Bright Lights Film Journal

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello: The Long Goodbye and the End of the Crime (and Competition) in American Detective Films

“While Altman’s description of the detective and his generic milieu as it evolved by the early 1970s works up to a point, the idea that his film closes a genre fails under examination. Such a position misjudges the primary pleasure derived from the American detective film, and misinterprets the satisfaction The Long Goodbye’s ending provides when set within this pleasure and these films.”

The Long Goodbye (1973) has long been recognized as a goodbye of some sort. Critics committed to a stylistic understanding of the film have detailed the ways in which the picture exploits latent aspects of the noir tradition. McElhaney (1994) notes the way in which the “empty spaces” created through the film’s use of color emerge “inevitably out of the most fundamental aspects of the classic film noir.” In this way, The Long Goodbye realizes the full potential of a past tradition and brings that tradition to a close. Those more interested in the film’s narrative or generic aspects allege an adieu of another sort. The Long Goodbye exists as something of a “good riddance” to Chandler’s detective and the virtues on which his existence depends. Ferncase (1991) explains that “Marlowe’s anachronistic demeanor [as played by Elliot Gould and directed by Robert Altman] is a metaphor for his own outdated code of honor” (88). The valediction, then, is to “a genre that’s not going to be acceptable anymore” (89).

Robert Altman’s own comments align the film with the narrative or generic position. Altman says in a 1974 interview that he meant to bid adieu to Marlowe; “Marlowe is dead,” he quips (Dawson 41). He explains the necessity for this send-off in a subsequent interview in which he asks, “How many [detective films] can you see? How many private eyes, how many blondes? I mean in every one of these films, the plots are the same, the suspense is the same. Everything is just pressing buttons” (Sterritt 138). One could reasonably conclude that Altman meant The Long Goodbye to implode these tired plots and to challenge the suspense they presumably provide. He determined to accomplish this task in at least two different ways. First, he insisted on the casting of Elliot Gould to play the part of Marlowe. This player under Altman’s direction would ensure audiences would see just how outdated Marlow and his values had become. Second, he maintained Leigh Brackett’s rather liberal alteration of Chandler’s story by the same name. Brackett’s screenplay had Marlowe kill his friend Terry Lennox. This ending was essential for Altman. He would not agree to do the film with a guarantee that it would be kept. An archaic character able to abandon the ideals he meant to protect seemed like the perfect farewell to the detective and the genre he occupied.

While Altman’s description of the detective and his generic milieu as it evolved by the early 1970s works up to a point, the idea that his film closes a genre fails under examination. Such a position misjudges the primary pleasure derived from the American detective film, and misinterprets the satisfaction The Long Goodbye’s ending provides when set within this pleasure and these films. This article attempts to correct both miscalculations by setting the film within the unique and, to this point, unidentified spectatorial pleasure of the American detective film. It considers the ways in which the detective films of the 1930s and ’40s allow spectatorial competition with the detective, and concludes with a discussion of The Long Goodbye’s ending within the context of this inherent pleasure. Ultimately, The Long Goodbye offers spectators a long anticipated evolution of the detective genre rather than the goodbye Altman intended or critics have suspected.

The first task, though, is to disentangle discussion of detective films from the other interests that surround it. Surrounding interests have traditionally prevented any sustained critical examination of that detective films or genre. Interest in noir, for instance, has long begun with detective films of the 1940s, which truncates the genre by at least a decade (Neale 2000, 72-76). The particulars of the detective films of the 1930s, which pre-date the advent of noir, remain unexamined. Those whose interests go beyond noir while still including detective films gloss the particulars of the genre for other reasons. Nicole Rafter’s (2006) study of crime films, for instance, lumps detective films in with other crime dramas. Unfortunately, her own conclusions distinguish detective films from the rest. Rafter claims that the primary pleasure of crime films is that they at once offer criticism of “some aspect of society” and “the restoration of moral order” (3). The first operation encourages audiences to identify with “the transgressor,” the one who exposes or falls victim to the societal ill being uncovered. The second advocates a more culturally acceptable identification with “the avenger,” whose presence eventually eradicates perpetrator and problem. These dual operations provide viewers the opportunity to enjoy “a state of happy hypocrisy” — delighting both in criminal behavior and the ability to condemn it (3-4). What Rafter fails to note is that detective films must work differently. They do not allow dual identification. They must, in fact, impede identification with transgressors until the last possible moment, which forbids the audience a chance to identify with the transgressor. Consequently, such films fail to give viewers the pleasure Rafter claims crime films routinely provide.

