Elliott Gould plays a disheveled Philip Marlowe who mutters to himself like Popeye. Altman called him “Rip Van Marlowe,” imagining him as a man out of time, waking up in the 1970’s after twenty years with his old-fashioned detective business (billing 1950’s rates). Marlowe doesn’t mind the modern era – “It’s okay with me” is his catchphrase. He solves the case of a missing drunken husband, meanwhile being investigated for his old friend Terry’s disappearance with a suitcase full of money and turning up dead a few days later. Marlowe is lied to and pushed around by everyone in the movie, but persistently puts together the real story of what happened to his friend – a true detective after all, and one who finally discovers some truths he can’t abide.
Marlowe’s customer is Eileen Wade (folk singer Nina van Pallandt) whose drunken, abusive husband Roger (a beardy, rambling Sterling Hayden) is found at a scammy treatment center run by Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson of The ‘Burbs and Innerspace). It’s not clear what exactly Verringer is up to, but he gets his bill paid by showing up in the middle of a party and appearing to hypnotise Roger into cutting him a check, then Roger drowns himself walking into the ocean that night.
Great scene of Marlowe talking to Eileen while Roger is walking into the surf below:
Marlowe’s investigation of his dead friend hinges on his belief that Terry (MLB pitcher Jim Bouton) couldn’t have murdered his wife as has been claimed by the police. But it turns out he did, and has taken the money stolen from Mr. Augustine (The Rose director Mark Rydell) to Mexico. His newly widowed neighbor Eileen is coming to meet him but Marlowe gets there first and shoots Terry.
Sometimes I had to activate subtitles for the muttering… this was a favorite:
Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, who wrote a bunch of Howard Hawks movies including Philip Marlowe mystery The Big Sleep. Altman got Mad Magazine artists to do the movie poster to convey that this ain’t a dark and humorless Humphrey Bogart movie. One of many great things about the movie is its John Williams theme song, which shows up everywhere in different versions. More movies need theme songs. How hard can it be to call up a talented indie musician and say “I’m making a movie, here’s a title and plot summary and general mood, write me a theme song”? This might make the original-song oscar category worthwhile again.
Gould improv-Jolsoning with fingerprint ink:
Altman on working with actors: “I can’t tell them what I want to see, when what I want to see is something I’ve never seen before.” Something audiences at the time had never seen before: when Marlowe is being intimidated by Mr. Augustine, I couldn’t focus on the dialogue at all because one of Mr. A’s henchmen is a pre-fame Arnold Schwarzenegger, four years before Pumping Iron, even.