Robert Altman was more persistent, and difficult, but he was never quite a movie brat, even if M.A.S.H., the biggest hit he would ever enjoy, is a 1970 film. Altman was from Kansas City (born in 1925). He fought in the Pacific War and had a long training in the Midwest making industrial films before moving into television. He was in his forties by the time he got to M.A.S.H., fourteen years older than Bogdanovich, and never a clubbable man. But Altman had a similar urge to address the old Hawksian models. That drew him to The Long Goodbye (1973), a new version of Raymond Chandler’s world (scripted by Leigh Brackett, who had worked on the original The Big Sleep in 1946).
But this was now the Los Angeles of the early 1970s, filmed in wide screen with an easygoing zoom photography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and a total reappraisal of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The knowingness and the biting wit of Bogart’s private eye was replaced by Elliott Gould, untidy, hapless, perhaps a little druggy, a sucker most of the time, talking to himself, and a man who has a neurotic cat but no girl. Hawks’s fantasy had been immaculate and irresistible, but Altman saw Marlowe as a dreamy loser, falling behind the money race of L , inclined to trust the wrong people, but ever amiable. His single comfort in the film is the fond, mocking way the song “The Long Goodbye” (written by John Williams, lyrics by Johnny Mercer) is the only score to the picture, a refrain that keeps coming back in so many different styles and versions.
But The Long Goodbye opens and closes with the old standard “Hooray for Hollywood,” and it concludes with a gesture toward the unyielding conclusion to The Third Man. So Altman knew his history but he distrusted it and felt sick over the white lies of the factory system. In a sour Altman touch, Sterling Hayden plays the alcoholic writer who has given up the ghost, trading on our knowledge of Hayden’s own remorse over having been a friendly witness for HUAC. No one ever accused Altman of being a gentle fellow. He had a mean streak. But its offsetting benefit was the mistrust, solitude, and breakdown in his films, and it went with a helpless sympathy in the way he looked at the oddity of people. This was Altman’s third coup in three years. For in 1971 he had redrafted the Western as a melancholy love story about a fool who cannot impose his story on the world but who ends up with an epic triumph that no one notices in the falling snow and the lamenting songs of Leonard Cohen. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) had Warren Beatty as John Q. McCabe, in a beard and derby hat, a brothel-keeper of sorts in the Northwest, taken over and smitten by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), but such a chump at handling the local syndicate that he signs his own death warrant. (It’s another film about the defeat of the individual.)
As photographed by Zsigmond, McCabe and The Long Goodbye proposed a new way of seeing. For decades Hollywood had constructed and composed its images as framed things: they were the brickwork of stability. But Altman and Zsigmond substituted a slippery wide-screen vista where the slow zooms oozed in and out, and we were left as searching eyes. “What should I look at? What is there to see and what is hidden?” Altman often seems to film in what Gavin Lambert, referring to a part of Los Angeles, once called the “slide area.”
That was as radical a stylistic departure as Godard’s jump-cutting, for it argues that the screen’s threshold is a place for searching, instead of somewhere we receive decisive, chosen sights. The imagery relinquishes its old assurance, but we are drawn deeper into the maze and the illusion. And the melancholy in both these pictures is part of a forlorn inquiry, wistful over the old, vanished indicators. Altman went further still. Where once sound had been skillfully miked and the final soundtrack mixed, cleaned, and clarified, for sense and meaning, these two films leave us asking ourselves, “What did he say? Did you quite hear that?” The spatial confusion was aural too, and the players were miked separately, often with the new radio mikes, and a mix was then made that brought voices in or out and was seldom clean and not always audible. This may seem perverse, but a movie where looking and hearing are muddled or compromised may get closer to our uncertain experience of life than the emphatic precision of the golden age, when a shot or a frame did not pass without being completely informative and “correct.” “Was that take ‘okay’? If not, take it again.”
Another facet to his style was Altman’s developing interest in groups—and that was another novelty in American film, where the hierarchy of stars, supports, bit parts, and extras had been set in stone. Altman was always close to scorning or bypassing stars—he and Beatty got on badly because of this—and he loved crowded shots and group scenes. The first destination for that approach would be Nashville (1975), a whimsical portrait of the real place, with twenty-six roles of more or less the same size. Further down the road, Short Cuts (1993), derived from stories by Raymond Carver, was a panorama of Los Angeles in which the pattern of overlapping events conveys a very fresh sensibility for real turmoil held in place, or kept calm, by the principle that no single story, person, or self-centered universe really matters enough to be the center of attention. That’s one explanation for how Altman was making the most innovative American films in the moment of The Godfather. By reputation, Coppola’s picture is violent. But Brando’s Vito Corleone is as adorable as he is magnificent. Think of Joe Pesci in Casino (1995), and you realize how much hideous pathology is left out of Vito. He has a kitten in his lap in that opening scene; the enchantment goes all the way to the moment he is playing with a grandson in the garden and has his heart attack. He is gracious, kind, and sad.