Classic Corner: The Long Goodbye

“Rip Van Marlowe” was how Robert Altman pitched it. He’d agreed to adapt Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye, but had no interest in making a period piece. There was something of a private eye nostalgia craze in the air back in 1973; Chandler had been dead for 14 years but his books were selling better than ever, and the cult of Humphrey Bogart had recently reached its zenith with Herbert Ross’ movie version of Woody Allen’s Broadway hit Play it Again, Sam – in which the Woodman starred as a film critic who gets dating advice from Bogie’s ghost – filling theaters the previous summer. Chinatown would be arriving soon, followed by Robert Mitchum’s stint as Chandler’s hard-boiled, secretly sentimental gumshoe. It seemed as if the time couldn’t be more right for a reverent reinvention of a pulp fiction legend, which is exactly what Altman didn’t deliver. Although why anybody expected reverence from Robert Altman, I’ll never understand.

“A nose-thumb not only at the idea of Philip Marlowe but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized,” moaned Jay Cocks in TIME Magazine. “It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire.” The negative reviews for The Long Goodbye weren’t just bad, they were personal. Bogie and The Big Sleep were hallowed ground for film buffs, so the initial critical perception was that Altman and his shaggy-haired, traveling circus of stoners were pissing on a beloved American institution. The Los Angeles Times’ Charles Champlin complained that star Elliott Gould “is not Chandler’s Marlowe, or mine, and I can’t find him interesting, sympathetic or amusing, and I can’t be sure who will.” But in 2005’s Altman On Altman, the director argued that he and Gould’s allegedly blasphemous interpretation was actually more faithful to the novels than previous Chandler pictures. “Everyone said that Elliott’s not Phillip Marlowe and I wasn’t being true to the author, but what they were really saying was that Elliott Gould wasn’t Humphrey Bogart.”

He sure wasn’t. Altman and Gould’s heresy was to play it as if the iconic private eye had fallen asleep in 1953 and woke up groggy in then-present day Southern California. He drives a gargantuan 1948 Lincoln Continental on a freeway full of fancy foreign sportscars and is always wearing a blocky, black suit and a tie he won’t take off even when he’s at the beach. Marlowe’s the only character who smokes cigarettes (constantly) while surrounded by health food-eating exercise enthusiasts. Muttering a motor-mouthed and oft-perplexed internal monologue in lieu of the usual film noir voice-over, Gould’s Marlowe is a walking anachronism — a man out of time in the Me Decade. What the film’s first critics couldn’t see, but fans like Pauline Kael and Gene Siskel quickly picked up on, was that this allegedly radical re-interpretation was, in fact, a logical (if less glamorous) extension of Chandler’s vision of Marlowe as the last hurrah for chivalry in a fallen, postwar world that’s moved beyond his pesky moral concerns. Gould is grubby but gallant, a decent guy surrounded by sharks and constantly betrayed for having faith in his fellow man. His best friend describes him as “a born loser.” He even loses his cat.

The plot was pared down from the labyrinthine novel by legendary screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who scripted everything from El Dorado to The Empire Strikes Back, and had worked with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman on Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep. It’s a characteristically convoluted scenario in which Marlowe pries into the mysterious death of his pal Terry Lennox in Mexico, where he’d fled after maybe murdering his wife. Our detective also gets mixed up in a case with a Malibu blonde (Nina Van Pallandt) and her missing, much older, alcoholic writer husband – played by Sterling Hayden like he’s Hemingway being played by John Huston. In keeping with the groovy ‘70s setting there’s a dastardly New Age quack (the unnervingly malevolent Henry Gibson) and a gaggle of naked hippie chicks, stoned and doing yoga in the apartment across the way from Marlowe’s place. Even the scariest gangster in town, chillingly embodied by director Mark Rydell in a too-rare acting turn, talks in trendy, self-actualization therapy lingo when he’s not smashing glass bottles across his girlfriend’s face. (Keep an eye out for one of his henchmen, an uncredited Austrian bodybuilder who back then was billed as Arnold Strong.) 

“I remember when people just had jobs,” sighs a bit player granted the movie’s most emblematic line. There’s an air of exhaustion to The Long Goodbye, which drops Marlowe — an avatar of Hollywood’s most romantic myths – into a washed-out wasteland of shallow, avaricious sociopaths. Altman’s third collaboration with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond pushed even further into their penchant for “flashing” the film that the two had pioneered on McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The controversial – some cameramen would say reckless — technique involved re-exposing the negative to light a second time after shooting in order to drain the contrast and envelop the image in a bright, ethereal haze. The Long Goodbye has a glare that looks the way the world does when you’re squinting at it through a horrific hangover, some scenes appearing as if seen through the smoke wafting up from one of Marlowe’s omnipresent cigarettes.

The camera never stops moving, always dollying and zooming and panning past the action so you’re catching it on the fly as the movie ambles along without you. Bookended by bitterly ironic renditions of “Hooray for Hollywood,” The Long Goodbye is otherwise scored entirely by hilarious variations on John Williams and Johnny Mercer’s eponymous two-line theme song, an insidiously catchy refrain repeated in every possible permutation from orchestral fanfare, to cocktail lounge jazz, to elevator Muzak, to doorbell chimes. (It’s a great gag that the Coen brothers borrowed for Raising Arizona, and when director Rian Johnson got a chance to work with Williams he had him work the theme into The Last Jedi’s casino scene.) It’s all the same old song, the movie seems to be telling us. “And it happens every day,” according to the hauntingly repetitive lyrics.

Altman liked to refer to The Long Goodbye as “a satire in melancholy,” and the film can be screamingly funny, especially whenever Gould gets going. His Marlowe swaggers alongside the characters this singular star created with Altman for M*A*S*H and California Split as a triumvirate of the era’s great anti-establishment outsiders — hepcat goofballs fast-talking jabberwocky while refusing to play by society’s rules, no matter how much they know it’s gonna cost them in the end. Gould turns the de rigueur detective movie routine during which he’s questioned at the station house into a tour de force of contempt for the cops, interrupting the interrogation by smearing his face with fingerprint ink and imitating Al Jolson singing “Swanny.” Marlowe’s catch-phrase is “It’s okay with me,” a genial affirmation the agreeable private dick repeats almost ad infinitum to get himself out of awkward situations. All the way up until the film’s abrupt final scene, when suddenly, shockingly, it isn’t okay at all. 

“The Long Goodbye” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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