So often it is the case that Hollywood films exploit the audience’s penchant for escape that it is an especial pleasure when a few of these films engage this impulse of ours. The pull of nostalgia has become a mainstay in American culture; Orson Welles’s beautiful The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) finds this “culture,” like fashion, unstable, manufacturing nostalgia almost instantly: here today; gone tomorrow; already missed the day after. Much of this has to do with the gradual bankruptcy of U.S. myths such as the American Dream, the social and political disappointment and disenchantment that U.S. realities have engendered. (Consult Erich von Stroheim’s 1925 Greed.) But there is also a component that relates to something more omnipresent in human nature: our abiding, sometimes nagging, mortal awareness. Often our escapist tendencies, inside a movie theater and out, attempt to cope with that. An analytical film of the 1970s that is key in this regard is Farewell, My Lovely—a film that its star, almost apologetically, once described as a mere opportunity to get out of the summer heat, but which today, in retrospect, makes a real contribution to our understanding the wave of nostalgia that, following on the heels of the youth rebellions of the 1960s and gripping the national psyche, helps explain the appeal of a reactionary Ronald Reagan that led the U.S. down such a disastrous, pathological course, culminating in the presidency of George W. Bush.
Taken from Raymond Chandler’s novel written 35 years earlier (David Zelag Goodman did the fine adaptation), the movie Farewell, My Lovely suggests that commitment to one’s work, at least if the job requires risking your life for those who urgently need your help, is one weapon we have against growing old towards death. We can remain morally fresh, Dick Richards, the director, says through the example of an aging private eye, if only we put in our dutifully long hours before the big sleep. In order to help client Moose Malloy find the prostitute whom Malloy has kept on loving from behind bars for eight years, Philip Marlowe risks himself and others. Bit by bit, his search for Velma unearths a complicated scheme of corruption and double-dealing, bringing death or injury to a host of individuals along the way.
This noir nightmare Marlowe must bring to waking light, whatever the human cost, while the world through which he languidly moves confuses reality and dream. Accepting full responsibility for the outcome of what he must do to earn his retainer (as the egotistical detective in Roman Polanski’s vastly inferior Chinatown, 1975, does not), Marlowe is without self-pity even while growing old in a criminal, that is to say, fallen world. At his age, Robert Mitchum, who seemlessly plays Marlowe, himself embodied Marlowe’s acceptance; it is a Pirandellian performance, one that completes the performance that Mitchum gave thirty years earlier in Jacques Tourneur’s postwar Out of the Past, 1947, and one that allows Richards, a younger man, to project himself into an incidence of graceful aging in order to contest his own mortal anxiety. Through age’s other side, that of youth, Richards had done something of the same thing in The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972), where, having left home to become a cowboy on a cattle drive, an adolescent reaches maturity by accepting responsibility for the impossible defense of an imperilled commune of religious pacifists. In the ensuing holocaust that claims the lives of all those from the drive who joined him in this noble endeavor, the sole survivor—and through this boy, Richards; and through them both, each of us—confronts the awesomeness of human mortality and the counterveiling graciousness of the human spirit. The film ends with a rendition on the soundtrack of “Amazing Grace” sung heart-piercingly by Joan Baez.
Similarly, Mitchum-Marlowe offers Richards hope that the horror of increasingly imminent death can be transcended through personal style and moral commitment. In Marlowe’s case, risking death for a living asserts his general refusal to submit to the great fear that dogs all our lives (“I am afraid of death and despair,” says Marlowe in Chandler’s book, linking these). Although a dead-end dreaminess imbues everything in the film with a mortal flavor and a sense of the past, Marlowe himself neither looks back nor bemoans time lost. He seems instead to be living out a dream or memory—if you will, what our lives have become since becoming soiled by selfconsciousness. Both visual texture and dramatic structure reinforce our sense of this dream; the present to which Marlowe returns after an extended flashback sustains the flashback’s drugged, hung-over feeling, memory and actual experience now being equally a dream, a fever dream eerily vague yet at times supernally clear, as embodied (through John A. Alonzo’s velvety color cinematography) in the Los Angeles half-world, a phosphorescent inferno.
The forties, which the film evokes, intimates time’s passage, that is to say, the nearing of death for each of us. However, the appeal of such nostalgia is quite the opposite. By viewing a stylish re-creation or evocation of the past, we hope to escape the past’s mortal tentacles; as we watch time and memory becoming objectified and stylized, our own deaths, seemingly receding, are distanced from us. Our escape into the past, if you will, our aging into the past, helps release us from the mortal meaning that the present imparts to the past merely by coming after. Imaginatively, we divert chronology. Indeed, the confusion of past, present, dream and reality in Farewell, My Lovely repeats the ancient theater’s therapeutic illusion of immortality that actors shared with the audiences they represented by crossing back and forth between roles of human and god, man and woman, man and beast. (This theatrical purpose survives, to some extent, in the ritual of the Christian mass.) The imaginative fusion of opposite natures aims to eliminate those exclusive boundaries which define and confine us to our mortal condition. This cross-over is pervasive in Richards’s film; it occurs in the atmosphere and the mise-en-scène themselves as a fusion of past and present, the present being, finally, indistinguishable from a dream of the past.
Derived from what experience has taught Marlowe about the world, his characteristic acceptance does not betoken indifference. Marlowe simply knows too well the toll that mortality takes on us all; this is why he stakes only a small, obligatory sum of money on the possibility that Joe DiMaggio, then riding high, will remain invincible as a ballplayer. Nevertheless, Marlowe is concerned about people, not complacent. (Moreover, he generates concern and commitment in others.) In an episode that doesn’t appear in the novel, Marlowe in effect adopts a boy by offering the Malloy fee to the child’s mother, who likely will become his mistress or wife. After all, his relentless investigation helped bring about the murder of this woman’s spouse. Too, as Shakespeare might counsel, Marlowe needs a son; surely the boy now needs a father. Only by assuming the deceased’s role vis-à-vis wife and child can Marlowe fully meet responsibility for the man’s death, an atonement that promises redemption. The woman and the boy may provide Marlowe’s life with its final, fullest grace.
Miraculously diverting our fearful mortal dreams, this resolution may be the sweetest illusion of all.
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