Cinematic Soulmates – The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski
Film noir is one of the oldest genres in cinema, and one that sort of epitomizes the films of the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, even modern film noirs are often period pieces, since the genre is so closely linked to those two decades, in which many of the genre’s classics first emerged. As such, the genre often feels quaint, embodying the values of prior eras, and therefore it is a genre that lends itself to a bit of good natured ribbing. From Danny Kaye in Wonder Man (1945) to Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) to the rather unfortunate Fatal Instinct (1993), filmmakers have been poking fun at film noir for decades. Such is the case with the two films in today’s column, both which not only act as pitch perfect parodies of the genre, but manage to be excellent noir films in their own right.
In The Long Goodbye (1973), director Robert Altman’s shambling homage to hard-boiled noir flicks, private investigator Phillip Marlow (Elliot Gould) wakes up in 1970s Los Angeles, and almost immediately finds himself embroiled in a twisty whodunit that promises to push the chain-smoking, wisecracking private eye’s skills to the limit. After driving a friend to the Tijuana border, Marlowe returns to find his apartment full of cops who want to arrest him as an accomplice to the murder of his friend’s wife. Marlowe is found innocent and released after spending three days in jail, following the suicide of his friend down in Mexico. Upon his release, Marlowe is promptly hired by a wealthy and beautiful young woman to track down her missing husband, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), an alcoholic writer with a Hemingway fixation. On top of that, Marlowe runs afoul of a local gangster who insists that Marlowe’s friend owes him $350,000, and that Marlowe is now responsible for the debt. Somehow, all of these plot threads are connected, and now Marlowe must try and stay one step ahead of the cops, the crooks, and a weird therapist played by Henry Gibson if he’s going to unravel this mystery.
Meanwhile, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedic masterpiece The Big Lebowski (1998), the Dude (Jeff Bridges) returns home from the grocery store one night, only to be assaulted in his own home by a pair of thugs demanding a large sum of money they claim his wife owes them. This is despite ample evidence that the Dude is barely getting by (he writes checks in the amount of $0.69) and single (no wedding ring, and the toilet seat is up). Turns out that the Dude, whose real name is Jeffrey Lebowski, has been mistaken for the other Jeffrey Lebowski, a wheelchair-bound millionaire with a young trophy wife named Bunny (Tara Reid) and a fawning manservant named Brandt (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Anyway, the thugs soon realize their mistake, but not before one of them pissed on the Dude’s favorite rug (the one that really tied the room together). Seeking recompense for the soiled rug, the Dude ends up scamming an entirely new rug out of the other Lebowski, much to the chagrin of the Big Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore). All of this leads to the Dude and his best friends Donny (Steve Buscemi) and Walter (John Goodman) getting swept up in a kidnapping plot that involves Bunny Lebowski, Maude, a trio of nihilists, a pornography kingpin named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), and a sleazy private detective named Da Fino (Jon Polito). Now it’s up to the Dude to gather what little wits he has left after years of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out, and try to figure out just what in the hell is going on.
While both films are somewhat tonally different, they nevertheless share a number of things in common. For one thing, they are both sort of shambling, confusing, labyrinthine mysteries that take their time to reach any sort of resolution, and are heavily inspired by the writings of Raymond Chandler. They both conform to the sort of twisting narrative that is emblematic of classic film noir, but do so in a way that also manages to poke a little bit of fun at the genre at the same time. They are sticking to the formula, while pointing out how it is often ridiculous and overly complicated. However, neither film is parodying the genre or deconstructing it. Instead, they are just tweaking the formula, giving it a good natured ribbing. This is a result of the playful natures of Altman and the Coens, all of whom are (or were, in the case of the late, great Robert Altman) inveterate pranksters who enjoyed nothing more than toying with audience expectations. That playfulness is on full display in both The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski.
Similarly, while the main characters appear to be radically different on the surface, they nevertheless share a number of interesting quirks when you dig down deep enough. For one thing, both characters have similar laid back philosophies, embodied by their rather laconic catchphrases. Marlowe assures everyone that whatever they do, “It’s okay with me,” while the Dude assures the enigmatic Stranger (Sam Elliot) that no matter what happens, “The Dude abides.” Both men basically roll with whatever comes along, and while they sometimes find themselves perplexed or angered by the situations they find themselves in, they nevertheless believe that no matter what happens to them, ultimately they are going to come out of it all right.
However, while they share the same philosophies, they both represent different reflections of their respective time periods. The Dude is very much of his time, while Marlowe is a man out of time. As the Stranger informs us during the opening narration of The Big Lebowski, “Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude.” The Dude DOES fit into his time period, the early 1990s. In fact, he sort of exemplifies that time period. The Dude is an inveterate slacker, rebelling against conformity while at the same time embodying a sort of cultural ennui that was felt by a large section of the population during that time. The Dude was living a 60s lifestyle about 30 years too late, as many were back then. Therefore, the Dude is perfectly suited for navigating the waters of that strange decade, even if he seems totally clueless most of the time. Again, though, this is where his personal philosophy benefits him, in that the Dude can simply drift along with the current and roll with whatever comes his way.
Meanwhile, Marlowe is very much a man of the 1940s who finds himself wandering through the hippy dippy insanity of the 1970s. Marlowe is a man with a strict moral code, and because of that he does not at all fit into the “Me Decade.” Sure, Marlowe cracks wise and holds his own when engaging the bad guys in verbal repartee, but when it comes to understanding the world around him, he often looks lost or just flat out disappointed. This is most evident during the climax of the film, which I won’t spoil here, but needless to say Marlowe’s disappointment with the moral degradation of the world is made entirely evident, and ends rather violently. Marlowe exemplifies the values of a different era, and while he has no problem navigating the world of the 1970s, he never quite fits in. Like the Dude, Marlowe is very much a man of his time. Unfortunately, that time was about three decades earlier than the one in which he wakes up in The Long Goodbye.
Beyond that, the two films also share a number of surface features as well. Music looms large in both films, though whereas The Big Lebowski features an eclectic soundtrack of pitch perfect songs, there are only two in The Long Goodbye, which features a number of radically different versions of the title song in addition to a cheeky rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood” that plays over the end credits. Either way, both soundtracks do a wonderful job of setting the mood throughout both films, and manage to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of both eras. Additionally, both films establish that each character has a sort of uniform that he sports throughout the film (Marlowe has his suit while the Dude has his robe and zubas), and that both films are content to just amble along and are not at all in a hurry. Add to this strange little coincidences, such as the fact that both films feature the main characters visiting grocery stores early on, or that the Dude loves bowling and Marlowe has a bowling pin atop his bookshelf, and you start to realize that these two movies have much more in common than it would initially seem.
The best parodies aren’t those that set out to make mean-spirited fun of the thing they are spoofing, but instead are the ones that are making a bit of lighthearted fun at something they love. This is because the people who love something are often the best candidates to make fun of something, simply because they know that thing so well. This allows them to mine the material for the best jokes, rather than simply throwing in a bunch of obvious gags that only touch on surface material. That sort of love is evident in both The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski, because not only do they poke fun at the genre of film noir, they also emulate all the twists and turns of the genre. This is why they are both excellent noir comedies, and also why they are great examples of Cinematic Soulmates.