I watched The Long Goodbye. And then I watched The Long Goodbye again. And then I watched California Split. And then I watched The Long Goodbye. There was something about these two films that felt similarly alive and captivating, an almost tangible quality. There was something intriguing being said about masculinity and space, a challenge couched in the hyper-masculine worlds of noir and gambling. These are two of the many films which actor Elliott Gould and director Robert Altman collaborated on, and although they are not thematically similar, they do have a kind of spiritual kinship with one another. Their desire to explore the relationships of men and the spaces that they occupy, the way that the spaces are shaped by the men and the men, in turn, by the spaces, all contribute to the compelling realism of the films.
The Long Goodbye (1973) is the classic Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler reimagined. Marlowe, the famous noir detective, is all hyper-masculine crass and bravado, a man almost always devoid of emotionality. For this film, Altman transposed Marlowe, a product of the 1930s, onto 1970s Southern California to create a portrait of a man truly at odds with his environment. California Split (1974) tells the tale of two compulsive gamblers, played by Gould and George Segal, as they attempt to keep their heads above water.
Throughout these films, Gould exhibits a kind of feigned toughness and apathy that serves to cover a real vulnerability, one that is slowly stripped away during the film. In an early scene of California Split, Gould rubs shaving cream on Segal’s ribs after they are mugged in a parking lot. From then on there is no doubt, it is clear how much the men look up to one another. It is this incredibly tender gesture that sets the tone for their relationship. No matter the bravado, no matter the antics, the care that they have for one another has been expressed and they will not shy away from it. It is this that I believe differentiates the film from others of the era (films like John Cassavetes’s Husbands (1970), which seem to revel in masculine cruelty). Secure in its subtle compassion, the characters know that that care doesn’t diminish their masculinity. They do not find it intimidating, in fact, the quickness with which their intimacy grows may suggest that this is the kind of bond that they have been looking for all along. They do not bond over cruelty, but over a shared vulnerability. Similarly, in The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe, hardboiled, tough detective, as played by Gould, is simultaneously rougher around the edges and more sensitive. The film opens with Gould asleep in his dingy apartment. His cat wakes him up demanding food. What follows is an endearing portrait of a man attempting to feed his cat at three o’clock in the morning. This sense of care and obligation further sets up the rest of the film and gives us, the audience, a new interpretation of the old, classic Marlowe, a character for whom everything seems to mean close to nothing. Instead, we are faced with a sometimes sentimental Marlowe, one who, even when faced with it, cannot possibly comprehend betrayal at the hands of a friend.
The spaces in The Long Goodbye and California Split work alongside Gould to lend the films a level of complexity and authenticity. Not only was filming often done on location, featuring local Southern California gambling institutions in all their seedy glory, but their accompanying soundtrack is made up of ambient sound. It is the kind of dull, indistinguishable roar that characterizes all public spaces but is so rarely captured on film. The sound isn’t focused solely on our protagonists, it is merely punctuated by them. The sound is immersive. It is palpable and so are the spaces. Gould complements these animated environments with an equally active performance. He is often found wandering around muttering to himself, improvising lines like “it’s okay with me”, all at the encouragement of Altman. It serves to imbue his character with a life that most characters just don’t have. He is the embodiment of frantic, frenetic motion, always chaotic, a coiled spring. He can’t contain his thoughts, there are too many. They are overflowing and we, the audience, are given the excess. He is a character more realized for his foibles and mannerisms and thus more relatable. There is a vitality to Gould and to the spaces he inhabits, you can hear and almost smell them. The musty dank surroundings seep into him and he, in turn, into the surroundings. The smell of days worth of sweat and grime cover Gould and Segal in California Split, the cigarette smoke and stale beer clings to their jackets and we to them in visceral acknowledgement. This is the amazing thing about Altman and Gould together, they are able to create real lived-in spaces and characters that we recognize in such a sensory way. It is made up of so much more than a script, so much more than language.
In less deft hands, the bombastic masculine energy that characterizes both of these films could have overshadowed or completely obscured the intimate moments of care shown by our protagonists. The Long Goodbye and California Split are complex films with complex characters and it is no doubt that Gould excels in these complex areas. He is able to lend the characters and the story a degree of sympathy that would be missing otherwise. There is a challenge inherent in every movement Gould makes; a challenge to traditional moviemaking, traditional leading men, a challenge to Hollywood; it’s slickness and veneer, it’s inability to deal in complexities, its desire to capture an idealized and elevated world. Every moment we follow Gould, we fall a little more in love with him, his behavior rings more true. As he drags us deeper into the grimy, sordid, morally bankrupt spaces he inhabits, we thank him for showing us the truth, a world that though deeply cruel, can also be punctuated by moments of beauty.