The Long Goodbye. 1973. Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett; based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, Jim Bouton, Jack Knight, David Carradine (uncredited), Rutanya Alda, Jack Riley, & Arnold Schwarzenegger (uncredited). E-K-Corporation/Lion’s Gate Films.
Rated R. 112 minutes.
Robert Altman is forever one of the greatest filmmakers. His innovation in capturing dialogue, his ability to encompass an ensemble cast so easily and effortlessly into solid storytelling, so many things make him a legend. He was simply the best. His movies often end up exploring very human stories, no matter their grandiosity or in some cases weirdness. Always, his focus remained on the human drama of life.
The Long Goodbye is a different case, only slightly. Taking on a Leigh Brackett screenplay, adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, Altman defies what the genre commands, what the viewer expects. He brings his ironclad style to the front, as well as a natural-feeling, slick performance out of Elliott Gould. The Chandler elements are there, but Brackett’s writing takes the famous Chandler character Phillip Marlowe out of the 1950s, placing him smack dab in the middle of 1970s Los Angeles, though still a man ahead of his time. All these things in their right place make for entertaining viewing. Not only is the film a joy to watch, allowing us the privilege of lapping up great directing from Altman, the story and the characters are vibrant. Like you literally walked into the middle of this film noir, the camera becoming a character in its own right. If you dig Chandler, you’ll certainly find Brackett and her script an interesting journey.
Dive on into a world of cold hearts, warm guns, flaming passion, and smart mouths.
“What do I need a cat for? I got a girl.” This line from a young grocery clerk to Marlowe almost epitomizes the difference between him and all the other men in the story. He’s the only gentle, kind soul, lost adrift in a sea of heartless people without any degree of loyalty. Elliott Gould is perfect. Absolutely perfect. He embodies the laid back, nonchalant nature of what Phillip Marlowe is all about. He’s absolutely paying attention to detail, his whole life is a god damn detail. At the same time there’s a quite an aloof sense about him. Not in that he’s oblivious. Rather, he’s comfortable in his own skin, even if he’s uncomfortable in a situation. Gould can give us the sly Private Eye in Marlowe, while also calling into question the morality at play in a complex performance.
The small details about Marlowe’s character is what makes the movie interesting to watch. Like how he tricks his cat into believing he’s gotten the appropriate brand of cat food that it enjoys, and still the cat won’t eat. “It‘s okay with me,” says Marlowe. This is an oft-repeated line throughout the film’s runtime, as the plot gets increasingly more bizarre and intense for him, Marlowe almost seems to get more relaxed, more mellow with each passing scene. Because he’s gradually accepting the world is a bit crazy. This all comes to head in the end after Marlowe commits an act that is not a part of the original novel. Brackett changed the ending, Altman said he refused to the movie if they changed her finale. So in a way, this repeated line is how the main character somehow comes to an understanding about the world, insisting it’s okay with him. In the end, nothing is okay, and we find the biggest juxtaposition in where he’s ended up – he wasn’t one of the crazies, he was a sensible and moral man caught amidst so much turmoil, only to land himself right there next to all the madness. An aspect of Marlowe is that he’s not really meant as part of this world (in Brackett’s screenplay), just so happens he’s a Private Eye, so the more he gets caught up in the whirlwind of criminality, the further he must dive into the murky morality of navigating that whole landscape, the less Marlowe is able to hold onto his own morality. This is the ultimate dilemma in which the character finds himself. His actions in the end are against morality, and also driven by morals. Quite a sticky little spot to be in.
What I love most about the writing is that Chandler was ahead of his time with Marlowe, as a character. So in the original 1950s setting, there’s this sense of Marlowe being a post-modern-type character. Even when the cops show up for their first chat with him early on, he quips: “Oh, is there where I‘m supposed to say ‘What is all this about?’ and he says, uh, ‘Shut up I ask the questions‘?” The way in which Leigh Brackett writes is he partly keeps the spirit of the novel, the hardboiled fiction of which Chandler was just about king, then at once he gives his own post-modern twist on the genre. So that direct line from Marlowe is the character’s own hint at the subversion of genre.
Brackett was an incredibly screenwriter, as well as a writer in general. She worked on The Big Sleep (another Chandler-Marlowe caper), Rio Bravo, and perhaps most famously The Empire Strikes Back. Often hailed as hugely influential for being a woman writing science fiction in the late 40s and into the 50s onward, which most certainly she was, though I can’t help feel she was also equally adept at writing film noir and crime stories. This is my favourite screenplay of hers, personally. Of course there are a huge liberties taken all over the place. However, why would you expect any different from here? Part of her power was subverting the general expectations. And do you really think Altman was going to direct some straight take on Chandler’s biggest, perhaps most convoluted novel? Not likely.
This brings me to the director himself. He’s one of my top five favourites. Although his genius is well known inside and outside of the movie industry, by those with whom he worked and also those of us that watch his films, there’s still an underrated quality to him. I don’t often enough hear Altman mentioned in the same breath as directors you always hear people talking about. The Long Goodbye is an atypical story for him to tell, but he does so with his typical Altman grace. He films Gould’s Marlowe lazily walking around his apartment, to the apartment next door, to the grocery store and down its aisles, and every bit of his movement, his speech, the way the character almost drags himself through life is captured like any other character out of the director’s filmography. That is to say, he’s captured naturally; a human being in his own element. Brackett brings the idiosyncrasies of Marlowe (via Chandler’s writing) out and adds some of her own invention to give him a decidedly ’70s feel, which work so well with Altman’s directorial choices. The naturalism of his way of filming, the sound design right down to the dialogue (particularly how Gould is recorded; makes you feel close to the character), these elements lend themselves to making a unique slice of film noir cinema.
This is one ramblin’, gamblin’, 5-star classic. A personal favourite of mine from the ’70s. Altman has a large part to do with it, then you can’t forget Gould for a second. Their talents are enormous in this film noir – or maybe it’s a neo-noir? Either way, fantastic all around. We also can’t forget Sterling Hayden. Ever since I first saw Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove I’ve been captivated by his talent, so as one of a younger generation does I went back in cinema time to revisit some of his other movies, then worked forward – getting to this one. His character is also great, the writer Roger Wade. Hayden channels equal parts Ernest Hemingway and his own creation into one fun persona. He adds an extra element to the whole spectacle. If anything, you’ll love The Long Goodbye for its characters, some slightly typical, though most against the grain. Throw Altman’s interesting techniques and intriguing style of directing, and this is a piece of crime cinema that’s easily up there with some of the best.