with the successful prosecution of the Second World War and the United States’ monopoly on the atomic bomb had quickly unraveled. It is difficult to overstate the nation’s confidence in the immediate postwar period, with the economy surging, the Baby Boom bringing a burst of youth and optimism, and pristine towns and cities when a good chunk of the world had been bombed into rubble. During a September 1945 conference with Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov protested his opposite number’s inflexibility saying the American negotiated as if he had, “an atomic bomb in his side pocket.” Byrnes replied that that was indeed the case, and, “If you don’t cut out all this stalling and let us get down to work, I’m going to pull an atomic bomb out of my hip pocket and let you have it.”
By 1949, the Russians had the bomb, and the difficulties mounted with accelerating speed as the 1950s and ‘60s passed. By the 1970s, every confidence had been eroded. As the ‘60s closed, the most shattering items were the ongoing Vietnam War and the Kennedy and King assassinations, but the first years of the new decade offered little respite. In the years immediately preceding and including the release of the aforementioned trio of films, the national mood was tobogganing into the abyss. The war continued, joined by Watergate, the greatest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War. Mixed in were the Kent State massacre; the Attica uprising and resultant slaughter; the trials of Lt. William Calley and Charles Manson; the Boston bussing riots; serial bombings by the Weathermen and other domestic terrorists; the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the government’s ongoing deceptions regarding the war; the revelation that the FBI and CIA had engaged in illegal surveillance of American citizens; the first OPEC oil embargo, producing shortages and long lines at gas stations; and runaway inflation and unemployment. Also, the Beatles broke up, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison died, and disco rose to the top of the charts. This list is by no means inclusive of the misery that kicked off the Have a Nice Day! decade. In 1972, when the radical professor Angela Davis was acquitted of murdering a judge, she was asked if she felt she had received a fair trial. “The very fact of an acquittal,” she said, meant, “there had been no fair trail, because a fair trial would have been no trial at all.”
That was the 1970s: It would have been fairer to have skipped the whole thing.
Given the mood, it’s unsurprising that a certain atmosphere started to manifest itself at the movies. There was a great deal of nostalgia, whether for the 1930s, such as with Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973), The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973), Dillinger (John Milius, 1973), and Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974), or the more innocent phase of the 1960s, as with American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973). Simultaneously, there was the rise of the “paranoid thriller” with films like Executive Action (David Miller, 1973), The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), and Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975).
A handful of films tried to straddle the difference, creating the paranoid nostalgic detective film, and it is to this peculiar genre that The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, and Night Moves belong. They subvert Chandler’s prerequisite for a successful story. These deeply cynical films say there is no possibility of redemption, the man who is neither mean nor afraid is a fool and honor has no value. The famous last line of Polanski’s film (the ending he insisted upon over screenwriter Robert Towne’s ending, the ending of a Holocaust survivor), spoken to the hero after his journey of 130 minutes has ended in tragedy and disillusionment, is, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Chinatown here stands in for an open-ended list of other places. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Los Angeles” or “Forget it, Jake. It’s everywhere.”
At first, the movie-going public wasn’t quite ready to reconsider whether the mean streets might triumph over the man of honor. The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of Chandler’s novel of the same name, was initially to be filmed by Peter Bogdanovich, who envisioned Marlowe portrayed by Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum—in other words, a traditional take. Altman preferred his MASH star Elliott Gould. He and scriptwriter Leigh Brackett, who had been one of the writers (along with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman) of Hawks’ Big Sleep, conceived of Marlowe as an anachronism, a Rip Van Winkle awakening into ‘70s Los Angeles. The offbeat casting of Gould added to the viewer’s sense of dislocation. As Gould later told Mitchell Zuckoff for his biography of Altman, “I love Robert Mitchum and I love Lee Marvin, and I couldn’t argue with them. But you’ve seen them and you haven’t seen me.”
