Directed by: Robert Altman.
Written by: Leigh Brackett based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Starring: Elliott Gould (Philip Marlowe), Nina van Pallandt (Eileen Wade), Sterling Hayden (Roger Wade), Mark Rydell (Marty Augustine), Henry Gibson (Dr. Verringer), David Arkin (Harry), Jim Bouton (Terry Lennox), Warren Berlinger (Morgan), Jo Ann Brody (Jo Ann Eggenweiler), Stephen Coit (Detective Farmer), Jack Knight (Mabel), Pepe Callahan (Pepe).
The plots of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels are always nearly impossible to follow. There is a famous story about Howard Hawks asking Chandler about who committed a murder in The Big Sleep when Hawks was directing the big screen version of the novel, and Chandler had to admit he didn’t know(or more accurately, he thought he knew, but when it was pointed out to him that his murderer would have already been dead at that point, he had to admit he didn’t know). The plot of The Long Goodbye is perhaps even more complicated than that of The Big Sleep – but I think, in Chandler’s novel anyway – it all adds up. At least it does when you’re reading it. Roger Ebert said of Chandler’s novels that his plots “would matter more if he were a lesser writer” – and that’s true. The plots are all so complex, and yet I don’t much think Chandler really cared about them that much. He was painting large canvases of corruption, greed, murder and sex, and he needed his complicated plots in order to get his Marlowe into contact with the rest of the characters. When Robert Altman made The Long Goodbye in 1973, he jettisoned much of the plot Chandler’s novel – and yet he has somehow made a movie that may be even more difficult to follow than Chandler’s novel. No matter. Writing about the film in 1973, Ebert wrote it tries to be “all genre and no story” – and again I think that’s true. If the plot didn’t really matter to Chandler, it mattered even less to Altman. He was making a film 20 years after Chandler’s novel was written, and is basically making a point about the obsolence of this type of story and genre. He describes Elliot Gould’s character as “Rip Van Marlowe” – in that he fell asleep in 1953 and woke up 20 years later, as a man out of time with everyone around him. Chandler’s Marlowe always figured everything out in the end. Altman’s Marlowe seems lost for much of the movie – wandering around in a world and a story, interacting with characrters that don’t make any sense to him. Out of all the adaptations of Chandler’s Marlowe novels – this one is the best.
The film opens with a great sequence – that isn’t found in the Chandler novel – of Philip Marlowe waking up. It’s the middle of the night, and his cat is bugging him. He wants to be fed – but he’s very particular about the food he wants. Marlowe tries to fool the cat, but to no avail. He heads out to the all night store, and they don’t have the food either. He comes across his neighbors – which seems like a hippie commune of spaced out young people, and he doesn’t bat an eye. His friend Terry (Jim Boulton) comes over and tells Marlowe he needs a ride to Mexico. He gives it to him and when he returns the cops are there. They want to know where Terry is – he is the only suspect in a murder.
The plot, such as it is, will get complicated, as Marlowe becomes involved with the Wades – Roger (Sterling Hayden) is a famous novelist, who is constantly drunk, and in need of drying out. His wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt) wants Marlowe to find him – as he’s gone missing again. This, along with Terry’s case, will get Marlowe involved with a shady doctor (Henry Gibson) and a gangster (director Mark Rydell) – and other characters in a plot Marlowe – and the audience – barely understands.
Altman is playing with the conventions of film noir in the film. The Chandler novels center on Marlowe, who is a character who isn’t saintly, but definitely has a code which he lives by, and he’s never willing to compromise that code no matter what else happens. He is a man plan of principle in a world that doesn’t have any. Gould’s Marlowe is somewhat different – he’s certainly more naïve, and never quite understands that no one else in the movie has any set of principles they aren’t willing to compromise. In most Marlowe books, he is a character who has to figure out the truth that everyone is so steadfastly trying to conceal. In The Long Goodbye everyone seems to understand what is going on except for Marlowe. He doesn’t seem like a very good detective. He is a character who no longer fits in with the rest of the story.
This is a great performance by Gould – who did his best work with Altman in the 1970s in films like this, California Split and MASH. His Marlowe isn’t Chandler’s Marlowe – for that see Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) or Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely (1975), who are more in line with the character Chandler wrote. His Marlowe is more in line with detectives like Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) or Harry Moseby in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975). He’s a man out of time, and trying to keep up – and he never quite can do it – until the very end, where he does something shocking – and something Chandler’s Marlowe would have never done.
Altman liked to play with genre throughout his career – never taking it too seriously, and always making it his own. There is some of his famed “overlapping” dialogue in the film which make it unmistakably his. There is also great cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and only one song in the whole movie – endless variations of the title tune. It’s a film for lovers of noir who want to see a clever twist on the genre. It’s a film for Altman lovers, who love his trademark style. It’s a film very much of its time and place – the cynical post-Watergate era in America – but now still seems relevant. It’s one of my favorite movies – and its gets better each time I see it.