As most of you have probably heard by now, Academy Award-winning film director Robert Altman has died at age 81. He was, as The New York Times said today, “one of the most adventurous and influential American directors of the late 20th century, a filmmaker whose iconoclastic career spanned more than half a century but whose stamp was felt most forcefully in one decade, the 1970s ...” Altman is probably best remembered for the films M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), HealtH (1980), The Player (1992), Gosford Park (2001), and his most recent project, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). However, I thinking most fondly of him for the 1973 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye.
Yeah, yeah, I know: Many intelligent people despised Altman’s take on Chandler’s 1954 tale about private eye Philip Marlowe getting mixed up with a friend accused of murdering his wife, and a suicidal writer. They didn’t like the story being updated, with Elliott Gould as a sloppier, hipster Marlowe, and they were put off by Altman’s decision to alter aspects of Chandler’s tale, especially its ending. However, I found the new conclusion--which, Wikipedia says, the director liked “so much that he insisted on a clause in his contract that guaranteed the ending wouldn’t be changed during production or editing”--thoroughly reasonable, almost inevitable. And it certainly added an intriguing, darker level of character to Marlowe that Chandler didn’t, or couldn’t, provide him. To quote Marlowe from the film, “It’s OK with me.”
As I’ve often told the most vociferous critics of Altman’s The Long Goodbye, you have to separate your feelings for the original novel from your response to the film, and appreciate both for what they were able to accomplish. Time, too, has been kind to the Gould flick; the movie-review site Rotten Tomatoes currently gives The Long Goodbye a 94 percent freshness rating.
In addition to the aforementioned movies, Altman also directed episodes of TV series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Peter Gunn, Combat!, Bonanza, Hawaiian Eye, Maverick, and Route 66. (The Internet Movie Database has a record of his numerous film and TV accomplishments.) He also worked with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau on the innovative HBO-TV political satire Tanner ’88 (and its 2004 sequel, Tanner on Tanner).
Elliott Gould is quoted by the Associated Press as calling Altman “the last great American director in the tradition of John Ford.”
READ MORE: “Goodbye, Mr. Altman,” by Stephanie Zacharek (Salon); “Robert Altman (1925-2006),” by Dana Stevens (Slate); “Whither the Robert Altman Memoir?” by Ron Hogan (GalleyCat); “Robert Altman Movies,” by Jeffrey M. Anderson (Cinematical).