Life and Death in L.A.: February 2023

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Key to Marlowe’s Conundrum is In a Can of Cat Food

Elliot Gould, "The Long Goodbye" (1973)

One of my favorite neo-noirs is “The Long Goodbye” (1973), Robert Altman’s adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel of the same title, published 20 years earlier. Altman’s most drastic alteration of Chandler’s opus is placing the story in the 1970s instead of eight years after the end of World War II, when the novel is set. In doing so the film puts Chandler’s hero, private detective Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould), in a starkly different Los Angeles. 

Here, Marlowe, the slightly impoverished white knight with a touch of wry wit, doesn't quite fit in. He's an anachronism in a time when private detectives in skinny ties and black morticians' suits are about as unhip as you can get.

His neighbors at the High Tower apartment building in Hollywood Heights are a gaggle of young female hipsters who practice yoga topless on their balcony and run a candle shop on Sunset. The grocery clerk (Rodney Moss) at his local supermarket gets busted in a protest march against police brutality. Marlowe also encounters a shifty psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) running a clinic that’s a cult-like new age treatment center. Still, the intrepid shamus takes his unfamiliar surroundings in stride, shrugging it off with bemused nonchalance. “It’s OK with me,” he says.

The film’s opening sequence finds Marlowe awakening on his bed, fully dressed, as if he’s coming out of a 20-year trance. Unlike the Marlowe we’re more familiar with, this one owns a cat and the kitty is hungry. After a trip to the market in the wee hours he tries to palm off a Brand-X cat food to the discriminating el gato, even putting the stuff in an empty can of the kitty’s favorite brand. But, as any cat owner could predict, it’s no dice. The famished feline isn’t fooled and takes a hard pass.

All of this may seem beside the point of the story, but in a way it hints at what’s to come.

Marlowe on a cat food quest.
Marlowe gets pulled into a murder case involving his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) who is accused of killing his wife in a most brutal fashion. Marlowe doesn’t believe that Lennox is guilty and he sets out to prove his pal’s innocence. His investigation takes a long, winding path. Along the way he’s hired by a Malibu socialite (Nina van Pallandt) to find and retrieve her alcoholic husband (Sterling Hayden) who’s gone missing, a matter that seems unrelated to Terry Lennox’s woes. But as is often the case in Chandler stories, we learn that the two are directly connected. 

That’s where the can of cat food comes in.

It's a signal that we’re going to see a much greater subterfuge unfold before the ending credits roll. 

Granted, it’s a bit of a trek before we discover who’s pulling the wool over whose eyes. That’s because none of Marlowe’s initial suspicions hit the mark. In fact, the freelance shamus is a few steps behind the LAPD in its investigation. But that’s OK, because part of the reason we like Marlowe is that he’s not the Superman of detectives and his fallibilities make him relatable. He’s driven by a sense of right and wrong and is doggedly determined to seek justice for all who deserve it. It’s those qualities that drive him to stick to a case even after the LAPD give up on it. 

Once Marlowe figures out the final piece of the puzzle his response is shocking. More than a few Chandler fans cried foul. Let’s just say that this Marlowe proves himself to be considerably changed from the one we may be more familiar with. He’s living in a different era and like the world around him, Marlowe has adapted.

But getting back to the cat food matter, Altman said that the sequence points out that “you can’t fool a cat.” Maybe so, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe you can’t con a kitty into eating Brand-X, but you can fool an audience, and that’s the point of it. “The Long Goodbye” does what any great mystery ought to do — misdirect us until its final, rather brutal and controversial reveal. We may know that we’re in for a big finish, but we never want to see it coming.