Here’s a classic case of a film being poorly received upon its initial release and undergoing a radical critical re-appraisal in the years that followed. Nowadays The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel, is generally regarded as a cult classic and a fine anti-genre piece typical of the director’s early career. However when it came out – in 1973 – critics were baffled by the modern day setting and laconic style of the film, perhaps best exemplified by the mumbling central performance of Elliott Gould as PI Philip Marlowe, while test audiences were openly hostile.
The director was understandably upset by the reaction; a year or two earlier McCabe & Mrs Miller had also received poor notices, and even though that’s another Altman film now widely lauded today, in the early 1970s his movies were under-performing. M*A*S*H had been a huge hit, but that was in 1970, and there was pressure mounting to repeat that earlier success. This movie, marketed in all kinds of different ways (satirical comedy, action, film noir, etc.), failed to turn things around and disappointed many moviegoers who expected to see a straight-up action or comedy.
Some critics were affronted by screenwriter Leigh Brackett’s decision to take Marlowe out of the usual 1930s setting and transport the investigator to greedy, health-conscious, early-1970s California, while others disapproved of further changes: new characters were introduced by Brackett, who was actually one of the writers that worked on the film adaptation of The Big Sleep, while at least one major character from the novel doesn’t appear and the endings are drastically different. However those decisions to change the setting and include additional characters help to create a novel, if flighty, detective story that stands as one of the best examples of genre revisionism in cinematic history. Certain expected elements – Marlowe’s cynicism, for example, and his chain-smoking – are present and correct, while the labyrinthine plot of the film, involving the usual bouts of double crossing, murder, intimidation and violence, is also recognisably Chandlerian, but there is so much more that seems out-of-step with the source material, not least the absence of a physically strong, mentally agile hero who stays one step ahead of everyone else, rather than one step behind.
Initial suggestions by critics that Altman was mocking decades of cherished noirs or even Chandler’s written work were wide of the mark, even though this is an unusual detective story. Few other directors would choose to begin proceedings with a 10-minute scene revolving around cat food and a late night trip to a convenience store, for example, but this superbly-executed sequence establishes Gould’s Marlowe perfectly: all snarky comments, half-muttered complaints and cigarette lodged in the corner of the mouth, dangling at the correct angle, but ultimately malleable despite his constant protests. He lives alone in a Malibu apartment while next door, contrasting with Marlowe’s slovenliness and hangdog demeanour, four women practice yoga (when they’re not half-naked and partying on the balcony all night, that is). He doesn’t seem to care about much at all, apart from his cat. Rudeness amuses him. He has no time for the police. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days, but always wears a suit anyway.
Disturbing Marlowe’s world initially is friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), who needs an urgent lift to the Mexican border; Marlowe obliges but runs into the police on his return, who are investigating the murder of Terry’s (unseen) wife Sylvia. This sets into motion a slightly convoluted plot involving deranged, alcoholic novelist Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) and his wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt), their creepy doctor Verringer (Henry Gibson), a vicious hood named Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell, delivering a proto-Pesci performance of a vicious nutcase), and many other west coast oddballs; there’s even a security guard played by Ken Sansom whose stock in trade is impressions of famous actors, and certainly not security.
Marlowe stumbles from location to location, from character to character, unable to link together the various mysteries he is presented with. If that sounds familiar then it will come as no surprise to hear that The Long Goodbye was a huge influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, with its similar location, story, style, mood and central performance. Even the cinematography of Anderson’s film recalls Vilmos Zsiglund’s work here, though the colours of the earlier movie are more washed-out, suggesting that the psychedelic radiance of the 1960s has faded somewhat.
Like Anderson and Pynchon’s central character Doc Sportello, Marlowe repeatedly clashes with the police, saving his best wisecracks for unhelpful, unfriendly detectives. The Long Goodbye has a strong anti-establishment streak, per many of Altman’s early works, and one rant in particular here is acted superbly by Gould as his character staggers away from a suicide scene while railing at ‘the pigs’ and their oppressive antics. It’s obvious that Sportello and Marlowe are both all at sea in their respective versions of Los Angeles, a place where life is changing due to all manner of influences: there is more of a sense of a state of flux in Anderson’s film, but Marlowe is a throwback to an earlier age here, driving a vintage car and refusing to engage with a healthy lifestyle, in contrast to nearly everyone else.
There are other personality traits that mark Marlowe out as a fish-out-of-water. Most notably he befriends the wrong people, and throughout the film they take advantage of his willingness to help, another indication that times have changed greatly since the usual 1930s-set stories. This is the clear message during the movie’s final scene, where Altman essentially debunks Chandler’s romantic myth-making, but to say any more could possibly spoil the ending. Marlowe isn’t greedy but everyone else involved in his case is seemingly motivated by the pursuit of money; this also sets him apart and perhaps explains why the character is so confused by the actions of others. The PI’s values and expectations are defiantly from an earlier time and go against the grain, at least until that final scene.
Altman, influenced by the French New Wave, refuses to let his camera stay static; it moves throughout, left, right, up, down, while he also chooses to end a number of scenes with zooms that fixate on unusual sights that had been in the background (my favourite being two dogs having sex in a Mexican village, an image which can either be read as a symbol or taken as, simply, two dogs having sex in a Mexican village). Sometimes Altman films his characters from the other side of a window, the actors’ voices barely audible, while two standout scenes at a beach house make fine use of the hypnotic sound of crashing waves and reflections in panes of glass to link three central figures.
All of which is to say that, visually and aurally at least, The Long Goodbye is as interesting as any of the director’s early 1970s movies. The soundtrack is equally inventive: primarily it consists of one song that shares the same title as the film and novel, written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, but it is interpreted in many different ways; it appears as supermarket muzak, is sung by various characters at certain points and is even chanted by a group of hippies. Altman then ends his film with the only other song on the soundtrack, Hooray For Hollywood, which serves as a sarcastic ‘fuck you’ to Tinseltown and the Academy, who famously feature it in their awards ceremony each year.
The critical re-appraisal was richly deserved, as this is a fine neo-noir that somehow manages to cling to the roots of the genre it toys with, while also making relevant comments about modern, sun-kissed Californian society. The script is razor sharp, with a number of vitriolic lines and snarky putdowns delivered with relish by the cast, while even Arnold Schwarzenegger pops up in an early bit part (playing a goon who is forced to reveal that Mr Universe muscle on the big screen for the first time). Best of all is the film’s attitude: part laid back, part caustic, it is encapsulated in Gould’s performance – arguably a career high. His barely-competent Marlowe is perhaps even more memorable than the more lucidly effective versions portrayed by Robert Mitchum or James Garner, while also giving Humphrey Bogart a run for his money. This is a fine film that ranks among Altman’s best, and compares favourably with any of the great detective stories.
Directed by: Robert Altman.
Written by: Leigh Brackett. Based on The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler.
Starring: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, Jim Bouton.
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmund.
Editing: Lou Lombardo.
Music: John Williams.
Running Time: 107 minutes.