Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Long Goodbye was fumbled by United Artists, argued over by the critics, and largely ignored by
the public when it came out in 1973. At that time, classically-oriented detective movies had more
or less been replaced by action films and the beginning of the kung-fu craze. The term
film noir was not yet a standard phrase, not even in film schools, and the romantic revival that
would begin with Chinatown was still a few seasons away. Who has strong memories of nostalgic
efforts like Pulp, or Gumshoe?
Robert Altman's detective story is now lauded for its breezy style, good acting, and
willingness to reconsider the literary basis of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe
character. Those looking for Humphrey Bogart in 1973 were surely put off by Elliott Gould's
mellow mumbler, but now he's become a counterculture icon, as fixed and unique as A.I. Bezzerides'
revisionist take on Mike Hammer in
Kiss Me Deadly.
Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is hounded by the police when his best friend Terry
Lennox (Jim Bouton) is accused of murdering his wife Sylvia, and committing suicide in Mexico,
things that Marlowe refuses to believe can be true. The notoriety lands Marlowe a missing
persons job for Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), who wants Philip
to retrieve her husband Roger (Sterling Hayden). That Philip does, but the two cases overlap
when he discovers that the Wades knew the Lennoxes, and that gangster Marty Augustine (Mark
Rydell) had money dealings with both. Worse, the psychotic Augustine expects Philip to
retrieve a huge sum of money Terry is supposed to have run off with, while the Wades begin to look
more implicated than ever in Terry Lennox'es crime.
In the perceptive interview docu accompanying this new DVD of The Long Goodbye, Elliott
Gould very candidly explains that his career was going nowhere when Robert Altman became excited
about starring him in a Chandler story. Gould had dissipated his kickoff to stardom in M*A*S*H
in a series of limp comedies and opaque experiments like Little Murders. Initially, it looked
as if he were also skating through this film, on his personal brand of laid-back coolness.
Time has been kind to the film, and if you haven't caught up with it until now, it's going to be a
pleasant surprise. Altman and writer Leigh Brackett (screenwriter of the '46 Hawks The Big
Sleep) do play a game with us. The standard take on The Long Goodbye is that its Marlowe is
an anachronism, a 40's private dick out of step with the LA of the early 70s. He drives his oversized
'48 Lincoln and otherwise seems overwhelmed by the complexities of the
modern world, with its zen-nudist lesbian neighbors and its Coury Cat Food.
That argument is too restricting. Yes, Gould's Marlowe is the same closet hero, a white knight
who claims his dignity through a personal honor system. But what he's being compared to is the
Humphrey Bogart conception of Marlowe, the strutting, egotistical, slightly arrogant Bogey version. Chandler's
Marlowe, even with his sharp tongue, definitely has a passive side.
What we really have here is a worn-out Marlowe nearly defeated by the changes in his world. Things were
just as corrupt in '39 as they are in '73, and Marlowe still keeps his personal honor carefully hidden
while suffering the more demeaning demands of his profession. Much is made of his refrain, "It's okay by me", when
it's clear that a lot of things aren't okay by him at all. He doesn't understand the girls next door,
and laconically wishes them the best. He has no patience whatsoever for the cops and the hoods who
constantly harass and threaten him. Marty Augustine's colorful thugs ("I can't take my shirt off, Marty,
not with all these scars!") beat him up. The police cynically pretend he assaulted them,
to provide a pretext for hauling him downtown for three days. Marlowe is deceptively passive
with both camps - but when it comes down to solving a crime, or proving the innocence of a dear friend,
our hero can get up on his hind legs and tell off the whole world (being drunk helps, admittedly.)
Naturally, the two unrelated cases in The Long Goodbye collapse into one, with some questions
answered and others not. The utter unlikelihood of Sylvia Lennox'es murder works in favor of the
guilty, as neither the cops nor the crooks can deal with the kind of complexity that Marlowe knows
every murder entails. However, it's not as if he himself can get a Sherlock Holmes handle on the
situation. In this case, Marlowe extends his sincere help and concern to a number of people. Almost
all of them betray him with a casual selfishness that definitely is Not Okay by Him.
