Many Philip Marlowes have graced the film and TV screens over the years, from Dick Powell to Humphrey Bogart to Robert Mitchum to James Garner to Powers Boothe. Of all the potential actors to play Raymond Chandler’s tough yet moral Los Angeles-based private eye, I think it’s safe to say Elliot Gould would hardly be the first name to leap to people’s minds. With his rubbery face, beetle brows and slouchy, hip persona, Gould seems an odd fit for the “tarnished knight” audiences were used to seeing on screen. Yet surprisingly, he makes a solid lead in Robert Altman’s tribute to/ deconstruction of the gumshoe genre, The Long Goodbye.
That Gould works so well is partly due to Altman’s insistence on updating the 1940s-set story to the contemporary 70s; his hangdog, mumble-mouthed approach to the famous sleuth seems a better fit for the Los Angeles of the 1970s, with its naked pothead hippie chick neighbors, swanky Malibu beach parties, quack psychotherapists and Nixon-era disillusionment.
The movie opens in a relaxed, idiosyncratic fashion. We see Marlowe dealing with his insistently hungry yet finicky cat and heading out to the grocery store in the middle of the night to get it some food (along with some brownie mix for his spaced-out neighbors). Alternating with this are scenes of Marlowe’s pal Terry Lennox tooling his way through the city streets on his way to ask Marlowe for what will turn out to be a very costly favor.
An interesting touch here is how several forms of the John Williams/Johnny Mercer theme song is heard in each location. We get the theme tune proper playing on Marlowe’s car radio, which shuts off when Marlowe turns off the ignition but returns in Muzak form in the supermarket scene. We also hear the tune, this time sung by a female vocalist, in Lennox’s car. Other than one other song played over the end credits (“Hooray for Hollywood”), all music in the movie follows this diagetic pattern, each version a different arrangement of “The Long Goodbye” theme. It’s a somewhat unusual approach and gives the film a kind of subliminal, thematic unity.
After Marlowe tries unsuccessfully to fool his cat into accepting another brand of cat food (cat owners around the world will instantly relate to this scenario), Lennox arrives at his place. A note here about Marlowe’s P.I. bachelor pad. It’s at the top of an apartment building in what seems to be some part of the Hollywood Hills, with a bank of big picture windows featuring a view of not only the frequently topless wannabe starlets next door, but also a panoramic vista of L.A. itself. In this respect if in nothing else, Marlowe’s lot in life seems to have improved.
Lennox tells Marlowe he had another fight with his rich wife, Sylvia. Marlowe greets his old buddy enthusiastically, and offers his couch for the night. But Lennox has something else in mind: he wants Marlowe to drive him to the Mexican border at Tijuana. The loyal Marlowe complies.
A tired Marlowe returns home from his long drive and is promptly accosted by a pair of homicide detectives. Seems Lennox’s wife has been murdered and Marlowe is pegged as an accessory after the fact. Marlowe refuses to tell the cops where he took Lennox and is thrown in the slammer for three whole days for his trouble (he shares his cell with a chatty con, played by a young David Carradine). He’s shocked to learn upon his release that Lennox has apparently killed himself in a Mexican hotel, a seeming admission of his guilt. A disbelieving Marlowe gets involved in another case that, in true detective story fashion, turns out to be intimately intertwined with the Sylvia Lennox murder. He’s hired by the Lennoxes' stunning blonde neighbor, Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to track down her missing husband, famous novelist Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden).
Marlowe finds Wade easily enough, holed up in Dr. Verringer’s shady clinic, and sensing a scam on Verringer’s part, escorts the drunk and depressed Wade back to his wife. Rather taken by the sensuous beauty of Mrs. Wade, and concerned for the mental state of Roger, Marlowe agrees to keep an eye on things for his usual fee of "$50 a day and expenses." Marlowe can’t seem to catch a break; every time he returns to his apartment he gets another nasty surprise. The next one comes in the form of brutish gangster Marty Augustine, who says that Lennox ran off with $350,000 of his money and that he holds Marlowe personally responsible for getting the cash back.
Things get even more complicated for Marlowe when he finds a brief “thank you” note from Lennox in his mailbox, along with a $5,000 bill (clearly part of Augustine's missing cash). Even though Gould’s Marlowe is in some ways cut from a different, more hip and modern cloth than the norm, he still epitomizes the sort of dogged, honorable character that’s determined to get to the bottom of the case, no matter the risk to himself.
