If you’re a Robert Altman fan — which is to say, more or less, if you like movies at all — you’ve got extra reason to give thanks this week. Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” hit Blu-ray on Tuesday, which is great news for several reasons. First, and I say this as someone for whom even Altman’s bad movies are fascinating extensions of his overall aesthetic, it’s his greatest movie, the one I would choose in the unlikely event I had to choose just one. It’s superlatively easygoing, turning Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective into a sleepy-eyed ’70s sleuth Altman and star Elliott Gould nicknamed “Rip Van Marlowe,” as if he’d fallen asleep in the 1940s and awoken three decades later with his outdated but admirable ethics intact. But it’s also got a spine of steel, intricately working through the ideas of doubles and remakes in a city where the faces change but the dog-eat-dog ethos never does.
Second, and here even physical-media skeptics should take note, “The Long Goodbye” was filmed with process called flashing, which involved exposing the negative to light achieve a foggy, dreamlike effect, as if the entire movie were being through a haze of marijuana smoke — not, by most accounts, an unusual atmosphere in Altman’s presence. The technique, which cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond also employed on Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” was a risky one, since it was impossible to know until the negative was developed if the footage would be usable. It’s also exceptionally difficult to transfer to home video, with the results often looking merely murky or washed-out. I haven’t seen the Kino Blu-ray yet, and based on this comparison from the invaluable DVDBeaver, it’s not quite as lustrous as the UK Arrow disc, but a quick glimpse at the comparisons indicates how much better HD is at capturing the effect. I spent an unconscionably long time singing its virtues to Peter Labuza on his Cinephiliacs podcast, so head over here for more.
Kino’s also putting out Altman’s “Thieves Like Us,” an adaptation of the same Edward Anderson novel behind Nicholas Ray’s great “They Drive By Night” (you can tell because no other movie has a character named “Chickamaw”). But I’m even more grateful for Olive FIlm’s Blu-ray of “Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” Altman’s loose adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s play, which has been out of print since the VHS era. Framed by a reunion of The Disciples of James Dean, who meet every year on the anniversary of his death, the play shuttles between decades, using different casts to represent Dean’s teenage fans and their adult selves. But Altman had the ingenious, if unfaithful, idea to use the same actors for both, even though it meant that 45-year-old Sandy Dennis had to play a smitten high-schooler half the time. Graczyk, who contributes a dyspeptic interview to the new disc, was displeased, but Altman’s “gimmick,” as he calls it, was a profound and poignant way of embodying the way our inner longings don’t change, even as our bodies and the details of our lives do. (That idea is given even more emphatic form by the play’s big twist, which won’t reveal here except to sat that if anything’s a gimmick, that’s it.) Altman uses the mirrors of a decaying Texas dime store as windows between worlds, a “theatrical” device that’s wholly cinematic, and lays the groundwork for the film’s devastating final shots. It’s evidence that even a mediocre play can make a brilliant movie, and that the best way to adapt theater is not to run from its stagebound origins, but to embrace and transcend them.