The Long Goodbye (1973): A New Era, and Trouble is Still Marlowe’s Business…

“The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.” Raymond Chandler  wrote, discussing the mechanics of pulp mystery writing.  It was something he believed.

One of my favourite books is Penguin’s compendium Three Novels, containing Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye.  You can drop in at any page and instantly get carried away by the language and the atmosphere.  The three books run together, and I can never remember which is which, or what happened at the end of any of them.

Robert Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who also co-wrote the touchstone of Chandler adaptations, 1946’s The Big Sleep) are also more interested in style and character over plot in their post-modern take on Chandler’s finest novel, The Long Goodbye.

Updating the action to 70’s Los Angeles, basic plot points are kept, others discarded, some juggled around, and still more re-imagined.

Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) still gets himself in trouble unquestioningly giving his rich friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) a lift to the Mexican border.  There is still a portrait of Madison – a $5000 bill.  Marlowe still takes a parallel case involving an alcoholic writer and his beautiful long-suffering wife.  And Marlowe still gets pushed around by the police and assorted heavies for his efforts.

The mystery itself isn’t important.  Altman’s agenda is targeting LA in something resembling simultaneously satire and in-joke.  He uses the anachronistic throwback of a detective in contrast with the health-conscious, weed-smoking, liberal Los Angeles residents of the early Seventies.

Los Angeles is a hotspot for that kind of thing.  It happened to Brendan Fraser is California Man, and Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man – a guy is frozen and wakes up in the future, and comedy is derived from how he reacts to his surroundings, and how his surrounding’s react to him.

The distance in time isn’t so great for Marlowe, twenty years from the novel’s first publication to the movie’s release.  The strange thing is, it isn’t a straight forward fish-out-of-water comedy.

Marlowe fails to notice that nobody else around him smokes, and the dames next door are now pot-smoking hippie chicks doing topless yoga.  He doesn’t notice that he’s the only one driving a 1948 Lincoln convertible, or that the rich clientele that occasionally throw trouble his way now live in self-consciously bohemian beach communities rather than mansions.

Oddly for this set up, nobody notices Marlowe’s anachronisms or objects to him striking matches on their furniture or smoking in hospital receptions.  The clientele may change, but Marlowe is as constant as the city or the ocean itself, and everyone takes him for granted.

Almost every scene has a small moment of drama – how will Marlowe light his cigarette this time?  He wears the same ill-fitting suit throughout the movie.  The suit seems to be part of him – when he wakes up, fully clothed, he puts his tie on.  Later, when he rushes into the ocean to save someone drowning, he takes off his tie and hands it to someone for safe keeping.

These idiosyncratic character choices are highlighted by John Williams’ title song, The Long Goodbye.  It appears in various forms throughout the film, on the radio, as muzak, played by a lounge pianist, or a band at a Mexican funeral.  It’s the Seventies and the city has moved on, has other preoccupations, but noir is still constant at its heart.

The Long Goodbye was widely disliked on release.  Even some critics who regarded it as an important picture by a talented director felt it was disrespectful of Chandler’s work.

It will likely divide opinion today.  Purists may react badly to Gould’s slovenly, shambling, insouciant, sarcastic, clueless Marlowe.

Other people who may react badly are those who mistakenly categorize Marlowe as a classic detective like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.  Or those whose idea of Philip Marlowe is made up of a little Humphrey Bogart, a little of Hammett’s Sam Spade, and a lot of Spillane’s Mike Hammer – the amalgam of hackneyed private eye cliches which forms the stereotype today.

Gould’s Marlowe isn’t as shrewd or clear thinking or eloquent as Chandler’s Marlowe, but he has the attitude right.  Marlowe wasn’t a gentleman detective who solved fiendish crimes for stimulation, or relied solely on his little grey cells and mastery of logic.

Marlowe was a low rent detective, and outsider and a loner.  He considered himself a thinker, although his thinking didn’t always get him very far.  He liked a drink and professed to liking women, although he was smart enough to keep femme fatales at arm’s length.

He was frequently in danger, and saw his profession as an ugly, sordid business.  He was pushed around by all sides and clueless much of the time, and used his cutting remarks as a tool, needling people, angering them to reveal things.  He was persistent and patient, and more likely to receive a punch or a bullet than dish one out.

Marlowe narrated the stories, but it was Chandler’s voice that shone through, quiet with wisdom, glimmering with cynical insight, heartsick and world-weary.

Gould, with his slightly effeminate delivery and gangly frame, carries all this across without externalizing it.  The closest in tone to Chandler’s original Marlowe is the opening ten minutes, which involves the lonely private eye trying to hoodwink his choosy cat into believing he’s bought its favourite brand of cat food.

Altman’s trademark direction of allowing his actors to improvise and talk over each other works well, as the camera slides seductively around them.  This is particularly effective in scenes between Marlowe and the troubled alcoholic writer, Roger Wade, played with fine rowdiness by Sterling Hayden.

Altman has put his stamp all over the material, an LA-centric in joke though it is.  It opens and closes with a sarcastic rendition of Hooray for Hollywood, and even the security guards like to impersonate Barbara Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart.  The closing moments are a direct quote of The Third Man, and the only part of the film which doesn’t feel like Altman’s own.  Oddly, it’s an appropriate quote for a film obsessed with movies and popular culture.

The Long Goodbye has a romantic feel to it, and despite its idiosyncratic, post-modern leanings, is a triumph of nostalgia over modernity.  Chandler’s noir and stylistic mannerisms continue to influence pop culture more than the fads of the Seventies.

Altman and Brackett may play cut-and-paste with Chandler’s original material, but Marlowe still wears his ethical code like a battered suit of armour, and  betrayal is still punishable with a bullet.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 13/06/2012, in Detective, Entertainment, Film, L, Movies, Reviews, Thriller and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I watched this one a few months back and loved it. I thought Gould was the perfect Marlowe, but I can see how purists would disagree.

    • Yes, Gould was great – despite the discrepancies with Chandler’s original Marlowe, I thought he was more authentic than the more “Traditional” portrayals – Bogart, Mitchum, Powell, etc. But then, I also think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock was better in the BBC’s reboot.

      • I would agree about Cumberbatch as well. There’s a time and a place for traditionalism, but when an actor makes a role his/her own and it WORKS then it’s really something special.

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