Genre Revisionism within New Hollywood

This essay will examine the extent to which New Hollywood can be considered ‘new’. It will focus on the New Hollywood trend of ‘genre revisionism’. Genre revisionism is the practice of adopting the conventions of an existing genre and then converting them. This is done to subvert an audience’s expectations, in an attempt to provide something new and distinct from what went before, thus keeping interest in the genre alive. Two films of contrasting genres will be focused upon to provide a greater overview of the scale of genre revisionism within New Hollywood. The Long Goodbye (dir. Altman, 1973), a Film-Noir, and The Shining (dir, Kubrick, 1980), a Horror film. The essay will examine what they present that’s new and how they differ from the traditional standards of their respective genres. It will also provide evidence and draw conclusions about two points of view situated at extremes ends of the spectrum. One viewpoint is that the films have been subverted to such a degree, that they can no longer be considered part of the original genre they set out to revise. The alternative opinion is that they cannot be considered new as they offer little that is different from past examples of the genre.

The Long Goodbye employs the common Film-Noir protagonist of the private-eye, in this case, Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould). The private-eye is traditionally characterised as shrewd, righteous, and displaying effortless confidence and charisma. He is depicted as a loner, a character alienated by a corrupt society populated by characters such as crooked cops, seedy villains, and the femme-fatale. Although the private-eye chooses to live apart from this corrupt society, he understands the rules by which it functions and, therefore, is always able to triumph while still adhering to his strong moral code. Raymond Chandler, whose novel The Long Goodbye is based upon and whose other novels have been adapted into films, including the classic Film-Noir, The Big Sleep (dir. Hawks, 1946), sums up the private-eye with this quote, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” (Chandler, 1950).

Chandler once stated, “The private eye is admittedly an exaggeration – a fantasy. But at least he’s an exaggeration of the possible.” (Rafferty, 2007). With The Long Goodbye, Altman sets out to prove that this statement is no longer valid. Altman has stated, he wanted to “update the [Film-Noir] setting but act as if Philip Marlowe had awaked from a twenty odd year slumber.” (Rip Van Marlowe, 2002). Altman and Gould referred to Marlowe as Rip Van Marlowe in reference to Rip Van Winkle. Rip Van Winkle is a fictional character who fell asleep and woke up twenty years later in surroundings that were entirely alien to him. In reference to this, at the beginning of the film, Marlowe awakens in a daze and is immediately depicted as a character completely out of his time and place, unable to function in his alien surroundings. Marlowe spends the first ten minutes of the film on a thankless mission to feed his ungrateful cat. Marlowe remains loyal to his cat, his hippy neighbours who he runs errands for, and his friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), who he is on a mission to prove innocent of uxoricide. He endeavours to please all these characters while receiving no reward or successful results. He fails to feed his cat, who then abandons him, and for the majority of the film, he is too naive to realise Terry’s guilt. Furthermore, while traditionally, attractive female Film-Noir characters would be used to prove the virility of the private-eye, Marlowe is impervious to the flirtations of his attractive neighbours and acts towards them as a kindly old man. All this contributes to Altman’s viewpoint that the private-eye and his strong moral code can no longer believably achieve results in the narcissistic world of 1970’s Hollywood, and he now must be considered an ineffectual character. “Altman says in a 1974 interview that he meant to bid adieu to Marlowe; ‘Marlowe is dead’, he quips.” (Redmon, 2011).

Classic Film-Noir iconography and conventions are used in The Long Goodbye, but merely to further Marlowe’s depiction as an outdated character. Marlowe wears a 1950’s style suit, drives a vintage sedan, and chain-smokes while no other characters smoke. Marlowe’s wisecracks, while traditionally used to display the private-eye’s quick wit and natural charisma, are treated with disdain by other characters. Conventional characters are used, such as the seedy criminals and femme-fatale, but unlike Marlowe, they’re shown to have changed with the times. The criminals are now unafraid to use excessive violence, and the femme-fatale, Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), no longer dresses in the vampish black attire of the classic Film-Noir era, and as with his neighbours, Marlowe is immune to her charms. Conventions such as filming in black and white, canted angles and chiaroscuro lighting are discarded, and the traditional night-time city setting is abandoned in favour of a sunny beachside. All this is done to present Marlowe as a character inhabiting a world in which he doesn’t belong. The film has been subjected to ‘flashing’ to lower the definition of the images, making them appear faded. Shots are filmed through foregrounds such as panes of glass and bushes, and overlapping dialogue is used; all to present Marlowe as a character lost in the hazy confusion of an alien world.

