Critic’s Notebook

Altman’s Noir Suddenly Gets Plenty of Light

Nina Van Pallandt and Elliott Gould in "The Long Goodbye."CreditMGM/Photofest

Spend your time on New York’s repertory-film circuit and you get used to seeing certain titles. You never have to wait too long for another screening of “Vertigo” or “Citizen Kane.” Sometimes the same old movie will pop up in two different theaters within a few months.

But I don’t recall a cinematic convergence like the one this month involving Robert Altman’s great but not greatly known “The Long Goodbye,” from 1973. Beginning Saturday, Altman’s comic, poetic, wacked-out adaptation of the Raymond Chandler detective novel will play at three of the city’s leading rep houses — the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Museum of Modern Art and Film Forum — in a stretch of 18 days.

This “Long Goodbye” takeover is coincidence, of course. Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s longtime director of repertory programming, called it serendipity: The film “just happens to be essential to three different series playing around town,” he said.

But I won’t let that kill my buzz. Serendipity is a perfectly good excuse to draw attention to one of your favorite movies.

And the three series in which it’s playing offer a clue to the attraction of a film that doesn’t get the attention of Altman’s heavyweights, like “Nashville,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Short Cuts,” but that seems to come up every time I talk to someone about their favorite Altmans.

At MoMA the context is the filmmaker’s career — an exhaustive retrospective, running through Jan. 17, that includes all his major features as well as samples of his television and commercial work. (He died in 2006.) At the Brooklyn Academy, in the Sunshine Noir series (through Tuesday), it’s the seedy, narcissistic romance of Los Angeles. And at Film Forum, in a series called Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich & Cain (Dec. 12 to 24), it’s literature, the hard-boiled novels that were the seedbed of film noir.

“The Long Goodbye” sits at all these intersections: of Altman and Chandler, of Altman and noir, of the 1950s (when the novel was written) and the 1970s, of old and (at the time) new Los Angeles. The film has many points of entry, including Elliott Gould’s eccentric, loopy, intensely likable performance as Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe.

Mr. Gould in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye."CreditMGM/Photofest

“There are so many levels on which to appreciate the film,” said the musician Gabriel Kahane, who collaborated in the programming of Sunshine Noir. “One is the rewriting of Marlowe as this kind of sharp-tongued Jewish guy.”

The series accompanies Mr. Kahane’s performances there of his new album, “The Ambassador,” a song cycle that explores the history and fantasy of Los Angeles, and he said that for him the real appeal of “The Long Goodbye” was the way it transformed the noir narrative for a more cynical, more ruthlessly capitalistic era.

“At the center of it is the way noir means something fundamentally different in the 1970s because of our collective consciousness about how the economy has shifted,” he said. “The film is at once neo-noir and an elegy for the golden age of noir.”

Working from a screenplay by Leigh Brackett that ruthlessly distilled Chandler’s novel, Altman rendered the streamlined story — Marlowe gives a friend a ride to Tijuana, the friend is accused of killing his wife and then turns up dead himself, Marlowe sets out to prove the friend’s innocence — as a series of mostly comic set pieces. He simultaneously satirized the post-hippie self-absorption of Southern California, registered the narrow-minded brutality of the cops and gangsters, and signaled his fondness for an old Hollywood that was already history in 1973.

Mr. Gould’s Marlowe, always dressed in black suit and tie despite the blinding light and driving a hulking 1940s Lincoln, is the last honest man in this sun-kissed cesspool. He’s an avatar of the midcentury noir hero, out of step but also thoroughly up-to-date, a hipster in the original sense. He rolls with whatever the city and the times throw at him — the blissed-out women next door doing yoga in the nude; the vicious mobster who strips in a fake-sensitive display of honesty — shrugging and repeating the mantra: “It’s O.K. with me.” Until, in the end, he discovers that some things just aren’t O.K.

The director, while moving the mystery plot forward with speed and elliptical precision, added layers of wit around Mr. Gould’s performance. Altman favorites like David Carradine, as a talkative cellmate of Marlowe’s; Henry Gibson, as the frighteningly avaricious proprietor of a rehab clinic; and Jack Riley (of the original “Bob Newhart Show”) as a lounge pianist, provide piquant cameos. In the film’s best-known twist, the torchy, throwback theme song is heard repeatedly in different versions, emerging from car radios, as supermarket Muzak, in a doorbell’s chime or played as a funeral march by a Mexican street band.

Altman spent much of his career tearing apart and reconstituting Hollywood genres in his own sly, satirical fashion — the war film in “MASH,” the teen comedy in “O.C. and Stiggs.” In some cases, as with the western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or the musical protest film “Nashville,” the results had profound, mythic dimensions. In “The Long Goodbye” the result is elegiac and entertaining, bittersweet and ceaselessly funny.

“Altman always takes the genre seriously,” said Ron Magliozzi, associate curator of film at MoMA and the curator of the museum’s Altman retrospective. “ ‘The Long Goodbye’ is subverting noir, it is making it comic, but it’s a serious take on the genre. That’s what gives it real body — it’s what makes you feel there’s something serious going on there.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Altman’s Noir Suddenly Gets Plenty of Light. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe