oh, you begged me to keep you in that house on the hill

Enough talk about aesthetics. Now let’s talk about actual art.

The Keep: Michael Mann’s last big project before “Miami Vice” (the TV series). A honey of a concept – Nazis occupying a Romanian keep accidentally unleash a medieval demon, which murders them one at a time until a mysterious stranger can stop it – featuring a cast you’d kill for twenty years later: Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen, Scott Glenn. And yet it’s a complete train wreck.

96 minute run-time, and if you sped every slow-motion scene into real time it’d barely be an hour. Sometimes the film moves lethargically, like when we watch a boat pull away from shore for thirty seconds or someone walks down a corridor for an interminable period. And sometimes the film jerks abruptly – Alberta Watson and Scott Glenn meet, fall in love, and sleep together in about two minutes. The acting ranges between melodrama and mumbles: Jurgen Prochnow and Ian McKellen shriek at the top of their lungs that, don’t you get it, the Nazis are the real demons, but Glenn mumbles his character’s name once and most viewers will miss it.

I did like the cinematography, though that’s really all that can be said for the final product. Photographer Alex Thomson never shoots the titular keep from higher than ground level – no crane shots or copter shots – reinforcing its alien size. And the shot when a hapless Nazi stumbles into an underground cavern chills the soul – the camera pulls back, back, back for a full sixty seconds, astonishing the viewer with scale, until a bolt of demonic lightning arcs up from the ground.

(I’d say more, but I intend to discuss The Keep in real depth in a future OTI post)

The Long Goodbye: The first Altman film I’ve sat through from beginning to end, and I don’t know what I was waiting for. It’s an artifact of its time, but Altman assembles it so precisely that you can overlook the period. The setting is dated; the characters are not.

Consider this the ur-Lebowski: a chain-smoking slacker finds himself in the middle of a crime, then sleepwalks his way through solving a mystery. In this instance, the sleepwalker is Philip Marlowe, played with a cool that I didn’t know Elliott Gould possessed, hired to retrieve an alcoholic writer from a shady sanitarium. This case keeps reminding him of the disappearance of his friend Terry Lennox, who the cops suspected for murder – a disappearance that Marlowe aided in. Marlowe gets tangled ever deeper in this web until even his pristine facade starts to crack.

Sterling Hayden might be typecast as alcoholic novelist Roger Wade, but his performance still draws the eye. He’s magnetic in that way that gregarious drunks are: now rambling and generous, now perched on the brink of sudden violence. Elliott Gould remains unshaken by everything in his path until the very end. When he finally does get angry – learning that the connection between the Lennoxes and the Wades might be deeper than he thought – he’s drunk and exhausted. His subsequent confrontation with the detective on the case comes off as comical.

And that’s what The Long Goodbye is: a dark comedy. Philip Marlowe slept through the 40s and woke up in the 70s, in a Los Angeles that barely makes sense. He reacts to everything – driving a friend out of the country, getting arrested, breaking into a sanitarium, threats from violent mobsters – with an agreeable tolerance. “It’s okay with me,” is his most frequent line of dialogue. And Altman continues to pile coincidence upon tragedy until we reach the point where it’s not okay with Marlowe. Then he acts.

Postscript: after hearing Gould’s sotto voce monologues in The Long Goodbye, I understand why Paramount gave Altman the reins for the live-action Popeye movie in 1980.

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