Friday, February 04, 2005

And It Happens Every Day

Was there ever a recording of the complete title song from Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye? As you know if you've seen the film, Altman and composer John Williams used the song to parody the over-plugging of movie title songs in the '60s and early '70s (think of the Bond movies, for example); the song turns up over and over again in every possible form: crooned by a Sinatra imitator, played as muzak in a store, practiced by a bar pianist, strummed on a guitar Mexican-style. And we never hear the song sung all the way through without interruption, which is another part of the joke. But since the song itself is a good one -- one of the last lyrics written by the great Johnny Mercer, and one of the last tunes in which Williams still remembered that he could do jazz -- seems a shame that no singer ever recorded it for real.

I'm not a big Altmaniac -- in a lot of movies, I just want him to put the boom mike where we can actually hear the words, get on with the plot, and stop using the damn zoom lens -- but I always enjoy The Long Goodbye as a great meta-movie about an Old Hollywood character adrift in a New American Cinema world. One of the interesting things about it is that the controversial ending was in the original script by Leigh Brackett, written long before Altman was attached to the project; he claims that the ending was what convinced him to do the picture in the first place. But what, I wonder, did Brackett mean by the ending; and, indeed, what is the point of it, really? Brackett herself claimed that she just thought the ending of the Chandler novel (not one of his best, anyway) is a cop-out; she felt that the logic of the situation would dictate that Marlowe should give Terry Lennox what he deserves. But it hardly seems logical, under any circumstances, to make your hero into a cold-blooded murderer, no matter how pissed off he is.

Two things might have driven Brackett's decision. One is that she'd spent her entire screenwriting career working for Howard Hawks, a man with a strong preference for happy endings, even when they were complete cop-outs (case in point: the awful ending of Red River). A few years earlier her original, darkly tragic script for Howard Hawks' El Dorado had been tossed out by the director, who had her re-write it to make it more like their Rio Bravo. Maybe after that experience she was interested in writing something with the kind of dark ending that Hawks would never do (though I have to wonder whether there might have been some idea, when she wrote Long Goodbye, that Hawks would direct it; she'd hardly ever written for anyother director before). The other thing was probably the example of Dirty Harry and its introduction of justifiable-homicide elements into the cinema, of the hero who is heroic because he dispenses justice when The System can't. I wonder why Altman liked the ending so much, considering that it's as much a celebration of vigilante justice as anything in Dirty Harry or Death Wish.

The essay on Brackett which I linked to gives some interesting info on her screenwriting career; her association with Hawks started with The Big Sleep and starting with Rio Bravo, she worked on every one of Hawks' movies, including two that she wasn't credited on (Man's Favorite Sport and Red Line 7000). Most of Hawks' movies after Rio Bravo aren't very good -- he seemed unable to try anything new, and so his default solution to any story problem was just to do Rio Bravo again; and his casting instincts, except for the excellent decision to cast Paula Prentiss in Man's Favorite Sport, pretty much went out the window -- but Brackett deserves a good deal of credit for the good things these movies do contain.

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