Rafter’s remarks, technically inaccurate as they seem to be, are not entirely wasted. She does the field service by placing attention on the philosophical issue of identification. Unlike other genres that involve characters and actions that have nothing to do with the act of watching a film, the detective genre assumes a lead character very much involved in the mental and emotional activities of the spectator. Detectives and spectators can begin to move and act as one. Both find themselves in the midst of stories in need of vigilant observation, systematic interrogation, and adroit explanation. Both enjoy a comprehensive understanding inconceivable for any of the other characters. The two also realize a happy and safe emotional distance from the people with whom they interact. Everyone but the detective and spectator must be suspected, but, at least in the films of the 1930s, they must also stand beyond suspicion. These parallels allow spectators to identify with the hero before them with an ease provided by no other film genre, and they most assuredly account for one of the primary pleasure of detective films.

The ease with which the spectator can identify with the detective results in a more essential pleasure, though, as identification gives way to competition. Competition not only proves to be an essential part of individual films of the 1930s and beyond, but a powerful explanation for the genre evolves as it does up to and beyond The Long Goodbye. Michael Curtiz’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933) offers a great example of the first part of this claim. The film makes a number of visual and narrative concessions to enable spectators to compete with the film’s detective, Philo Vance (William Powell). Visually speaking, the camera works without equivocation. Suspects and pieces of evidence assume a central place in every shot. The sequence of shots occurs in a logical progression. For instance, Vance finds a bloodied poker in one scene only to find the dog injured by that instrument in the next. Just as importantly, the narrative structure is equally accommodating. Suspects arrive one by one and Vance questions each in turn. The investigation progresses cyclically until, one by one, individuals are condemned or exonerated.

Because transparent camera work and logical narrative progression are equally characteristic of 1930 films in general, one could easily fail to see any real significance in either. Other concessions cannot be so easily dismissed, and the importance of these commonplace allowances gain even greater importance when placed alongside these. Examples of two of the more essential allowances appear in the final two sequences of The Kennel Murder Case. In the first, Vance reconstructs with buildings built to scale and a reenactment of the participating parties the events of the crime. Most literally, the presentation demonstrates Vance’s ability to offer some clarity to the questions that perplex the police and audience. More essentially, the episode allows spectators the opportunity to reconsider their conclusions and to narrow their focus before the killer is revealed. Vance’s reenactment is vague enough to stop short of revealing too much. The presence of this performance demonstrates a keen awareness of spectatorial desire to compete with the detective.

So does the film’s conclusion. Shortly after Vance’s review, a seemingly desperate Vance arranges a meeting between the three most promising suspects. During this meeting the film makes one final concession for the spectator. Rather than have Vance reveal the murderer, the killer reveals himself. Audiences can credit Vance for having created the situation that forced the killer to confess, but by refraining from having Vance name the killer before he emerges, screenwriters leave open the possibility that Vance is as surprised by the identity of the murderer as some in the audience might be. The detective’s success, while celebrated on screen, unfolds with just enough ambiguity that those who failed to predict the murderer do not suffer and those who did can feel somewhat superior. Either way, the film does little to dismiss at least the appearance of a very real competition between spectators and detectives and does a great deal to encourage it.