The Long Goodbye is directed in the typically naturalistic, almost accidental Altman style. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography seems deliberately dark and soft-focused, perhaps partly to capture a bit of a nostalgic feel, reflective of Altman’s take on the Marlowe character as out of step with his time, and also in what seems to be the director’s penchant for using natural lighting as much as possible. Altman makes good use of the Wades’ rambling beach house location (actually Altman’s own home at the time), and films several scenes through its windowpanes, where the dialogue is still audible, yet Zsigmond is able to achieve some interesting mirroring and distancing effects using the reflective qualities of the glass.
Sci-fi novelist and veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who co-wrote the 1946 The Big Sleep with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman) wrote the script for Goodbye, but with all the improvisation going on, especally by Gould and Hayden, who knows how much of the final product, other than the basic plot construction, can be credited to her.
In keeping with Altman’s patented “overlapping dialogue” style (seen to good effect in Nashville and The Player), Gould keeps a running, mumbled patter going almost nonstop. He’s basically his own Greek chorus, commenting on the absurdity of the situations he finds himself in, as well as verbally fencing with the various characters he comes into contact with throughout the story. (This reminds me of the similarly-handled, muttering character of McCabe (Warren Beatty) in Altman's earlier McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).
Gould has many funny moments, including this priceless bit with Harry, a newbie henchmen of Augustine assigned to follow him:
One of Gould’s constant refrains is “That’s OK with me.” His Marlowe, though constantly put-upon, threatened, tricked and lied to, doesn’t seem to take any of this ill treatment personally, and is laid-back almost to a fault. But when it comes to the film’s controversial ending, when he puts everything together and confronts the real killer, we see that he is indeed a man of deep feeling, and that there are some things he just won’t bear. How this finale plays out is a radical departure from the novel, one that to this day divides Chandler purists and fans alike. It also happens to be one of the most remarkable aspects of the movie. The final shots cleverly echo the 1949 Carol Reed classic, The Third Man.
Gould is in virtually every scene of the movie and anchors it with a shambling, lived-in performance, tossing off flippant one-liners and knowing asides with aplomb. In a nice touch that illustrates the character's roots in an earlier, less health-obsessed era, his Marlowe is constantly lighting up, smoking or otherwise rolling a cigarette around his mouth. Dressed in a dark blue suit and loose red tie, driving an old Lincoln Continental convertible, and with his unique code of honor and incorruptibility, his is a dishevilled yet worthy descendant of previous cinema Marlowes.
Nina Van Pallandt is quite good in the icy blond femme fatale role, properly alluring, mysterious and unobtainable. Sterling Hayden is striking in the small but showy part of the alcoholic Roger Wade. A big bear of a man, Hayden plays Wade as a troubled Hemingway-type figure, flailing away at fate and his dimming powers as a man and a writer. Apparently, Hayden was Altman’s second choice for the role. He wanted Dan Blocker, Hoss of Bonanza fame, which seems something of an odd choice to me but might have worked out fine; Blocker was good as the Moose Malloyesque figure in the Tony Rome sequel, Lady in Cement (1968), but I can't picture him bringing to the part the kind of vulnerability and broken-down dignity Hayden does.
Former pro baseball player and sports writer Jim Bouton isn’t in the film much but does a fine job as Terry Lennox. Director and sometimes actor Mark Rydell is fun as the vicious little rooster of a mobster, Augustine. The scene where he bashes his mistress in the face with a Coke bottle just to prove a point to Marlowe is nastily effective. (“Her, I love. You, I don’t even like.”) An uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger has a non-speaking scene late in the film as one of Rydell’s goons. And Henry Gibson is typically weaselly as the scheming Dr. Verringer.
In my opinion, the best incarnations of Chandler's character and hard-boiled world remain Dick Powell's dramatic career makeover, the stylish Murder, My Sweet (1944), and the terrific Howard Hawks' version of The Big Sleep (1946), with a perfectly cast Humphrey Bogart. That said, I enjoy all of the Marlowe films, including the first person POV experiment of Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake (1947), the drowsy-eyed Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975), and James Garner in the sunny 60s update of The Little Sister, Marlowe (1969). Despite its occasionally diffuse nature and Altman's iconoclastic inclinations, The Long Goodbye fits in nicely with these other entertaining adaptations. It's a consistently engaging and atmospheric detective story, and despite its groovy 70s trappings, remains a respectable take on the old-fashioned private eye tale.
DVD Note: MGM's Region 1 DVD of The Long Goodbye is now out-of-print and going for an exorbitant price on Amazon.com; what I assume is the same transfer can be had for cheap from Region 2. The image on the Region 1 copy is soft and often dark; how much of that is a by-product of the original filming, or a shortcoming of the DVD mastering, I have no idea. It's certainly watchable and at least anamorphically enhanced.
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