(class A spoiler warning)
If you haven't seen The Long Goodbye, wait to see the good docu material on the DVD, as
it will spoil the film as much as will the following paragraph. Marlowe does something at the end of
the picture that really angers Chandler loyalists. When he catches up with Terry Lennox, he
shoots him in cold blood. It's the surprise of the film, and, to those holdouts
who think Altman is an undisciplined hack, also its worst moment. I've read The Long
Goodbye but frankly don't recall Chandler's original climax, except for his kissoff line,
lamenting that one can never say goodbye to the cops. Altman wisely forgets about his source and
relates Marlowe to the real world, where the concepts of loyalty, honor and trust between people
have become increasingly rare. In reality, Chandler was saying the same thing about 1940 when he made
his cynical private eye such a closet sentimentalist. Twenty years later, John Sayles said "Forget
the Alamo', and here Altman and Brackett are admitting that nostalgia and
sentiment have their limits. Sometimes even the doves have to strike back like
Dirty Harry. 1
Besides Elliott Gould's fine interpretation of a Philip Marlowe who doesn't have a girl because he
can't even keep a cat, there are several other fine performances in The Long Goodbye. Nina
Van Pallandt is luminous as Eileen Wade, the ultra-Malibu earth mother who cooks a mean chicken,
and Sterling Hayden's boistrous,
bearish author on the brink of insanity is unique. Physically imposing, Hayden convinces us that
he can be bullied by the insufferable Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson, an Altman regular who I still
find barely adequate) and thus provides Marlowe with his most telling clue. Mark Rydell is a gangster
re-invented as a Sunset Boulevard promoter who might be managing rock stars or sporting events; his
casual sadism creates one of the more horrible moments in 70s films.
Finally, there's no missing a young Arnold Schwarzenegger as a crab-torsoed muscle thug who can't wait to strip
off his shirt and pants.
Finally, The Long Goodbye is a better Los Angeles picture than Welcome to LA. It
the clean, well-lit nights and the sunny days to a 'T', and the laid-back feeling of Malibu is more
pronounced than in the moody Night Moves or the prehistoric Kiss Me Deadly.
Marlowe's bungalow apartment is real and
located on Camrose just South of the Hollywood Bowl; he'd never be able to park a car like his
in the tiny street below it. Steve Nielson and I took the elevator to the top once and walked
around, finding a grassy view
of the Bowl identical to the one in Double Indemnity. It's all locked off and secure now -
I've always wondered how the residents got their furniture up there or how a fire
truck could get emergency access.
In one scene, Elliott Gould runs on foot in an attempt to follow Nina Van Pallandt's Mercedes
through Westwood. He passes the drug store where Savant turned in all of his UCLA
student film for processing. It's the old Westwood, all right. I was working half a block away at the
then-new National Theater, and I wonder if I was closing down the concession stand while that scene
was being filmed.
MGM's DVD of The Long Goodbye should say 'Special Edition' on the cover, because its transfer
are terrific. Usually seen in blurry, grainy pan'n scan versions, this transfer is the best the show's
looked since original answer prints were made. The disc's Altman/Gould interviews play as if both men were tapped on perfect days. Gould
is honest about himself, and Altman blunt about the picture. Another short subject concentrates on
photographic technique, which is further expounded in a reprinted American Cinematographer
article. All those deep-focus night shots required some risky procedures, and The Long Goodbye
is one of the pictures that cemented Zsigmond's rep as a hot camera talent. Also with theatrical trailer and
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Long Goodbye rates:
Supplements: Docu Rip Van Marlowe, Vilmos Zsigmond on flashing the film, Reprint
American Cinematographer article, Radio Spots, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August, 2002
1. An excellent comparison film. Both heroes come to a vigilante conclusion from opposite
ends of the political spectrum. Admittedly, when his film begins Harry Callahan is already in
Revenger Mode and no longer acting like a police officer. At the end of The Long Goodbye, it
looks as if Marlowe really is ready to chuck it all. Try to be noble, like someone out of a movie?
Forget it, Philip, it's Chinatown. Hooray for Hollywood.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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