Screenwriters for the extremely popular first entry in the Thin Man series, The Thin Man (1934), do the same. The film’s detective, Nick (William Powell), arranges a dinner party with the promise that the person responsible for the two deaths in the film will emerge during the event. The most striking aspect of the ceremonial dinner is Nick’s insistence that he does not know the murderer’s identity even though he is more than able to understand and recreate not only the perpetrator’s actions but the motives behind them. In the end, his actions bring the killer to reveal himself. These proceedings function as the recap in the district attorney’s office and subsequent revelation scene in The Kennel Murder Case. Both episodes create space for spectators to revise conjectures at the last possible moment and to maintain the appearance of a fair competition with the onscreen detective. Those who compete well, accurately predicting who committed the crimes, can feel superior; those who miss can feel better knowing that Nick was not entirely sure himself.

Unfortunately for those interested in the reproduction of this sort of construct, the detective film cannot maintain the same degree of fair play prominent in the above two films. Spectators become too savvy. They dismiss red herrings too well and isolate crucial details too easily. Screenwriters intent on preserving the appearance of a competition between spectators and detectives must abandon the straightforward visual and narrative patterns of earlier films. The second installment in the Thin Man series, After the Thin Man (1936), exhibits this sort of revision. Subsequent films become even more convoluted. In speaking about this very issue, Fredrick Isaac (1994) notes, “the murders and their motives become increasingly more difficult to identify, and Nick’s solutions increasingly arbitrary and impossible to anticipate” (56). Nick becomes a super-sleuth against whom spectators have no chance to compete, and as such, the serial comes to an end.

That is not to say that the detective genre itself gave up on its ability to bring about a meaningful competition between spectators and detectives. It did not. It simply changed its tactics. Detective films of the ’30s began to rely as much on the presence of less effective sidekicks as super-detectives. Number One Son in the Charlie Chan films and Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes films best illustrate this strategy. The exchanges between Watson (Nigel Bruce) and Holmes (Basil Rathbone) in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) especially illustrate the ways in which this lampooning works. Early in the film a visitor leaves his walking stick outside Holmes’ office. Holmes asks Watson to reconstruct the owner of the walking stick using the usual method of elementary observation. Watson does what he can, succeeding in places and missing in others. At the end, the eager understudy asks if “anything has escaped [him].” Holmes responds, “Almost everything, my dear fellow,” and proceeds to correct Watson’s “errors.” The scene is lighthearted and somewhat endearing on the surface. A sincere seriousness lives just below the surface, though, a seriousness that becomes more apparent in a second example.

Watson goes to a cave in the moor on the Baskerville estate. Holmes appears in the flimsy disguise of a poor peddler through which the audience most assuredly sees. It fools Watson to such an extent that he ultimately claims himself to be Holmes in an attempt to rebuff the peddler. Holmes laughs, drops his disguise, and declares “well in that case sir, my name must be Watson.” Holmes continues provoking Watson, pronouncing “a fine detective you are calling yourself Sherlock Holmes.” These lines make explicit the point the original scene and this one are intent on making, namely, that Watson is not a detective. His ineffectiveness is his greatest contribution. Audiences may not be as effective as Sherlock Homes or Charlie, Chan, but they are not as hopeless as Watson or Number One Son either. These sidekicks in scenes like these showcase their shortcomings and in so doing allow the feeling of a competition to endure.

Over time, even the mutual lampooning of a sidekick fails to conceal the lack of real competition taking place between spectator and detective. The existence of the genre depends on the emergence of some new strategy that can mask the inability of the spectator to compete with the detective or the emergence of a different sort of spectatorial desire. Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1946) seems to offer both. The film bears particular importance to my argument because it makes explicit the arguments on which it depends. 1) It has the detective, Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery), make a direct challenge to the spectator to try and solve the crime before he does. 2) It places the detective and the spectator in the same cinematic space. The camera projects what the detective sees; it moves as that character moves. The audience sees as it has always seen in a detective film—from the detective’s perspective—and in order to do what it always seeks to do—best the detective. And when it becomes clear that the audience cannot best the detective, the film at least makes the detective suffer for his efforts.

