The Long Goodbye is the dream of someone who fell asleep in 1973 after reading pulp novels and drinking too much scotch. Director Robert Altman and star Elliot Gould referred to their reimagining of Raymond Chandler’s signature protagonist, Philip Marlowe, made famous by Humphrey Bogart, as “Rip van Marlowe”. He’s a lanky P.I. both over and underdressed and stumbling his way through a post-counterculture L.A. in a sleepy 1940s mental haze. After giving his old buddy, Terry Lennox, a ride to Mexico, Marlowe is implicated in the murder of Terry’s wife. Starving and desperate, he nevertheless resolves to clear his name and Terry’s.
Although often an exploder of genre, Altman often appeared to take pleasure in its confines. The Long Goodbye, a clear crime film and neo-noir, came on the heels of Altman’s only horror film, Images. While works like Images, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Nashville take highly unconventional approaches to horror, westerns, and musicals, respectively, The Long Goodbye is more or less straightforwardly appreciative of noir’s formulas and tropes. Gould’s Phillip Marlowe may have the shaggy, befuddled look of a beautiful loser, common in the New Hollywood, but he’s a dog-nosed gumshoe through and through, with all the dry wit and moral sensibilities of a Bogart or a Mitchum.
Leigh Brackett, screenwriter of The Long Goodbye, came from the tradition of golden-era Hollywood, having penned scripts for The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. Her work shows through clearly in the bones of the film, with the major differences between Altman’s 70s vision and the more codified style of the 40s and 50s being the surrounding details. Instead of a cramped office with venetian blinds, Marlow works out of his messy apartment across from perpetually topless and flirtatious neighbor girls. His femme fatale is less of a black widow and more of a Joni Mitchell type, with an honest face and long, straight, hay-colored hair. Veteran Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden signed onto the film with enthusiasm, playing neither hero nor villain, but rather a kind of red herring as well as an interesting, though somewhat perplexing, homage to Ernest Hemingway.
Of course, all of this tinkering comes with a veneer of Altman’s most recognizable directorial touches, such as long takes, zooms, overlapping dialogue, and a restless camera that never comes to a complete stop. All of these qualities come together to form a subtly clever picture, one that takes the much less polished elements of New Hollywood to reconstruct Old Hollywood, one that possesses thorough knowledge of generic conventions but sees unknowingly to slide into them, thereby operating within them while exposing them. Marlowe and his supporting characters seem like people that watch a lot of crime movies obviously stumbling into one of them.
There’s more to The Long Goodbye that meets the eye, and its formal qualities veil a worn-down but not quite jaded view of human nature. There’s a low-key but persistent focus on the transactional nature of human relationships that all but asserts personal exchange as the defining function of friendship and romance. But in this whirlwind of selfishness, the disenchanted Marlowe, maybe without realizing it, stands as a bastion of principle, of engaging with people for its own sake, and for valuing the truth above all things. Altman did have an irascible side, but it was an expression of sincerity, not cynicism. | Nic Champion
Kino Lorber’s special edition of The Long Goodbye comes with a wonderful assortment of extras, featuring a commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, an interview with Gould and Altman, and excellent analytical pieces in print and video.