If you aren’t a fan of director Robert Altman or actor Elliott Gould, you might want to skip this review. If you are a fan of noir writer Raymond Chandler, you also might want to skip this. Altman turns Chandler’s character Phillip Marlowe inside out.
Altman, particularly after MASH, played by his own rules as a filmmaker. MASH was a huge risk for him but it worked and it cemented Altman’s rather nontraditional method of making films.
During the decade of the 1970s, Altman had more misses than hits, but he was an artist that attracted actors, and studios continued to employ him, even if he couldn’t duplicate the success of MASH.
The Long Goodbye was loosely based on the Chandler novel of the same name, published in 1953 and was the sixth novel with the Marlowe character. The rights to the novel bounced around Hollywood for a number of years until producers Elliott Kastner and Jerry Bick secured the right, made a deal with United Artists and hired screenwriter Leigh Brackett to go to work on it.
Brackett decided to update the story, moving it from the 1950s to the 1970s, and using an unusual twist. The Marlowe character would function as if he was in the 1950s, direct and forthright, but the quirky story and murky morality would be decidedly the early 1970s. That set up a clash of realities. Marlowe was a square peg in a oblong society.
Brackett was an interesting choice. She had adapted Chandler’s The Big Sleep, starring Bogart as Marlowe. She had written other films like Rio Bravo, Hatari!, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, all for Howard Hawks and John Wayne. Aside from her screenwork, Brackett was a notable and award-winning science fiction writer, and was credited with co-authoring the script for The Empire Strikes Back, the last thing she worked before she died.
Altman entered the picture after other directors passed, and the story has it, that Peter Bogdanovich, after he passed on the film, recommended Altman. The film Brackett had in mind, a very unorthodox version of Marlowe, deeply interested Altman, who went for the offbeat. It was he, who nicknamed the Marlowe character as Rip van Marlowe, a guy who was asleep and woke up in the 1970s, struggling to get a handle on the morality and behavior of these hip Californians.
Gould, who was red-hot in 1970, was ice cold in 1972, after being fired from a film and not working for two years. Altman wanted him, and after Gould passed the studio’s psychological evaluation, would become the most unusual version of Marlowe. Mumbling, chain-smoking, disheveled, good guy, who got used and pushed around, particularly by friends and animals, but never took his eye off the ball, or abandoned someone in need.
Bogart’s Marlowe was classic film noir. James Garner’s Marlowe was a 1960s detective, stylistically 60s cool, but neither world weary or part conman, a confusing mishmash of story devices that might cover all the bases, but didn’t add up to a convincing character.
Chandler’s style didn’t seem to convert well to the 1960s or 1970s, which may be why Brackett and Altman decided to turn the character sideways, and really make him a fish out of water.
Cinema of the early 1970s is a galaxy all its own. Whatever excesses you can think of, were staples of this period. The downbeat ending became notable, as many films ended tragically and unhappily. This was the grim reality and shock that filmmakers went for. Anything but the stock Hollywood ending. Ironically, Altman used “Hooray for Hollywood” as his bookend music to start and finish The Long Goodbye, perhaps to illustrate how far his film was from the Hollywood dream factory.
Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox
The Long Goodbye’s plot revolves around Marlowe’s efforts to extract himself from the dealings of his good friend, Terry Lennox, who in the beginning of the film, gives Lennox a ride from L.A. to the U.S./Mexican border. Upon his return, Marlowe is confronted by police detectives wanting to know where Lennox is. Marlowe refuses to help, so he gets a tour of the local jail, where he finds out Lennox’s wife has been murdered. The name Marty Augustine surfaces. Marlowe spends three days, booked as an accomplice. When he’s released he is told that Lennox has killed himself in Mexico, but Marlowe doesn’t believe it.
Lennox’s death only moves the story forward in other directions. Right after he is released from jail, Marlowe is hired to find the writer/husband of Eileen Wade, who is described as suicidal. Roger Wade is a tortured man, he drinks to control his demons, but that only makes him a meaner man toward everyone else. Marlowe discovers a connection between Wades and Lennoxes, who lived close to each other in the Malibu Colony.
