"He turned and walked across the floor and out. I watched the door close. I listened to his steps going away down the imitation marble corridor. After a while they got faint, then they got silent. I kept on listening anyway. What for? Did I want him to stop suddenly and turn and come back and talk me out of the way I felt? Well, he didn't. That was the last I saw of him. I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them."
That's how Raymond Chandler ends his last significant Philip Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye. It's a moment of defeat. Marlowe has been confronted by the manipulative genius behind the mystery that Marlowe has been pursuing through this, Chandler's longest novel. Marlowe is confronted quietly in his office by Terry Lennox, who up until this moment has been presumed dead. Marlowe was a friend of Terry's, and you could say that Marlowe was a little bit in love with him, the way working stiffs often fall in love with handsome rich guys with charismatic if dissipating ways. Lennox is confronting Marlowe and it is the final act of betrayal. Lennox used Marlowe. He played him for a sap. But the last vestige of sympathy in Lennox's soul compels him to make one last visit to Marlowe in his office and try to explain himself. Marlowe won't have any of it. The code by which Marlowe is judging Lennox is unstated, but it fills all of the big novel precedes this scene. It's powerful and sad, in the way that only really good detective novels about men who tell the truth and express emotions through sarcasm can be.
That's not the way that Robert Altman's 1973 adaptation of the book ends. In the film, Marlowe drives down to Mexico and shoots Lennox, busting up his dreams of escape. If Marlowe's action in the movie seems something of an overreaction, that's because the sense of betrayal is never really very clear in either book or movie, and Marlowe's beau geste is the act of a futile, confused, and out of joint man.
Altman was on quite a roll by the time he got to The Long Goodbye. After a stream of industrial films and a career in series television, he ended up assigned to M*A*S*H (1970), which initiated the '70s, widely viewed today as the last great decades of movies. In rapid succession followed a string of critical or commercial hits: the hippie cult "midnight movie" Brewster McCloud, his anti-western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, his "dream film" Images, which mocked the suspense thriller, then The Long Goodbye, followed by Thieves Like Us, a mock road film, California Split, a mock gambling film, and finally the cultural heights of Nashville (1975). After that it was downhill: he became a parody of himself, doing Altmanesque movies on the Nashville model, or theater adaptations, or vain attempts to connect to the kids, and so on. But having spewed out his contempt for cinema and its genres in the early '70s, he seems to have nothing left to say or hate.
There is no doubt that Altman is an auteur in the conventional sense. His films are all of a piece, with their floating cameras, zooms, stock company, and multiple audio tracks. But just because you have a consistent style and some recognizable viewpoints it doesn't mean that your films have value beyond that. Altman is so motivated by rage and anger and disappointment that he has soured on everything. So when he confronts the masculine romanticism of Chandler's novel, he has to mock and betray it, the way Lennox betrays Marlowe.
Altman seemed personally offended by Marlowe. On the set he passed around copies of the then-hard-to-find Chandler letter— and essay collection Raymond Chandler Speaking, eager for his cast and crew to note the suicidal tendencies behind Chandler's romanticism. He worked from a screenplay by Hawks collaborator and sci-fi writer Leigh Brackett, who wrote The Big Sleep, to assure that the film would have some linkages back to Hollywood detective films, just so he could undermine them. And he updated the story from the early '50s to the '70s, with Marlowe out of touch, a man in a blue '40s suit and an old car, a guy with a cat instead of a girlfriend, and a buffoon who is the tool of those around him. The worst thing Altman does is take away Marlowe's voice. It is not a "first person movie," it is a Robert Altman movie, with quirky casting (Laugh-In's Henry Gibson, Hughes forgery squeeze Nina Van Pallandt, ex-baseball star Jim Bouton as Lennox) and a style that diffuses everyone.
The Long Goodbye is an outrageous betrayal of a movie but with a few good parts. The slow zoom showing Hemingwayesque writer Sterling Hayden walking into the sea to commit suicide while Marlowe and the man's wife argue about him is justly famous, but again it's turning a first person caper into a first person director log; and there was the clever idea of the multiple iterations of the movie's theme song, written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, heard as everything from grocery store Muzak to doorbell chimes. Parts of the film, then, are fine. But for the most part the film is a travesty. Yet here it is. It exists, and it won't go away. One can only hope that, once enough time has passed and the mood of the world changes, someone with the same sort of dedication as the people who made L. A. Confidential will try it again.
MGM does a modestly good job with this long-awaited disc. It's good to see the film in its wide-screen 2.35:1 format (enhanced for wide-screen televisions), after all this time. This single sided, dual-layered disc bears a surprisingly clean transfer. The film is also of historical interest because with it cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond helped pioneer the technique of "flashing," or exposing the negative to light during processing, in order to achieve a softer, pastel like look.
The Long Goodbye appeared before certain major advancements in sound, and Altman was one filmmaker who bucked up against the technology's limitations, with his interest in overlapping dialogue. Thus the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, in both English and French (with subtitles in English, Spanish, and French) is about as good as can be expected, baring an attempt to replicate or restore the track in a 5.1 format. Dialogue is occasionally lost in static or noise.
The musical, static menu offers 16 chapters for the 112 minute movie.
The keep-case comes with a color still of a vengeful Marlowe on the cover, and a small one-sheet inside with the chapter list.
Supplements are reasonably plentiful. First up is the 25-minute retrospective making of featurette "Rip Van Marlowe," which has new interviews with Altman and Gould, plus stills from a deleted scene. Following that is the highly technical 14-minute featurette "Vilmos Zsigmond Flashes The Long Goodbye," which tries to explain Zsigmond's film-pushing technique. If that doesn't take, there is also a reprint of a 1973 American Cinematographer article on Zsigmond's methods. Finally, there are some radio spots and the theatrical trailer.