The Long Goodbye (1973) / Mystery-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence, nudity and language
Running Time: 112 min.
Cast: Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, Jim Bouton, David Arkin, David Carradine (cameo), Arnold Schwarzenegger (cameo)
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Leigh Brackett (based on the novel by Raymond Chandler)
Elliott Gould (The Big Hit, American History X) stars as private investigator Philip Marlowe, who one night receives a visit from a dear old friend named Terry Lennox (Bouton) after he's had a squabble with his wife. At his behest, Lennox has Marlowe drive him to the border crossing into Tijuana. Marlowe comes home to find the cops waiting for him, claiming Lennox is wanted for the murder of his wife, and threatening to charge him with accessory to murder if he doesn't answer any questions. Marlowe is released when the cops inform him that the case is solved; Lennox has taken his own life. Marlowe isn't satisfied with the open-and-shut nature of the police investigation, and knows his friend is innocent, but he enters into another case of a wealthy woman named Eileen Wade (Van Pallandt, American Gigolo), who hires him to find her wayward drunken husband, Roger (Hayden, The Godfather). It's a simple case, but it seems there is more than meets the eyes, as the Wades have ties into the Lennox case that may prove Terry's innocence, though only posthumously.
Noted writer Leigh Brackett (The Empire Strikes Back, Rio Bravo), who wrote the screenplay for a previous Philip Marlowe film, 1942's The Big Sleep, returns to fine form in this other outing that is set in the present day (1973 here). Director Altman (Brewster McCloud, Short Cuts) would sign on to the project after hearing that Elliott Gould was attached, although only under the condition that Brackett's controversial ending, which differs significantly from Chandler's original novel, be kept as is. Altman's take greatly streamlines the original work, jettisoning out many of the supporting characters, making the film more about Marlowe's strange odyssey into the current hippie-dippy, health-crazed California climate, searching for his soul in an era that seemingly had no use for a decaying, chain-smoking misanthrope. This streamlining also allows Altman to beef up the characterizations, with many interesting character touches that add a sense of realism and a touch of (paradoxically) comic sadness to the film that makes it a perplexing and alluring work even to this day.
Gould's career slump, bad marketing, and mediocre reviews didn't help the film's popularity, as The Long Goodbye was given a limited release, only performing well in New York with a different ad campaign. Not many were in tune with the revisionist Philip Marlowe, making him appear as a disconnected slob who sleepwalks though life without any ability to make sense of his surroundings, not caring about politics, the state of the world, or even the wrongs that may be done upon him as a person (his catchphrase throughout the film is, "That's OK with me"). As the film draws closer to the end, he does manage to wake up to what's really going on, taking action in a way that seems out of place with Marlowe's character, not only in Chandler's books and previous films based on them, but throughout the film itself.
As the years progressed, The Long Goodbye had started to become a bit of a cult film, and today, it's widely regarded as one of Altman's gems. It does help to come into the film expecting a biting satire, not only of detective fiction, but also the world of Holly-weird, with all of the motley characters and decrepit morality that exists in Tinseltown. You can say what you like about the film's lack of adherence to source material, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another film quite like it, with a refreshingly lackadaisical pace and cynical attitude, along with underlying themes about loyalty and betrayal that cut to the heart of how the country was turning its back on the people, and its people to the country, leaving them to have to do for self in this society. Marlowe snaps out of his slumber to the realization that even he is being used, his loyalties compromising everything he is, and it's not the kind of world he is ready to live in.
The Long Goodbye is recommended to lovers of Altman, Gould, quirky films of the 1970s, and fans of Chandler who are open-minded in seeing a very different take on the typical hard-boiled noir version that had previously been set in stone. It's a sentimental commentary that simultaneously deconstructs the crime novel and the Hollywood of the past that relished such gumshoe tales, bringing them forward to a new era, where morality and the lines between what's right and wrong have forever been blurred.
Altman would continue to use contemporary attitudes to challenge once-vaunted forms of storytelling throughout his career, and The Long Goodbye represents his most bleak commentary on how current-day attitudes signal the death of the old Hollywood, with the final scene every bit the kind of thing that could never be done in the old days of the Production Code, where the good guys could only do good and the bad guys were always defeated in the end. The Code was lifted in 1967, and everything that had come before eroded into moral ambiguity and a sense that justice was never quite served, corresponding to the prevailing atmosphere in the country at the time.
Misunderstood at the time of its release, but now seen by many as one of the great films of its era, including myself; The Long Goodbye is much more than OK with me.
©2007 Vince Leo