The extent to which the detective’s position becomes compromised is one of the more striking aspects of Lady in the Lake, though, at least when approached from the 1930s. This Marlowe is as much subject to the investigation as he is its agent. He spends almost as much time defending himself as investigating. He suffers a level of violence that no detective of the 1930s would ever have to endure. One could attribute these shifts as so many do to a general wartime “angst and Cold War paranoia” (Schatz 1980, 141), but one should not ignore the extent to which a necessarily uneven competition between spectators and detectives pushes the genre in this direction. Intent on escaping the paranoia and angst of their everyday lives, viewers tolerated a new form of detective film that followed a detective as compromised as he was capable. Unable to compete with the detective, but intrinsically bound to attempt to do so, the spectator develops a new desire to have the detective implicated if not convicted of the crime being investigated. Obviously, an out-right conviction of the detective introduces new threats to the detective film proper. One cannot serialize a detective convicted of a crime. The more popular choice, then, was to have the detective implicated in the investigation, abused by the two sides he plays, and finally exonerated by both. One sees this strategy in any number of 1940s detective films beginning most notably with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and continuing throughout the decade in films like Murder, My Sweet (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946).

Not surprisingly, one sees the same sort of compromise in the most popular detective films some thirty years later. Films like Chinatown (1974), Night Moves (1975), and The Long Goodbye exhibit an obvious connection to the noir traditions in which similar stories were first realized. All three follow the formula of detective narratives designed to permit the detective and spectator to perform the same mental and emotional tasks. All three place the same disillusioned and unproductive detective in the midst of a society that punishes them for their lingering beliefs. The primary difference in the three films is their endings. Chinatown and Night Moves end similarly—with ineffectual detectives. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) cannot stop the police from blowing a hole through the face of the film’s ultimate victim; nor can he prove the guilt of the film’s ultimate perpetrator. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) cannot save the innocents in his story or to keep from being disabled by the person orchestrating its criminal events. In the end, Gittes and Moseby are left in the same place (the former metaphorically, the latter quite literally): aimlessly circling the waters of their fluid and uncontrollable world.

These endings keep the detective from declaring victory, but they stop short of allowing the spectator to claim it either. Detective and spectator are at least equals at these films’ endings in much the same way they were at the end of The Kennel Murder Case or The Thin Man. The Long Goodbye goes further. Philip Marlowe’s decision to kill his friend gives victory to the detective in the only way it can: by having the detective perform the film’s final crime. The competition between spectators and detectives reaches its long-awaited conclusion and in so doing gives spectators the chance to win the competition they are always already having with the detective. In this way, The Long Goodbye forges a new possibility for the detective films rather than bringing them to a close, a possibility realized in more contemporary films like David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). Both films ultimately give victory to the spectator able to watch the detective in those films committing the ultimate crime. The final analysis must conclude, then, that The Long Goodbye is as much a fresh turn as it is the fatigued farewell Altman and others have declared it to be. Altman’s film simply permits the genre to reach the ending toward which the competition between detective and spectator had always been working.

Work Cited

Dawson, Jan. “Robert Altman Speaking: an interview by Jan Dawson,” Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 2, March 1974, pages 40-41. Print.

Ferncase, Richard K. “Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye: Marlowe in the Me Decade.” Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall 1991, pages 87-90. Print.

Isaac, Fredrick. “Hard-Boiled or Hammed Up? The Thin Man Movies,” in It’s a Print: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, William Reynolds and Elizabeth A Trembley, eds, Bowling Green State University Popular Press: Bowling Green, Ohio, 1994, 48-69. Print.

McElhaney, Joe. “Neo-Noir on Laser.” Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 54, November 2006 [originally published in Issue 14 (1994) in the print version]. 23 September 2010. Web.

Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Rafter, Nicole. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. Boston: Mc-Graw-Hill. 1981. Print.

Steritt, David. Editor. Robert Altman: Interviews. University of Mississippi Press. 2000. Print.