Cinema: A Curious Spectacle

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Screenplay by LEIGH BRACKETT

The movie opens with a rasping fanfare, a blast from an old record of Hooray for Hollywood. It very neatly sets the tone for this travesty of Raymond Chandler's superb novel about honor and friendship, two subjects among a great many that Robert Altman cannot bring himself to take seriously.

Someone, at least, seems to have started with the right idea. The screen play is credited to a woman who worked with two other scenarists of some renown (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman) on Howard Hawks' adaptation of Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, released in 1946 and by now a sort of touchstone in the genre. But Altman is no friend of fleet dialogue, especially when it can be replaced by a stumbling, windswept improvisation; other niceties of the writer's craft, like character and coherence, are similarly disdained.

Any resemblance between Chandler's book and this movie is not only coincidental but probably libelous. The private detective Philip Marlowe was Chandler's surrogate knight, his field of battle what Chandler called "the shadow line," his adversaries the people who walk it. In his present incarnation (Elliott Gould), Marlowe becomes a chain-smoking shlemiel. Gould looks less like a private eye than like a junkie half on the nod slouching along Sunset Strip looking for a fix. The only dope here is Marlowe himself. He stumbles into a job of playing wet nurse to an alcoholic fount of bestsellers (Sterling Hayden) whose ice-maiden wife (Nina Van Pallandt, late of the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes headlines) plays at being concerned about his welfare.

Altman's lazy, haphazard putdown is without affection or understanding, a nose-thumb not only at the idea of Philip Marlowe but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized. It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire.

—Jay Cocks