Indeed, Gould’s Marlowe had never been seen before, but only because the character had never been placed in such high contrast to his surroundings. This Marlowe is as insouciant as Bogart’s, although his quips aren’t nearly as polished, but unlike Bogart’s version thinks he’s still the first-person narrator in Chandler’s novel; whenever Gould doesn’t have another character to talk to, he talks to himself. Sometimes even when he does have another character to talk to he talks to himself. The effect is not unlike that of the original Fleischer Popeye cartoon series, where William Costello’s mumbling vocalizations comprise a stream of consciousness that doesn’t necessarily match the action on the screen.
In a story only loosely based on Chandler’s novel and set in the then-present day, Marlowe is confronted by three concurrent mysteries. His friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton, the erstwhile 21-game winner for the 1963 New York Yankees) has supposedly murdered his wife and committed suicide after absconding to Mexico. Marlowe doesn’t believe he was the murderer. Simultaneously, he is engaged by Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her missing husband, the eccentric, alcoholic novelist Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden, going big). Finally, brutal mobster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) thinks Marlowe knows the location of the $350,000 of his money Lennox was carrying and demands he return it or face a fatal reprisal.
Looming over all of the above is the problem of Marlowe’s cat, who has absconded after Marlowe is unable to furnish his or her preferred brand of canned food. As the mysteries unfold, overlap, and cohere (at least to an extent), Marlowe finds that even his ostensible friends can’t be trusted, not even the cat, and that rather than being the investigator, the protagonist, of these mysteries, he is merely a puppet on someone else’s string.
Neither Gould nor Altman play Marlowe for comedy, but let the film’s settings and situations emphasize the absurdity of the character’s conception; a detective who dealt in the dirty business of the underworld but remained above it would have to be so out of synch with the world around him that his level of detachment would border on the surreal. Finally, the film forces Marlowe to recognize the impossibility of his position and he rejects the limits his creator placed on him. This leads to a jarring final note, especially for devotees of the character, while opening the door to a world in which detective fiction can serve not only as escapism but can cope with the world as we experience it.
Having taken these liberties, The Long Goodbye deeply offended some viewers, who were wedded to Marlowe as Chandler had written him. Time called it “a travesty” of “Chandler’s superb novel about honor and friendship, two subjects among a great many that Robert Altman cannot bring himself to take seriously… It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire.” Charles Champlin, in a Los Angeles Times review titled, “A Private Eye’s Honor Blackened,” wrote that the film’s Marlowe, “is an untidy dimwit who could not locate a missing skyscraper and who would be refused service at a hot dog stand. He is not Chandler’s Marlowe or mine… Brackett and Altman… deny almost everything that was honorable about Marlowe.”
Champlin continued, “Altman may be suggesting that the realities about private eyes and their world are more sordid and scruffy than Chandler cared to admit. Maybe… but without any real conflict between good and evil, no urgent presumptions that right and wrong exist,” all that is left, “is a cynical insistence that nothing has value.” In other words, black and white moralism dies hard; the critic saw the point, but rejected it.
Audiences rejected it, too, in part because United Artists didn’t know how to market the film. Originally advertised as a straight Chandler adaptation along the Bogart lines, the film was withdrawn and reissued with a new campaign featuring art by Mad caricaturist Jack Davis, suggesting it was a broad comedy. Both campaigns were dramatically misleading and it took the passage of years and critical reassessment for the film to gain anything like appreciation.
It seems doubtful that Goodbye softened up audiences for another crack at the same material, but when Chinatown came along 15 months later the reception was more welcoming despite the film’s subject matter being far darker. Goodbye tanked at the box office and received no major awards; Chinatown was number one at the box office for five weeks and received 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won a Best Original Screenplay statuette for Robert Towne.
