February 3, 2010 -- This film is unusual in many respects, not all of them apparent when you watch it for the first time, but it is nevertheless a fine example of a murder mystery genre film featuring a hard-boiled wise-cracking detective. The late great Robert Altman, one of the most intuitive and experimental directors in Hollywood history, here creates a unique look with unusual in, and out-of-camera, film exposure techniques, camera movements and lens choices. Altman's penchant for free flowing improvisation and overlapping dialog are about the only tip offs that this is an Altman film.
Elliot Gould is not a name that comes to mind when you think of a classic Philip Marlowe-type detective, but here Gould plays Marlowe, one of several unusual casting choices in this film. To Gould's credit, he makes the part his own, to the extent you can't think of anyone else doing as well. Other unusual casting choices include the strong silent type Arnold Schwarzenegger as a criminal lackey, ex-major league baseball player and author Jim Boutin as Marlowe's pal Terry Lennox, rambling Sterling Hayden (“Doctor Strangelove”) as washed-up author Roger Wade, Henry Gibson (“The Blues Brothers”) as predatory psychiatrist Dr. Verringer, Danish beauty Nina Van Pallandt as Eileen Wade, Roger's wife, and an unusually talkative and uncredited David Carradine (“Bound for Glory”) as Socrates, Marlowe's cell mate.
The film begins with Marlowe being woken up in the middle of the night by his hungry cat, who later makes a quick exit when Marlowe tries to fool the cat with the wrong cat food. Lennox soon shows up, says he is in trouble and needs to get into Mexico fast. Marlowe drives him to Tijuana in his 1948 Lincoln (a Lincoln Continental Convertible Cabriolet to be exact, according to IMCDb.org) and drops him off. Lennox leaves his car in Marlowe's garage. The next day, the cops are all over Marlowe like a cheap suit. Lennox's wife has been murdered and Marlowe is suspected of helping the prime suspect to escape. Marlowe doesn't crack. He doesn't spill the beans. He ends up in cell with a motormouth nicknamed Socrates. Suddenly, the cops drop the charges and tell Marlowe that Lennox has committed suicide in some no name town in Mexico and the case is now closed. It is closed for the cops, but not for Marlowe, who doesn't believe that Lennox killed either his wife, or himself.
A small-time psychopathic gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell of “On Golden Pond”) and his goombahs show up at Marlowe's place and ransack it, looking for over $300,000 in cash that Lennox took off with. Augustine, who is less stable and more dangerous than nitroglycerine, lets Marlowe know that he will be dead very soon if he doesn't find the missing money.
Marlowe gets a call from Eileen Wade, the rich wife of famous author Roger Wade. Roger, an alcoholic wife abuser, been missing a week and she thinks he's gone to dry out. Marlowe follows a lead and quickly locates Roger, who is being held in a swank private psychiatric facility by a Doctor Verringer, who is putting the squeeze on Roger for money. After talking to both Roger and his wife, he is convinced they know something about the murder of Terry Lennox's wife. He decides to hang around the swank Wade house and find out what he can. The Wades and the Lennoxs were neighbors. He also discovers a connection between the Wades and Marty Augustine.
Those who are familiar with Raymond Chandler's writings, know there is a lot more complexity to the plot than I've mentioned so far, and that is the case with this film, even though it departs from the book in significant ways. Anyway, suffice it to say the ending is a real shocker and there are a lot of unusual developments. Elliot Gould is a treat as Marlowe. Sterling Hayden's performance is pretty much out of control, but he is fun to watch from time to time. Mark Rydell is amazing as the unhinged gangster. The scene where he orders everyone to strip naked (including Schwarzenegger, who is one of Marty Augustine's underlings) is priceless. Marty Augustine seems to be a forerunner of Tarantino-style crazed gangsters of later years. The story is a roller coaster ride.
The look of the movie is unique. On the DVD there are a couple of nice featurettes of Altman and Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond explaining how the film was made. Altman did not like the sharp and contrasty look of film shot in Southern California. Zsigmond did some experiments and found he could effectively reduce contrast by exposing the film to light after it had been exposed in the camera. This technique of “flashing” had been used in films before, but very rarely, and usually only with black and white film, not technicolor. The technique is inexpensive, but very risky because if it is not done properly, it could ruin the images on the film. It also requires precise control of exposures both in the camera and out of the camera. It requires different amounts of post-exposure flashing, depending on the light levels existing at the time of the original exposure. This is a very tricky process indeed. It will probably never be done again for a major motion picture. In addition to flashing, Zsigmond reveals there were some custom technicolor developing tricks used for this film as well.
The flashing technique results in colors that look more normal than one usually sees on film, more like pastel colors than primary colors. Contrast is reduced and there is more detail in shadows. It seems to make nighttime photography more effective, by increasing the effective speed of the film. The softer colors and lower contrast make the film look as though it were shot in soft, golden light. It gives the film a more dated look. The story seems like film noir, without the look of film noir. Telephoto lenses are used extensively and to good effect, even in the kinds of scenes where they are seldom used. Because of this, the actors were often able to work without marks and without cameras in their faces, Zsigmond said. The camera is also constantly moving in every shot, too.
Altman explains that the idea of putting Marlowe into the 1970s is a “Rip Van Marlowe” concept. It is as if Marlowe had been asleep for 20 years and just awoke in the 1970s. He goes about his business as if nothing has changed. He wears the same clothes and drives the same kind of car he might have driven in the 1950s. His morality and code of ethics are still unchanged. The story and look of the film is a strange mixture of 1940s, 1950s and 1970s. It exists in its own particular time and universe. As a result it has aged better than some of Altman's films, like “Nashville,” for instance. The look, the unconventional cast and the unconventional story make this a unique film. This is one of Altman's best. It rates an A.
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