“The Long Goodbye” - Robert Altman (1973)

The Long Goodbye (1973) is a provocative film noir (it’s sometimes dubbed as an example of “neo noir”) that was directed by Robert Altman and based on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 detective novel of the same name.  The lead character in the novel and the film is Philip Marlowe, who appeared in a number of Chandler’s works, including The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and The Lady in the Lake (1943).  Marlow was always the detective-story tough guy, and in earlier filmed versions of Chandler’s work featuring him, his role was assumed by leading screen idols of the day, such as Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, and Robert Montgomery.  Here in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the Marlowe character is played by Elliott Gould, and the emphatic stamp he puts on the role is a key, though controversial, feature of the film.

The critical issue with some of the film’s critics, notably Andrew Sarris [1,2], concerned the considerable degree to which Altman’s film (and Gould’s characterization of Marlowe), deviated from Chandler’s original story.  This was perhaps surprising, because the screenplay for The Long Goodbye was written by Leigh Brackett, who had co-scripted Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946), a film that had drawn no such criticism.  But in this instance, given the uncharacteristic (for him) complexity of Chandler’s own plot in his The Long Goodbye novel, Bracket chose to make significant changes to the story for Altman’s film.  And these plot alterations were readily endorsed by Altman.  

The result was a technically-resplendent masterpiece featuring the dynamic cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond and the moody music of John Williams.  Interestingly, the title-song  of the film, which was co-written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, cleverly appears on numerous occasions and in various formats within the diegetic realm of the story.  

Altman was at this time at the height of his career, a period during which he made, besides The Long Goodbye (1973), his most famous films – M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974), and Nashville (1975).  Most of them take a satyrical look at American life, but also have a melancholy flavour to them.  He was famous at this time for his unique cinematic style, which besides his restlessly roving camera, featured two of his self-styled modes of cinematic expression.  I have discussed these specific innovative stylistic modes (which are partly attributable to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) in my review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and I will only briefly mention them here:
  • Smoky effect using fog filters
    This had the effect of smudging the colors and giving the film an antique feeling.
  • Overlapping sound dialogues
    This was another signature aspect of Altman’s work –
“Using 8-track sound recording, [Altman] emphatically overlapped multiple conversations going on in a scene so that it was hard for the viewer to discern what was being said by the personages of presumed narrative focalization.  Indeed this made it sometimes difficult for the viewer to determine what actually was the intended narrative focalization for a scene, at least at its outset.  And this is what Altman wanted – he felt it was more true to life.” [3]
But these technical innovations are not what, for me, make Altman a great film director.  His real virtue lay in the way he could evoke in his films some melancholy themes underlying the nature of human experience.  In this film, the two major themes of this nature are, appropriately enough for a film noir, dishonesty and disloyalty.  

The plot of The Long Goodbye is, even after the streamlining performed by Leigh Brackett, quite complicated, and I won’t go over it in much detail.  Instead I will concentrate on the colorful principal characters and how they relate to the themes that I mentioned.  
  • Philip Marlowe (played by Elliott Gould) is an alienated, chain-smoking gumshoe working in Los Angeles and just trying to attend to the jobs that his clients give him.  He is the protagonist and center of focalization in this film.  In this film, Marlowe is largely a truth-teller, although he does lie to his pet cat.
  • Terry Lennox (played by famous baseball player Jim Bouton) is a gambler and playboy who also happens to be a close friend of Marlowe’s.  Lennox’s problems (he owes money to gangsters and he is accused of killing his wife) are what drive the events of this story.  And Lennox is a liar.
  • Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) is an alcoholic novelist suffering from depression because he is experiencing writer’s block and can’t write.  Roger is also a liar.
  • Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) is Roger’s beautiful and elegant wife.  The Wades live in the same sumptuous private housing complex in Malibu where Terry Lennox and his wife live.  Eileen initially hires Marlowe to track down her husband, Roger, who has disappeared in connection with one of his fits of depression.  And we will discover that Eileen is a liar, too.
  • Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) is a gangster, whose outward conviviality masks his psychotic cruelty.  At one point in the story, he is in a conversation with Marlowe, and just to make a point of the seriousness of the threat he is making to Marlowe, he smashes and maims the face of his innocent mistress.  Later Marty calmly instructs his gang members (one of whom is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) to castrate Marlowe, whom they have taken prisoner.  Despite this atrocious behavior and as a gangster law-breaker, Augustine presumably lies routinely; but in this film he is shown demanding adherence to honesty and contractual obligations.
  • Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson) is a quack doctor who runs a private rehabilitation center for the mentally ill and who treats, for a high fee, Roger Wade at that center.  Like Marty Augustine, Verringer’s business is ultimately fraudulent, but in this film he is shown fervently demanding fulfillment of contractual obligations (i.e insisting that people honestly live up to promises).
  • Mexican police.  In the course of this story, Marlowe makes a couple of trips to Tijuana, Mexico, where Terry Lennox had sought refuge from the L.A. police and from Marty Augustine’s gang.  There Marlowe discovers that the Mexican police can be bribed to lie about reporting the death of an individual – and even bribed later to confess that the earlier death report was a lie.
So the tenor of this film is one of a lone private-eye caught in a web of deceptions.  This is pure film noir territory.  The most reprehensible chracters in the story, Marty Augustine and Dr. Verringer, don’t lie in what is shown, and they demand  honesty.  In contrast, the biggest liars are the people that the normally-suspicious Marlowe trusts the most – Terry Lennox and the Wades.  These are people that the loner Marlowe has come to like, and he is fooled by them.

Despite these noirish elements, though, I don’t feel The Long Goodbye is a spot-on example of film noir.  The atmospheric film noir web of suspicion is not there at the outset, and it takes some time to develop.  That characteristic atmosphere of alienation in typical films noir is normally enhanced by high-contrast lighting, which implicitly evokes an emotive setting.  But here in The Long Goodbye, Altman’s smoky fog filters only just blur the image.  They don’t color the emotional landscape.  Those smoky images may be more realistic, but visual realism is not what is called for in film noir.

Nevertheless, I still liked The Long Goodbye, and that was mostly due to another aspect of Altman’s mise-en-scene – his emotional characterizations of the stressed principal characters, all playing their existential tunes before the gaze of the bemused and detached Marlowe.  There are murders, a suicide, and a shocking ending, but, on the whole, it all does work for me, as it did for some other critics, too [4,5,6].

  1. Andrew Sarris, “Films in Focus”, The Village Voice, (1 November 1973). 
  2. Andrew Sarris, “Films in Focus”, The Village Voice, (29 November 1973).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “'McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ - Robert Altman (1971)”, The Film Sufi, (21 June 2018).   
  4. Vincent Canby, “Altman and Gould Make a Brilliant ‘Long Goodbye’”, The New York Times, (29 October 1973).    
  5. Roger Ebert, “A man out of time”, RogerEbert.com, (23 April 2006).   
  6. Judith Crist, “Current Shock”, New York Magazine, (29 October 1973).   

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