At the film’s climax, on the beach, Marlowe’s unfamiliar world suddenly shifts, to signify his unravelling of the mystery, but also his realisation that his old ways are no longer relevant. Dialogue no longer overlaps, images become clear, foregrounds are no longer used to obscure, and finally, in Mexico, Marlowe brutally murders Terry for his betrayal of his trust. This complete rejection of the character’s moral code is Altman’s final statement on the irrelevance of the private-eye and his outdated characteristics. The film’s final shot of Marlowe strolling down a road lined by trees mirrors that of a classic Film-Noir, The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, 1949), in which the private-eye faced a similar dilemma to Marlowe but chose to adhere to his moral code. This is done to deliberately draw attention to The Long Goodbye’s detachment from traditional Film-Noir standards and its rejection of its protagonist’s basic principles. These factors mean that it cannot be considered part of the Film-Noir genre.

As the genre’s title suggests, Horror films, at their most basic level, have always been designed to shock, scare, and unsettle an audience. They do this by tapping into our most primal fears; fears of the grotesque, isolation, vulnerability, loss of identity, the unknown, violence and death. These fears often manifest in the form of monsters, and often, either directly or through subtext, provide warnings about the dark side of our own natures; the monster within. So, how can The Shining, a film which is part of a genre based on the exploitation of such primal fears, present anything new? Some detractors suggest it doesn’t, most notably the author of the novel The Shining was based on, Stephen King, who was quoted as saying:

“Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decision to the final scene – which has been used before.” (LoBrutto, 1999).

King and Kubrick did not have a healthy relationship. Kubrick originally commissioned King to write the screenplay to The Shining, but King’s screenplay was rejected by Kubrick. Kubrick decided to write the screenplay in collaboration with Diane Johnson, and the final script deviated greatly from King’s novel.

So, is King’s criticism of The Shining merely due to feelings of bitterness and resentment towards Kubrick, or do his claims have a solid foundation? First, let’s consider the primal fears that the Horror genre built its reputation on, and if The Shining deviated from the use of these basic principles of fear. Grotesque imagery abounds throughout The Shining, from the river of blood gushing forth from the elevator doors to the deformed Old Hag (Billie Gibson) in room 237. The setting provides the theme of isolation, which goes hand in hand with vulnerability. The danger becomes increasingly palpable as Jack (Jack Nicholson) slips deeper into the depths of murderous insanity, and we witness the helpless Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and Danny (Danny Lloyd) struggling for survival, trapped in the remote Overlook Hotel, surrounded by an icy wasteland. Jack’s transformation provides the theme of loss of identity. The cause of Jack’s devolution remains ambiguous, it never being made clear if it is the result of a supernatural influence or the strange events are merely manifestations of Jack’s madness. This mystery provides the fear of the unknown. Jack’s descent eventually results in violence and the death of Dick (Scatman Crothers), but the prospect of death and violence is established from the outset, with the story of the previous slaughter that took place at the hotel being told within the film’s first ten minutes.

So, there is no doubt that exploitation of these primal fears is prevalent throughout The Shining, but is its presentation of these traits significantly different enough to be considered new? Traditionally, these Horror principles were presented in the guise of various subgenres. Although clearly not directly part of one of these subgenres, The Shining shares a number of their conventions. One of the earliest subgenres is the Vampire film. Vampire films present the monster within by use of the vampire, whose non-consensual consumption of his victims’ blood is a metaphorical warning against losing control of our carnal desires. Jack feels stuck in a loveless marriage and shows resentment against Wendy for holding back his career. His sexual encounter with the phantom Beautiful Woman (Lia Beldam) shows he’s also starved of sexual gratification, and his violent retribution against Wendy is his means of quenching his lustful hunger. The vampire’s unholy task is often passed to him by a senior vampire, much as Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) encourages Jack to duplicate his own murderous rampage. One of the first notable Vampire films is Nosferatu (dir. Murnau, 1922). Nosferatu is one of the earliest and seminal purveyors of the theme of the doppelganger. The doppelganger is a representation of the dark side of human nature. It is often symbolised through reflections, doubles, and silhouettes; as shown in Nosferatu, with the iconic image of Orlok (Max Schreck) climbing the stairs. The theme of the doppelganger is prevalent throughout The Shining, the focal point being Jack’s twin personas, but double imagery is also used excessively during the film to support the theme. Danny has a twin identity, Tony, who he communicates with while looking into a mirror, suggesting he is Danny’s mirror image. Tony attempts to warn Wendy through backwards writing, which is only interpreted when reflected through a mirror. The Beautiful Woman transforms into the Old Hag once viewed through a mirror, and the Grady twins (Lisa & Louise Burns) are mirror images of each other, their death at the hands of their father, a crime in danger of being mirrored by Jack.