Towne’s detective, J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is native to the film rather than a Hammett or Chandler creation, but he’s in the same ballpark, a former police investigator now in private practice; though his firm is in the uncomfortable business of revealing marital infidelity, Gittes is defiantly insistent that he makes “an honest living.” Unlike The Long Goodbye, Chinatown is a period piece, set in 1937 Los Angeles. Still, just as Altman signaled his Chandler was well out of Production Code country by making early and frequent recourse to Marlowe’s neighbors, a colony of young women who seemingly practice nude yoga on their balcony 24 hours a day, Polanski fades in on photos of the wife of one of Gittes’ clients caught in the act of extramarital copulation.
In a plot that would have been impossible for Bogart to tackle under the restrictions of his day (The Big Sleep, for example, cannot fully admit that the blackmail case that sets the story in motion involves pornography), a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband Hollis, the head of the city Department of Water and Power. After learning that Hollis is refusing to build a new dam, fearing a repeat of a previous dam failure that resulted in many fatalities, he photographs him in an embrace with a young woman who he assumes to be the man’s mistress. When the pictures are published, he is confronted by a second woman (Faye Dunaway) who he has never seen before. She reveals herself to be the actual Mrs. Mulwray. Gittes has been set up, a problem that gains further urgency when Hollis is found dead, apparently having drowned in one of his own reservoirs. Investigating Hollis further, Gittes learns that he was once partners with his wife’s estranged father, Noah Cross (John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon, and excellent). The two virtually created Los Angeles by transferring water from rural agricultural areas to the city, whose growth would otherwise have been limited by its arid environment, then had a falling out.
From this beginning, Gittes uncovers a level of corruption so deep and cancerous that he can barely comprehend its dimensions. Asked at one point if someone is honest, he remarks that he is, to a point: “He has to swim in the same water we all do.” As it turns out, the water is, literally and figuratively, more compromised than Gittes realized. When Bogart turns Mary Astor over to the police at the end of Falcon, he wears a look of deep disgust but recovers rapidly enough to deliver the film’s famous line observing that the titular sculpture “is the stuff that dreams are made of.” At the conclusion of Chinatown, Nicholson is overcome by a revulsion so deep that he is shocked into a childlike state and must be led away by the hand. He gets no last line, though he tries to articulate one and fails.
Late in the film, Gittes asks Cross to explain his rationale for an elaborate money-making scheme. “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” Cross answers, “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!” This is simultaneously a non-sequitur and an honest answer. Cancer doesn’t know why it must devour healthy tissue, it just does, and its mindless determination makes it incredibly hard to check. Gittes, Marlowe’s man of honor, finds he is not up to the task. A code will not stop cancer, only excision, if excision is even possible. Gittes isn’t as glaringly out of place as Gould’s Marlowe because he’s a 1930s character in a 1930s setting, but he’s no less of an anachronism. Midway through the film, he tells Evelyn that he left policework because of a mistake: “I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure that she was hurt.” This is a rejection of Chandler’s “quality of redemption.” Gittes is not destined to make up for his mistake, but to repeat it. Were the film as true to its origins as critics demanded Altman’s film be, it would never have been capable of that degree of nihilism.
Night Moves attracts neither the critical scrutiny The Long Goodbye receives for being part of Altman’s catalogue nor the adulation that greeted Chinatown from the moment of its debut, though it did have an important director in Arthur Penn, who had helped usher movies into a new age of maturity with Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Whereas that film broke new ground, Night Moves explores territory already explored by Brackett, Altman, Towne, and Polanski, but with perhaps even greater nihilism. Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a former NFL star now working as a private detective. His wife Ellen (Susan Clark), a dealer in Mexican antiquities, is unfaithful but would be willing to abandon the affair if Harry would stop pursuing small-time cases of marital infidelity and join the large private investigations company run by their friend, Nick (Kenny Mars), another Mexican art aficionado. This impasse is interrupted when former movie starlet Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) hires Moseby to find her missing teenage daughter, Delly (Melanie Griffith in her first credited role).
