When you sit down to think about a film which is a screen adaptation of a novel you need to think carefully about the interaction between the versions. In some ways it doesn’t matter which came first, because they can both be experienced in parrallel, and indeed, in parrallel with other film adaptations and radio plays and the like. So it is with The Long Goodbye  – I’ll try to look at it both as a stand-alone film, and then talk about the interactions between the novel and the film.
Crime films face the fundamental challenge that the genre is based on telling rather than showing, while the medium of film is very much about showing. I’m reading a Ngaio Marsh at the moment where around 3/4 of the printed words are witness interviews and speculation between the detective and sidekick on who did what and why. It’s not inherently visual: it works just as well without the pictures. Where the films have an advantage is that what images there are can be shown extremely quickly. A couple of seconds of footage can replace thousands of words of description.
Robert Altman clearly realizes that he needs to really show us something, but I get the sense that he’s not entirely sure what that should be. He wastes the first 10 minutes of the film showing us a sequence where Marlowe tries to feed his cat but has to go and buy a different brand of cat food.
This slice of life must be intended to show us a human being living his life, and it’s the kind of thing the younger Coppola manages to make mesmerizing in Lost In Translation; but the focus here is not tight at all. There’s something loose and unfocused about the cinematography and scant dialogue which makes the scene as boring as it sounds. This kind of framing seems to be establishing the film more as a character study of Marlowe than what we might be expecting in terms of a detective story, but there are few other occasions where the camera lingers so on Marlowe, and there was plenty of occasion for it to do so.
This baggy and aimless direction permeates the entirety of the film; there isn’t a single scene which crackles with tension or feels dramatic or revealing. It amiably ambles on, occasionally hinting at a more serious and more interesting movie, occasionally straying into the grey area of absurdity. In this, it is not entirely unlike the book, which is similarly lethargic and indulgent.
However, it is significantly better in one respect from the book, and to explain why I need to have a brief digression with my old drinking pal, Baudrilliard.
Baudrilliard operated in the field of semiotics; in particular he was interested in where a semiotic system begins to break down so that signs ultimately point to nothing – only to themselves. The basic business of a detective writer is to manipulate the signs they use to misdirect you – it’s never the obvious suspect. As the options for misdirection get better and better explored, detective authors created a second-order semiotic system – it’s always the person you’d least suspect.
Chandler’s early work understood the danger of both first-order and second-order referents, and instead of working to manipulate a system of signs, as Christie did, he attempted to write Literature ™ in which crime occurs: Meaning ™ would take care of itself. But by the time The Long Goodbye rolls around, 20 years into his career, the magic seems to have faded somewhat and instead we’re left with a Conventional ™ murder mystery tangled into a lengthy exposition on a life that doesn’t really have any other meaning than the banally obvious: he’s lost in a system of his own custom signs. Harsh perhaps, but for me this is what makes Hammett and early Chandler so interesting – it feels like a window onto something real. Chandler’s relapse into the whodunit does not inspire.
The correction that the film makes is to untangle the misdirections: everything is what it seems. The question transforms from “whodunit” into the altogether more interesting: what do you do about it. From the navel-gazing philosopher-cum-dick, Marlowe is back onto the mean streets, navigating his own life instead of untangling someone else’s. And in that light, the attempts to humanize Marlowe and break the mould of the thriller begin to look less like lazy direction and more like a plan to tell the real story.
That real story is told exclusively in the last 5 minutes of the film, the rest of the action forming the necessary exposition for you to understand what’s happening and theorize about why. And that, steve_hix was me getting back to you.