When I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s, depictions and references to domestic violence were everywhere on TV–not as cautionary tales or public service announcements, but as incidental and inevitable parts of life. Humorous daytime programming like Bugs Bunny used domestic violence as fodder for jokes as did reruns of That Girl. Dramatic evening fare like Dynasty and special network showings of Gone With The Wind showed “sympathetic” male characters hitting or raping their wives with no personal or legal consequences. Domestic violence was barely against the law in those days. Miles Davis in his autobiography tells of sharing a laugh with the police officer his then-girlfriend, the actress Cicely Tyson had called after Davis beat the shit out of her. The officer left without talking to her or arresting him.
During the late 70s and early 80s, the one place on television I did see a serious and unflinching depiction of domestic violence was when the UHF station (that had a “Creature Double Feature” on Saturday afternoons) showed, on a school night, Robert Altman’s 1973 masterpiece The Long Goodbye (now streaming on Netflix), based on the novel by Raymond Chandler (also the author of the book adapted into the Humphrey Bogart/ Lauren Bacall vehicle The Big Sleep). Unlike the film adaptation of Farewell My Lovely another Chandler novel brought to the screen in the 70s (this time with Robert Mitchum in the lead), Goodbye wasn’t a period piece but updated to “Me” generation Los Angeles with a slightly scruffy Elliott Gould (who had previously starred in Altman’s M*A*S*H as Trapper John) playing Philip Marlowe, the same private detective character Mitchum played in Lovely and whom Bogart made famous. The film also shares the same screenwriter with Sleep, Leigh Brackett. In the 40s as well as the 70s she was one of the few women whose screenplays were actually produced. Brackett also wrote for the series The Rockford Files which has the same smart-ass, 70s sensibility in a southern California setting.
Instead of Bogart visiting mansions and private greenhouses, Gould’s Marlowe travels from a tacky, dark-paneled dive bar–in which sunshine comes through an open door like an unwelcome intruder–to a client’s Malibu beach house with huge windows framed in white wood around views that are like a coffee table book of artists’ landscapes come to life and then back to the funky apartment building where he lives across the balcony from a group of young women who make candles, get stoned and practice topless yoga. Gould’s Marlowe is handsome and relatively young, but enough years older than the women–and far enough removed from their post-counterculture lifestyle–that they call him “Mr. Marlowe.”
This Marlowe has a touch of the 60s counterculture in him as well (his anti-authoritarian streak is also present in the Marlowe of the novels from the 30s, 40s and 50s), which we see in his non-cooperation when police question him, first at home and then at the station (in a scene marred by a brief reference to blackface when Marlowe uses the ink on his hands leftover from fingerprinting to darken his cheeks and forehead and asks for a banjo). The police inform him that his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton)–who we’ve seen Marlowe give a ride to Tijuana the night before–has beaten his wife, Sylvia, to death. When the police hand Marlowe the photos of her body (which the camera keeps from our eyes), his cool evaporates, but he still doesn’t give the police any information. He tells them his friend couldn’t have possibly committed the crime.
Marlowe is released when the police close the case–because they find out that Lennox is also dead, and left a suicide note confessing to the crime. Marlowe, still unconvinced of Lennox’s guilt, decides to investigate the case himself.
A pre-Star Wars John Williams composed the title song with Johnny Mercer which, in an amusing touch is, in different renditions, the only music (beside a little bit of “Hooray for Hollywood” at the beginning and end) in the film: the guy at the piano in the bar is practicing it, the radio station in the car has a woman singing it, a Muzak version plays in a supermarket and the melody flows from the horns of a Mexican funeral procession.
Domestic violence seems to seep into every corner of the film in a similar vein. Marlowe says to Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) a client looking for her missing husband, Roger (Sterling Hayden). “Don’t tell me you ran into a door,” about the bruise on her face. We can see she’s afraid of alcoholic, unstable Roger: when Marlowe finds him and brings him back, she cringes as Roger suddenly raises his arm. Roger also doesn’t mind making a scene in public: after a humiliating encounter with his “doctor” at a house party he orders everyone to go home, just a moment after Eileen, always the good hostess, had asked if any of the guests wanted more wine, her pretend-nothing-is-wrong demeanor familiar to those of us who have spent time in abusive households. Their neighbors disperse without checking to see if she will be safe. Marlowe is the only one who stays with her. He suggests that she spend the night at a friend’s. She tells him no, because the last time she did so she came home to see her husband had smashed all her belongings– and was unconscious on the floor.
The cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, points his camera through windows and captures reflections in scenes all through the film, so picture and window frames become the frames of shots. But Zsigmond’s most exhilarating work comes when Marlowe and Eileen are in her beachfront home after a candlelit dinner and he questions her about Sylvia’s death. While we see and hear their conversation we make out, through the glass behind them, another character–whom Eileen catches sight of at the last minute–stumbling into the surf. Both she and Marlowe dash across the beach into the ocean, but the churning water tosses them like ping pong balls across the frame. They scream the drowned character’s name above the crash of waves, but we can barely hear them over the din as they struggle to keep from being swept away in the tide themselves. Exhausted and defeated, they collapse on the shore. When the police come, they are both wrapped in towels, with wealthy Malibu spectators clustered around, engaged in an impromptu drinking party, which Marlowe, drunk himself, denounces, then leaves.
Brackett’s script and particularly Gould’s performance are like a mashup of the best parts of 1930s and 40s screwball comedies and detective movies from the same era with 70s realism thrown in. The gangster, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who comes to Marlowe looking for the money Terry stole from him, is something of a comedian himself, which leaves the audience unprepared for the moment when, without warning, he brutalizes a woman character. This scene isn’t one, like those in so many films since the standards against violence were first loosened, in the 1960s, where the audience can ignore the humanity of the victim: we hear her screams of agony, not just in this scene but as a backdrop to the ones that follow. We see her struck, not through the eyes of the perpetrator (as these scenes are usually framed), but through the eyes of outraged and sickened spectators: Marlowe and the gangster’s underlings. After Augustine orders her to be taken away, he says to Marlowe, “Now, that’s someone I love. You, I don’t even like.” The joke makes the violence even harder to stomach. In a later scene Augustine, shirks responsibility for the incident, referring to it as “the night (she) became ill.”
When, as a teenager, I read the book, The Big Sleep (the title of which I hadn’t even realized was a reference to death), I was surprised at how much darker it was than the film I had grown up seeing on TV. Because The Long Goodbye was made in the 70s, its movie version could remain truer to Chandler’s pessimistic vision while using contemporary details and Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue and improvisation. Altman added to his usual repertory cast of actors (before he became famous for Kung Fu and Kill Bill, David Carradine made an appearance here as the chatty pothead who shares a jail cell with Marlowe) skilled non-actors (Van Pallandt had been a folksinger in Europe, Bouton an ex-pro-baseball player, Rydell a director) to make a world we recognize, in which the men who seem funny and charming abuse women, a woman who has been abused may have other, hidden dimensions and the shaggy-haired, harmless-seeming jokester who declares throughout the film, “It’s OK with me,” is, in the end, the only one who has enough sense of right and wrong to try to get justice for a woman’s senseless murder.