Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye was not on my original watch list for this marathon for a couple of reasons – I’d already seen it years ago in a college film criticism class, I already had a bunch of Altman films on the list and I wanted to diversify a little bit, and I didn’t particularly like it the first time around and wasn’t sure I wanted to revisit it, even though I suspected I would appreciate it a lot more if I did. But after I named Altman my favorite director of the marathon so far, multiple people recommended I give this film another look, and then it happened to be playing at a local rep cinema, and I figured it was a sign that it was time to rewatch Altman’s nearly revisionist version of Raymond Chandler’s 1940s crime novel. And I’m so glad I did.
I wrote recently about how much I love The Big Sleep, and I think my original distaste for The Long Goodbye was merely an inability to envision any other version of Philip Marlowe than Bogart’s, or any other take on Chandler than a straight-up noir detective film. But the brilliance of The Long Goodbye is precisely in how it takes the Marlowe character and the detective story and drops it into the extremely different milieu of 1970s Los Angeles, turning it into an ironic, knowing version of the very cinema that took Chandler straight in the 1940s.
Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is a mumbling, ambling fellow who’s smarter than most everyone around him, but aloof enough not to bother pointing it out, except barely under his breath in a kind of on-going ironic mutter that feels more like an interior monologue than actual speech. He’s bemused at the spacey Yoga-practicing girls in the apartment across the way, has little use for the police, and spends a great deal of time trying to please his cat. The cat is something of a substitute for human engagement; his general response to any human interaction is “it’s okay with me,” a detached statement of passive affability and implicit refusal to get personally involved.
When a friend asks him for a ride to Mexico, he agrees with little hesitation, little realizing (or perhaps just little caring) that this action would embroil him in the case surrounding the death of the friend’s wife. The police think his friend killed her, but Marlowe won’t believe it, and the rest of the film balances his casual attempts to clear his friend and his work on a seemingly unrelated case for a woman searching for her alcoholic husband. The plot gets considerably more complicated, but through it all, Marlowe maintains his sardonic “it’s okay with me” attitude, allowing himself to drift where events push him and be held static by anything that shows any initiative (note that every animal in the film basically holds him captive until someone else intervenes).
It’s an interesting approach to a character who is often quite active in 1940s films. (They may be world-weary, but still don’t rest in their quest for the truth; this Marlowe is world-bemused and takes plenty of time to follow other pursuits, treating everything with a bit of a smirk.) This isn’t to say he doesn’t ever do anything – he does his job, he circumvents opposition when he needs to, he refuses to be browbeating by the police, he continues to check in on his client even after the immediate case is complete, etc., but he does so in such a lackadaisical fashion that he almost seems to be doing it because he doesn’t have anything better to do. Yet when it comes down to it in the final few minutes of the film, as he uncovers the truth, his “it’s okay with me” changes to “nobody cares but me.” This Marlowe is a fascinating mixture of detachment and engagement, yet his shifts between the two feel organic, never forced.
Yet though The Long Goodbye is a clear departure from the characterization and style of 1940s hard-boiled detective films, it knows them all. Various scenes pretty clearly evoke the noir of the 1940s-1950s, from the crime noir of The Big Heat and Kiss Me Deadly to the Hollywood melodrama of In a Lonely Place and A Star is Born. Casting Sterling Hayden, dependable lead of many classic noir films, in an important role is no accident, either, nor is the gatekeeper who impersonates classic stars like Jimmy Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck. This being the ’70s, there are also signs of European influence – at least I thought of Pierrot le fou when Marlowe smeared paint over his face in passive rebellion against police authority, and the ending is a pretty clear reference to the enigmatic final scene of The Third Man.
The Long Goodbye is a perfect example of a film very much of its time that both uses and plays against expectations based on previous cinematic tropes. It’s also a very intricate mystery with a good bit of enjoyable humor, though it’s not very suspenseful, largely because the Marlowe character is so detached throughout much of the film. This is part of why it didn’t work for me when I was younger, and I’m sure a good deal of why I enjoyed it more now is my greater knowledge of film history, but the film doesn’t really depend on that. It does depend on coming to it with an open mind and a willingness to buck expectations of detectives on film. Really, the rest of the film plays it pretty straight; it’s the unusual way Marlowe is portrayed that gives it a wild card feeling. It’s also very nicely shot, with a few virtuoso scenes (many of them at the beach house, using windows and reflections to get compositional effect) that will stick in your mind visually for quite a while. I’m really glad I gave the film another chance; it’s jumped right up there with Altman’s other films as one of my favorites in this series.