The introductory view of the slumbering detective points up the oneiric state (cf. Godardís Made in USA), Robert Altman orchestrates the rest as a jangly genre autopsy, mischievous and brutal. "Rip Van Marlowe" and "Marlboro Man," thatís the shaggy shamus (Elliott Gould at his most freewheeling), pushed around in his bungalow by his own pet cat. Contemporary Los Angeles is an overlit sarcophagus for whatever the Sixties stood for, the old Hollywood studio system is now a gated Malibu community lamely guarded by a vaudevillian who specializes in star impressions. Hiding his personal code behind a shrugging byword ("itís okay with me"), Marlowe takes up the case of the absconding friend (Jim Bouton) and the spray-tanned Contessa (Nina van Pallandt). The windy novelist (Sterling Hayden) is Neptune beached, a totem of sloshed machismo toppled by a runty quack (Henry Gibson); the hopped-up gangster (Mark Rydell) orders beatings, lives proudly next to Nixon, and might be a movie producer. The gumshoe endures them all, but draws the line at blasť betrayal. "Case closed. All zipped up like a big bag of shit." Altmanís camera is perpetually prowling, scuttling, weaving volatile textures, then it becomes a pretty mollís face and gets a bottle smashed across it. At one point, he languidly zooms through a glassy door in a triangular composition (arguing couple inside the seaside home, Marlowe by the distant surf), changing focus for a Hockney effect. At another, he dissolves from a close-up of a five-thousand dollar bill to a tracking shot through a backwater south of the border, capping the Hustonian feint with a couple of humping mutts. Rumpled honor in the face of irrelevancy, maladies papered over with fads ("Freudian analysis, primal scream... I need a cigarette myself"), a hammer brought down hard on the crust of noir veneration. John Williamsí elegiac, unfinished ballad -- a barkeepís tune, a doorbell chime, a Mexican marche funŤbre -- is the directorís sardonic chortle. The ending quotes The Third Man, and skips over to The Big Lebowski. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. With David Arkin, Warren Berlinger, Jo Ann Brody, Rutanya Alda and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
--- Fernando F. Croce