Sometimes movies are about the big picture. Triple Feature traces a common theme or element through three movies to see what they have to say about each other, and to us.
“Nothing is wrong. I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to let it all hang out,” a disembodied voice says on a small reel-to-reel recording over the opening credits of Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 mystery Klute. The voice belongs to Jane Fonda, a prostitute deep into a sales pitch. The listener remains initially unseen, revealed only later during one of several scenes that repeat the recording. With each repetition, the words assume a different shape. Taken literally, Fonda’s talk is nothing but a come-on. But it’s a come-on tailored to the times. How better to get a john in the mood than to suggest her services are just an extension of the era’s new permissiveness? But the words have a darker implication, too. What do they mean for someone with a different definition of letting it all hang out, one that hurts? And could a time that prided itself on throwing away the old rules draw any lines between right and wrong?
One more question: How does a private dick fit into this new world? Pulps gave birth to private-eye heroes. They thrived in the age of film noir, that shadow-drenched genre created by the moral murk of America during and after World War II. They plumbed the darkness to get at the truth. But at least the shadows had shape then. In Robert Altman’s sun-drenched 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, L.A.’s dark places have become indistinguishable from the rest of the town. The bad guys wear loungewear, and they fit right into a town that’s gone casual in every way. Only the film’s Philip Marlowe dresses the part, though he looks a bit rumpled. In his black-and-white suit, he is, in the words of critic Terrence Rafferty, “a hard-edged line drawing in the middle of a runny watercolor.”
Elliott Gould plays Marlowe, and plays him far removed from Humphrey Bogart’s iconic turn in The Big Sleep. Where Bogart never spoke a half-considered word, Gould mumbles constantly, always looking half-amused even as his investigation into the murder of the wife of a vanished friend churns up some hard truths that others are happy to ignore. It’s easy to overlook even the worst crimes, so long as the money keeps flowing. But behind the cigarette-clenching grin—a running gag involves the chain-smoking Marlowe constantly testing the structural limitations of strike-anywhere matches—Gould chooses not to look away.
That puts him perfectly in sync with Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, whose visual strategy of combining long takes and slow zooms homes in on initially minor details, be they two dogs fucking in a Mexico street or a man wading out into his doom in the background as two people in the foreground hold a conversation. The film keeps looking past the point of comfort, and so does Marlowe. It’s his part to play. “Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s this all about?’” he snaps at two cops hassling him. Everyone knows their role in the scene, but only Marlowe insists on sticking to the script for the whole movie, and seeing the mystery through to its bitter end.
With his dark suit and classic car, the Marlowe of The Long Goodbye looks like an anachronism, but he has his place. Elements from classic movies keep appearing in debased forms, be it a security guard with a quiver full of celebrity impressions, Nina Van Pallandt’s pale, almost comically passive femme fatale, or yoga enthusiasts next door whose constant nudity robs them of any Old Hollywood allure. But even here, Marlowe’s beaten-down sense of honor remains resilient. He ends the film betrayed and more disillusioned than ever, yet remarkably unbent, having navigated a world where sunlight has proven just as dangerous as the shadows.
The trappings shift but the stories remain the same. Or to put it another way, “This town doesn’t change. They just push the names around.” That’s the observation of Ira Wells, the aging private eye played by Art Carney in Robert Benton’s 1977 feature The Late Show. He speaks from experience, having seen a thing or two in his day, enough to get a few pages into writing a book titled Naked Girls And Machine Guns: Memoirs Of A Real Private Detective. But the days of naked girls and machine guns look well in his past as the movie opens. Now he spends his time in a rented room filled with yellowing paperbacks and a wallpaper pattern he never would have picked for himself. At least, that is, until his old partner shows up just in time to die on his doorstep. At the funeral, a shady acquaintance (Bill Macy) ostensibly in the business of talent management, but making ends meet tending bar, brings him a case and a client named Margo (Lily Tomlin), a verbose, New Age-y small-time agent/stolen-goods mule/pot dealer who’s looking for a missing cat.
From there, he gets swept up in a convoluted mystery that takes him across L.A. by bus, often accompanied by Margo whether he likes it or not. (Initially at least, he doesn’t like it at all.) On the page, Margo might have looked like a hippie stereotype, but Tomlin never plays her as such. She’s a freak of no particular flag, as much a misfit as Ira. The film is ultimately more about what Margo and Ira bring into each other’s lives than about the mystery. From Ira, Margo gets a lesson in L.A., and the way old hustles—to say nothing of the greed and lust that motivates them—persist beneath the faded glamour of a town that’s traded crisp couture for leisure suits. Ira gets a revitalizing burst of youth and a reminder that he remains a tough character in spite of a potbelly, a nasty ulcer, a bum leg, and a hearing aid.