The Shining’s theme of a man’s reversion to a more animalistic state is a central theme of Werewolf films. Werewolf films see the physical and mental transformation of a human protagonist into a wolf-like creature. As Jack descends into his degenerative state, wolf references are made in his dialogue, such as “hair of the dog that bit me” and “little pigs, little pigs”. It is not only Jack’s violent actions which can be viewed as beastlike, by the end of the film, he has deteriorated both mentally and physically. By the film’s climax, Jack’s language has become slurred, resembling little more than primitive grunting, and as he pursues Danny, he hobbles along with an abnormal primordial gait. The Shining fits most easily into the Haunted House subgenre, clearly sharing its core conventions. Haunted House films conventionally involve a group of individuals staying in an isolated building and experiencing various encounters with ghosts and ghouls.

Throughout The Shining, Kubrick fashions an underlying theme of the plight of the Native American Indians. A number of references to the Native Americans appear throughout the film. The hotel is said to have been built on an Indian burial ground. Indian artwork appears on wall hangings and carpets, and cans with an Indian chief logo are visible in the food locker. The July 4th Ball takes place on a day celebrating the birth of a nation that was formed through the genocide of its native people. The Ball’s patriots represent the privileged few, who are seen indulging themselves, having profited in a stolen land. For their crimes, the patriots must endure eternity at the cursed Overlook Hotel, experiencing and inciting further slaughter. Although the connotations of this oblique theme are less apparent than those previously mentioned, it too has its roots in an old Horror cliché, that of punishment for corrupting an ancient culture; a convention of numerous Mummy films.

Clearly, The Shining borrows heavily from past subgenres, but is its conversion of their conventions extensive enough for it to be considered new? Jack is not a grotesque monster, and outwardly, he largely remains normal, with his psychopathic tendencies not resulting in a substantial physical change, as is predominant in past Horror films. Though not as common as the themes previously mentioned, the horror of the hidden monster, the outwardly innocent psychopath hiding in plain view, was nothing new. It was a particular favourite of Alfred Hitchcock, which he used on more than one occasion, in films such as Psycho (dir. Hitchcock, 1960) and Strangers on a Train (dir. Hitchcock, 1951). This quote from Hitchcock himself sums up how slight deviations in the depictions of protagonists do not alter the basic principles of fear:

“Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.” (Goodreads, 2012).

The Shining unabashedly relies heavily on the ‘doppelganger’ and ‘monster within’ themes, two of the oldest and most commonly used Horror themes, which Kubrick freely admits:

“One of the things that horror stories can do is show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.” [Visual-Memory, 2012].

It is true that it subverts the conventions of various Horror subgenres, so as no longer to be firmly placed into any of them, but its reliance on these conventions is so rife that the film must be considered a pastiche. By definition, a pastiche is an artistic work that imitates that of another work, artist, or period, and, therefore, due to The Shining’s extensive imitation, it cannot be considered new.

The Long Goodbye successfully presents something new by offering a satire of an obsolete character and parodying the classical conventions of Film-Noir. The Shining’s over-reliance on clichéd Horror conventions fails to present anything significantly new and merely presents a pastiche. Yet they are both labelled as New Hollywood films. “Chandler said of his novel [The Long Goodbye], ‘I wrote this as I wanted to because I can do that now’ and Altman, in that spirit, made his movie as he wanted to, because he could do that in the early ’70s.” (Rafferty, 2007). During the ‘Classic Hollywood’ era, a vertically integrated system was used. This gave studios complete control over their films. This resulted in films developed with the aim to produce maximum profits taking precedence over the need for artistic merit. “Some have compared the Hollywood studio system to a factory, and it is useful to remember that studios were out to make money first and art second.” [Fathom, 2012]. The New Hollywood era dawned at the disbandment of the vertically integrated system, and although New Hollywood films sometimes failed to present content that can be considered drastically new, it was an era of cinema where directors were able to gain artistic control over the studios and present an unadulterated vision of their work. For this reason, overall, New Hollywood can be considered a new era of artistic achievement.



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