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 At that time, classically-oriented detective movies had more or less been replaced by action films and the beginning of the kung-fu craze.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.
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 captures 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 and extras 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 Vilmos Zsigmond's 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 radio spots.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Long Goodbye rates:
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.