I’ve seen The Late Show a couple of times, and as with most mysteries, the details of characters and setting linger a lot longer than the convoluted plot. Even so, Benton crafted an intriguing mystery, a shaggy-dog sort of story involving black-market goods, that kidnapped cat, and a stolen stamp collection. But the details, like the way it captures the humiliation of navigating L.A. by bus, or the ridiculously inappropriate stolen goods an antagonist tries to use to buy off Ira, are what make the movie memorable. It’s pointed in the way it depicts an L.A. in decline, or at least one that’s become a far cry from the dream factory of the old days. The look on Ira’s face as he stops himself from correcting Margo when she talks about The Thin Man as a show starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk, having only encountered the characters through an inferior TV series, says a lot. Time has moved on, and there’s little he can do to change that.
The L.A. of Carney’s prime has begun its long fade into distant memory. His friends keep dying, and the new “dolly” at his side won’t shut up about karma and vibrations. But he isn’t wrong when he says the town doesn’t really change, for both ill and good. And as long as that remains true, there will still be a place for a quick-fisted private eye, maybe especially one with a flaky sidekick who’s picked up a few tricks from tagging along at his side. Like The Long Goodbye, The Late Show has a hard core of optimism beneath—deep beneath—its hard-bitten exterior. However much the times have changed, someone still needs to keep the bad guys in check, and that instinct might not die out with the generation that never felt fully dressed without a tie.
If, that is, they can spot the bad guys when everyone has started to pride themselves on being at least a little bad. When I described this installment of Triple Feature to Scott Tobias, he noted that all three films were “similarly hued.” He isn’t wrong. But I think their hues are the color of the age: hippie-friendly earth tones with a trace of rot. The films are closely connected in other ways, too. Altman produced The Late Show, and Benton was once a writing partner of Arthur Penn, director of Night Moves, a film simpatico with both The Long Goodbye and The Late Show. But its hues run even darker. (And, yes, in this column’s short life, I’ve already covered Penn and Benton. That’s mostly coincidence. I come up with the topics first and then the films, but they certainly did make some great films, didn’t they?)
Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, the film’s private eye. But instead of looking like a man out of time, he seems like one trying to live in a time that never really existed. An NFL star turned detective, he has an office outfitted with all the private-eye trappings, from venetian blinds to an answering machine like Mike Hammer’s in Kiss Me Deadly. But the phone doesn’t often ring, and Harry’s wife (Susan Clark) continually pesters him to take a job at the large firm run by his friend Nick (Kenneth Mars). But Harry resists, claiming he doesn’t like the modern, impersonal, computerized, data-gathering approach. He wants to be an old-fashioned gumshoe, driving around, working cases, and getting to the bottom of things. By the end of the film, that looks like a futile endeavor.
Attempting to unpack the plot of Night Moves would fill up the rest of this column and confuse us both. And, again, I’m not sure the plot matters so much as the implications of the plot. Harry gets drawn into an intrigue involving a missing teenager (Melanie Griffith), a case that takes him through the ranks of film stuntmen—all of whom know the girl and her mother as good people to hang around when you want to have a good time—and to the Florida Keys. Meanwhile, Harry learns his wife is having an affair after spotting her leaving a showing of Eric Rohmer’s My Night At Maud’s.
“I saw a Rohmer film once,” Hackman deadpans in the film’s most famous line. “It was kind of like watching paint dry.” It’s a funny quip, but as others, like Bruce Jackson in his excellent essay “Loose Ends In Night Moves,” have noted, it isn’t just a throwaway line. My Night At Maud’s is a film about moral choices and their consequences. It’s a movie in which a man played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, with no small agony, makes a moral choice to not sleep with an alluring, available woman. Rohmer makes us feel every moment in which he might decide to give in, and makes us feel him bending toward surrender. The film never really confirms that he’s made the right choice, but it makes the act of making a choice seem monumentally important.
Such deliberations seem alien to most of Night Moves’ characters. In L.A. and Florida, the only sin seems to be not being laid-back enough. Griffith’s character takes drugs and sleeps with whoever wants her. When Harry confronts his wife's lover, he’s greeted with little more than a shrug. Yesterday’s sins are today’s no big deal. Penn has said he made the film, written by Alan Sharp, to fit the era. And measured against Vietnam, Watergate, various assassinations and uprisings, and other shocking events that piled up in the years before the film’s 1975 release, the crimes of a few people trying to make a buck or have a good time seem pretty small. Or maybe the tumult and all its accompanying offenses just gave those thinking about committing crimes the last excuse they needed. But how much could be excused? Harry’s case ripples out from indiscretions to felonies to murder. He solves nothing, saves no one, and ends the film literally and metaphorically adrift. He’s fashioned himself as a private-eye hero in the old mold, but the old mold doesn’t fit into the new world anymore. As the camera draws back, he looks smaller and smaller.
Next: Life on Mars?