The Long Goodbye and California Split
Panavision meets modernism with glorious results in the kickoff to the Castro's wide-screen series: Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and California Split. Altman employs the odd, ribbony sweep of the oblong frame not just to cram in information but also to open up the drama and keep the imagery surprising and alive. These movies convey as many slithery ironies visually as they do dramatically; they're uncannily keyed to the varying looks and moods of their star, Elliott Gould.
In The Long Goodbye (1973), Altman refashioned Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles Galahad, private eye Philip Marlowe, in Gould's smudgy, hard-to-pin-down image. As in the novel, the police accuse a friend of Marlowe's (played by pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton) of murdering his wife; Marlowe tries to clear his name while working for a cool blonde (Nina Van Pallandt) who's married to a dipsomaniacal writer (Sterling Hayden). Gould's Marlowe, unlike Chandler's, is buffoonish and unpredictable; like an overstretched rubber band, he frays and snaps. Altman sympathizes with his anti-hero's courage and loyalty, but also mocks the simple, foolish pride behind Marlowe's allegiance to his pal. Like Gould's performance, Altman's direction and Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography have a striking, low-key volatility. And Mark Rydell's gangster Marty Augustine is one of the scariest (and funniest) portrayals of egotistical power in any movie. Augustine's viciousness cuts through Altman's delusive L.A. atmosphere; he provides the perfect violent counterpoint for the hallucinatory action of a film that begins and ends with the song "Hooray for Hollywood."
California Split (1974) starts at such a pitch of frenzy that you doubt the film can hold the pace. Altman plunges into casino action, relaying the electric scent of jumping nerves. His California and Reno players don't pretend to be civilized gamesters. When their money's on the table, their lives are on the line. They carry the myth of the hunch like a plague; they believe that something unique in their souls calls out for lucky numbers. All the games have rules, but what counts is handling the tension. George Segal plays a writer who can barely hack it. He's drawn to an ebullient buddy -- Gould -- because he seems like the real thing: a natural gambler acting on his nerve ends. Together, they hop from ponies to craps to poker; they joke about movies, booze, and women as if they never left their high-school ballparks. They thrive on each other's weaknesses, and wreck each other's lives. California Split is about the games overgrown adolescents play. Blithely taking risks with tone and construction, Altman again achieves one hell of a payoff.