Delly has fallen in with her stepfather Tom (John Iverson), a movie stuntman, and has followed him to the Florida Keys. Moseby tracks them there and learns that Tom is using his experience flying small planes in the movies to indulge in some kind of smuggling operation in the Gulf and that he and Delly are sleeping together. Tom begs Moseby to take her back to California. “I want that kid the hell out of here. You see, I… I get pretty foolish with her, and… Well, you’ve seen her. God, there ought to be a law!”
“There is,” Harry replies. This exchange encapsulates the critique of 1970s society inherent in all three films. There is a law, but a law that no longer acts as a restraint on anyone’s behavior might as well not exist.
As with Marlowe and Gittes, Moseby gets a good way towards unraveling the conspiracy at the heart of the story, but achieving justice proves to be a much different matter. Not only is a key thread of the smuggling operation left untouched and at least one murderer left unpunished, but Moseby is unable to prevent additional killings. In an ambiguous ending which borders dangerously close to incoherence, Moseby is left alone in open waters, wounded and bleeding, on a boat that is steaming in circles. He is in nearly full knowledge of the crimes he intended to uncover (the ubiquity of Mexican artifacts suggest that Harry’s world is more compromised than even he realizes, but the film doesn’t even gesture towards concluding this aspect of the story), but whether he will psychically or even physically survive to act on that knowledge is uncertain as the picture fades to black.
All three films use foreshadowing to telegraph that their resolutions will not satisfy in the traditional sense. The Long Goodbye features a security guard who likes to do impressions as a recurring character. Early in the film, he asks Bouton if he can do his Barbara Stanwyck and launches into what seems to be a line from Double Indemnity (a film written by Chandler): “I don’t understand. I don’t understand it at all. I’ve never understood it, Walter. I just don’t understand why I don’t understand it all.” Bouton responds, “Okay, just remember that and you’ll be all right.” In Chinatown, Huston’s Noah Cross states the idea directly to Gittes when they first meet: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” he says, “but believe me, you don’t.” Night Moves’ title is a play on knight moves; when Moseby is on a stakeout, he works on chess problems, a habit borrowed from the Marlowe of Chandler’s novels. Demonstrating a famous closing, he says the loser of the match could have escaped the trap if he had made a different move with his knight, “but he didn’t see it. He played something else and lost. He must have regretted it every day of his life. I know I would have.”
Moseby is the knight in question here, simultaneously both player and piece. Marlowe and Gittes are also knights of a kind. All think they are sophisticates who have seen everything that’s dirty in the world, but are quickly revealed to be far out of their depths, with their sense of fair play weighing them down and blinding them to the pervasive danger around them. All three men are affable, particularly Moseby, and that quality too proves to be a weakness.
Early in Night Moves, Moseby’s wife comes upon him watching a football game and asks him who is winning. “Nobody,” he says. “One side is just losing slower than the other.” This is yet another crystallization of the mood of the times. No one wins a Vietnam War or a Watergate, not really, and from Calley to Nixon the guilty aren’t punished. In his 1975 song ”Hurricane,” about the murder conviction of boxer Rubin Carter, Bob Dylan sang he was, “ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game.” It was the tenor of the times.
This sense of preordained disappointment proved so hard to shake that though neo-noir films continue to be made, aside from a few passing attempts (an aging Robert Mitchum ultimately got a couple of cracks at playing Marlowe) the unstained protector on the soiled streets has never recovered the standing he had before these films. Films made with the Hammett-Chandler model in mind are more likely to subject the idea to mockery, as the Coen Brothers did with The Big Lebowski (1998). The Dude is Marlowe, just more inept than Gittes, more dissipated than Gould.
It’s a sad thing when a kind of American original falls into such disrepute that the only thing to do is laugh at it. Perhaps we have grown too cynical, but it is also fair to say that we have matured to the point that we no longer believe people to be incorruptible. This is a sad but necessary passage into adulthood and these three films abetted that awakening. It remains for us to find a new standard of heroism with which to replace Marlowe and his ilk.