When, in 1970, washed-up knuckleballer Jim Bouton published Ball Four — pulling back the curtain on the greenie-popping, beaver-shooting, Singapore-slinging life of the professional baseball player, with special attention to the boozy exploits of one Mickey Mantle — author and book were vilified as, per then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, “detrimental to baseball.” Less attention was paid to the book’s last line: "You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." That a man who would puncture the romantic image of the pro athlete would turn out to be one of the sporting life’s most wistful and eloquent elegists is anything but ironic: why dismantle a myth except to offer a smaller, more personal (truer, he cries!) resonance in its place?
I’ve always imagined that this was the train of thought that led Robert Altman to cast Bouton in a crucial supporting role in his Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe adaptation The Long Goodbye. Coming in between the similarly intentioned McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us — Western and outlaw-movie piss-takes that stripped away noble archetypes and replaced them with a more fumbling, plaintive, but ultimately deeply nostalgic romanticism — it was nearly sunk by reviews complaining of its travestying of the detective movie form. Marlowe is a relic: a dark-suited innocent in a bright, guilty world, one step behind on the murder case he’s working (an effectively pared-down version of the sprawling book, courtesy longtime noir scribe Leigh Brackett), and equally concerned about finding the right food for his cat. And he’s played by a rambling, in-jokey, befuddled Elliott Gould, who, in a play on the hard-boiled narrator, spends the entire movie wearing his monologue flipped inside-out. (The best description of Gould’s performance, incidentally, comes from the first page of another great genre dressing-down, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn: “[T]he words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging... They placate, interpret, massage…” Cue Gould’s oft-mumbled mantra: “It’s ok with me.”) And that’s not even getting into the litany of digressions and one-offs Altman chucks onto the screen like so much al-dente pasta: one scene calls for a mobster’s bodyguards to strip to their skivvies, so Altman went out and got the reigning Mr. Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for a wordless, pec-flexing cameo.
But back to Jim Bouton: he plays Terry Lennox, the friend whose disappearance Marlowe’s looking into; it’s Marlowe’s loyalty to his friend, and to his friend’s memory, that makes him look like such a doof for most of the movie. It’s the private eye myth — “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” as Chandler said — made silly. But why dismantle a myth? (And don’t shrug and say, “It was the 70s” — that’s not good enough.) As Marlowe says at the end, “Nobody cares except me.” It ain’t exactly Bogie swapping double entendres with Bacall, or Mickey Mantle swatting balls out of Yankee Stadium — it’s smaller, sadder than that, and Gould is almost whining as he says it. But it’s the essential principle of the private eye archetype — and as we’ve established, the guys who set out to puncture the romantic image of the private eye turning out to be one of its most wistful and eloquent elegists is anything but ironic.