Well, we can start with the plot this time round. Are you ok with that? Sure. Let’s try and lock some of this story down. It’s alright with me. There’s this private detective. Marlowe. Philip Marlowe. A guy so laid back he’s horizontal. His so-called friend Terry Lennox comes to his house in the dead of night to ask for a small favour. Terry has scratches on his face. Like he’s been fighting with his old lady again. Doesn’t matter. Terry asks Marlowe to give him a ride to Mexico straight away. Why? Terry isn’t interested in enlightening anyone with too many details.
Marlowe does what he’s asked because that’s what friends are for. Later, upon coming back, Marlowe is shaken down by the cops. Turns out that Terry’s wife is dead. Marlowe is now being looked at as an accessory to murder. This is only just the beginning. It all goes downhill from then on.
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The Long Goodbye can be straightforward yet complicated at the same time. You can write down the whole plot of the movie if you wanted to. Yet what happens doesn’t feel like it’s happening at all. Everything seems to be on shifting sands. Nothing is simple. This is the beauty of the film and the genius of Altman, possibly one of cinema’s greatest “revisionists”. The Long Goodbye is a tough crime novel – the sixth to feature Philip Marlowe – written by Raymond Chandler in 1953. I had read it years ago and remembered the writing as terse and gin-soaked. Its lead character Phillip Marlowe was fallible but no-nonsense. Built with his tough moral code.
Altman, ever the mischief maker, decided to have fun with not only The Long Goodbye as a story but the genre. The most famous rendition of Marlowe is Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946). Known for roles with a brusque, cynical exterior. In rewatching The Big Sleep, you’re quick to note how Bogie’s Marlowe suffers no fools. So, one could only imagine how some felt when Altman decided to cast Elliott Gould. Heading back to the casting well which struck success with the satirical comedy M*A*S*H (1970). “Chandler fans will hate my guts,” said Altman. “I don’t give a damn.”
Gould had hit a slump before The Long Goodbye. He had not worked for two years. He was set to be the lead in an adaptation of Herman Raucher’s A Glimpse of Tiger before the film was abandoned due to his erratic behaviour. The material was a choice pick for the actor. An enthralling book which would be highly unlikely (read near impossible) to make now due to its ending, and how audiences view the subject of matters such as terrorism. It’s indeed doubtful that something as bittersweet and cynical could squeeze through the established channels now. This in turn is also why Gould picking The Long Goodbye is just as interesting. As sunkissed as Hollywood looks in this movie, this is still noir. The dreaminess of the film’s visuals doesn’t hide the sourness that inhabits the story.
The Big Sleep is a film with all the private dick iconography we recognise. Long coats, quick quips and wide hats. Marlowe is seen as a tough nut gumshoe with his finger on the pulse in each phase. Altman with screenwriter Leigh Brackett worked over the idea of Philip Marlowe entirely. Reconditioning the character as “Rip Van Marlowe”. Suggesting that his interpretation of the character had been asleep since the 50s, awakening as a gumshoe out of time. The steadfast morals that did him so well in his previous era are now outdated within the cynical, self-absorbed period of the 70s. Film Critic Pauline Kael notes in her review: “Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is a wryly forlorn knight, just slogging along; still driving a 1948 Lincoln Continental and trying to behave like Bogart.”
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Casting an actor known for his nebbishes becomes a masterstroke. This Marlowe is unsure of his footing. When Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) is introduced to the narrative, it’s easy to see the film going one way. Eileen, looking like a lost member of Abba, is drawn to Marlowe’s lackadaisical charm. She looks set to be the love interest. As the film continues, we realise that her intentions are as cloudy as pot smoke haze. But it’s not that Marlowe can see it. So attached to his old-school loyalty, he doesn’t know that he’s possibly being taken for a ride. Then again even his cat knows how to call his bluff, outclassing him before we reach the 15-minute mark. The film’s opening scenes, in which Marlowe tries to outwit his cat with inferior brand cat food are telling. The feline becomes the perfect metaphor for the attitudes Marlowe mingles with. It’s little surprise that the cat becomes the sly punchline at the end of the film.
A man of the 50s lost in a 70s world plays well to a grumbling film writer in the 2020s. Particularly while living in the realm of “canon”. Where differences in mediums are obsessed over. Often as flaws. The changes here are substantial. They provide new meaning, and have created new influences. Gould, Altman, and Brackett take Marlowe’s wit and invert it. The cocky wisecrack of now are now unsure quips more to himself than those who antagonise him. Much of Marlowe’s dialogue becomes narration on the absurdity of the situation rather than anything else. Most importantly, Marlowe never feels on top of the case. Brackett and Altman reassess and rearrange suspected aspects of the book. Yet Gould’s stumbling quirks along with Marlowe’s antiquated views on loyalty keep him out of step with the situation. It’s this which makes the film entertaining. The Long Goodbye is darkly amusing to see the detective not have everything wrapped up so neatly.
Watching this critique on the private detective and the genre as a whole opens the door to iconic influences after it. Everything from The Big Lebowski (1996), Inherent Vice (2014) and Under the Silver Lake (2018) falls into place. I wonder if the likes of Aaron Katz paid small homage to Altman’s detective story with his minute mumblecore feature Cold Weather (2010). Suddenly the intricate nature of the crime plots of old become secondary to these often-singular figures trapped in the malaise of the societies they inhabit. In one sense, The Long Goodbye becomes a fascinating contrast to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971). How exactly do these old values of American morality stand up after the likes of Charles Manson dually spat in America’s face? It’s all seen in Gould’s performance. Blindsided, rambling and roundabout. Chasing shadows like a defender trailing Pele.
Despite the languid style that lies on the surface of so many of Altman’s films, there’s a keen eye to this shaggy dog story. While Roger Ebert notes the plot of The Long Goodbye as “a labyrinth not easily negotiated” and states that Brackett’s screenplay “makes it almost impossible to track a suitcase filled with a mobster’s money” it is a feature that rewards loyal viewers with each viewing. The roaming camera picks up on things that may not have been seen the first time. The film’s sudden bursts of morality or violence still shock. More so than what was allowed in the Hays Code-stricken days of the 40s. While the haunting John Williams score – an undervalued one at that – is constantly reshaped, reformed, and repurposed throughout the whole film, the film only ever plays the same refrain. Yet it’s heard in wildly contrasting guises, almost as a constant reminder that Marlowe is missing something. It’s accomplished work because it’s made to look so easy.
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When first released, The Long Goodbye rated poorly with critics. Frustrated at something that toys and undermines the genre so candidly. It’s no real shock that it plays better now. The Long Goodbye was never about re-hashing Bogart. Why should it be? We’ve had that Marlowe. And he is still enjoyed. The intention was to repurpose Marlowe for the new world that he inhabited. Allowing us to re-engage with the material in a way that we may never have thought fit. Who’d have known what Chandler would have thought of this interpretation? But to the eyes of this Altman fan, it’s alright with me.
The Long Goodbye was released on 8th March 1973.