Marlowe tracks Wade to a clinic, where he is drying out. Wade appears to be held without his permission, so Marlowe breaks Wade out of the clinic and returns him home. The Wades’ home seems to be chaos. Eileen Wade keeps bringing up Terry Lennox’s name. The events of her murder and Lennox’s “suicide” raise interesting questions for Marlowe.
Altman’s films are populated with strange characters. Sterling Hayden as Wade, is a dark and troubling man, with fits of rage and unusual moments of lucid reflection. Hayden plays the character’s manic moods for all its worth. The late Dan Blocker was originally supposed to play the character before he suddenly died. What an odd character that would have been.
To complicate Marlowe’s life even more, he is visited by Marty Augustine, who claims Lennox absconded with a great deal of his money. Augustine is a sadistic criminal, who won’t hesitate to inflict his ire on Marlowe, who is expected to lead him to the money. Brackett and Altman imbibe Augustine and his henchmen with an odd combination of danger and bungling humor. Augustine is tailed to the Malibu Colony, to Wade’s house, where he has a conversation with Eileen.
Marlowe returns to the Wades’ home. The Wades engage in a torturous conversation about their future. Marlowe and Wade talk and Augustine’s name comes up. Augustine owes Wade money. Wade doesn’t admit to knowing Lennox’s wife.
Marlowe finds a note to him, from Lennox, with money.
Marlowe visits Mexico to confirm the events of Lennox’s death with the police. All the facts seem perfect. Too perfect. After he returns to L.A., he attends a party at Wade’s beach house, where Wade has a strange and uncomfortable interaction with the doctor of the clinic where he was drying out. Henry Gibson, an Altman regular, plays the clinic doctor, more interested in collecting a debt, but ramps up the weirdness.
Later that evening, as Eileen and Marlowe are talking at an upstairs window, Wade is seen walking out to the ocean and stumbling into the water. Eileen and Marlowe eventually spot him and attempt to get him out of the water, but it’s too late, Wade drowns. It becomes known that Wade and Lennox’s wife had an affair, and Eileen things he killed Lennox’s wife because she wanted to break off the affair. Wade’s stay at the clinic rules him out in the murder of the wife.
Marlowe has another encounter with Augustine, but this time his money has been returned, and Eileen is seen leaving his house. More twists.
Marlowe finds the Wade house up for sale and Eileen is apparently out of the country.
This all leads back to Lennox. Marlowe revisited Mexico, where he learns that Lennox’s suicide was faked, with the help of the police. Confronting Lennox, who is living in style, Marlowe finds out the Lennox and Eileen were having an affair and Lennox did kill his wife. Feeling rather proud of himself, Lennox also confesses that he used Marlowe. Marlowe is nothing but a born loser. Marlowe responds by shooting Lennox. As he retraces his steps away from Lennox’s house, Eileen Wade passes him on the way. “Hooray for Hollywood” plays to end the film, as Marlowe kicks up his heels as if hearing the music.
The soundtrack of the film, handled by John, is essentially a series of versions of a song written by Williams and Johnny Mercer. Some of versions are instrumental cues, others are vocals by Jack Sheldon and other singers. I’ve heard other soundtracks that used a reoccurring musical motif, mixed in with other music, but never a film that essentially only used one. Altman was known for his unique vision.
The film’s look was provided by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter). His job was to keep the camera moving, including using the zoom lens. Zsigmond worked with post-flashing, exposing the undeveloped film negative to light, in effect overexposing it. It softens the color and can bring out subtleties that might be lost in the shadows. Since most of the film takes place in the California sunshine or with outside light through windows, the flashing evened the contrast and softened the amount of bright color. Altman wanted a murky, washed-out look, rather than the bright Hollywood color.
Besides Gould and Hayden, Altman cast Nina Van Pallandt as Eileen Wade, and former baseball player Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox. Both were unusual choices, but added to the somewhat surreal nature of the film. Even a young Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up as one of Augustine’s goons. There is a scene where Augustine requires everyone to strip down to their underwear, and there’s Arnold with his huge, flexing muscles, almost grotesquely. Augustine was played by film director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond, The Rose), a sometimes actor, who injected a sadistic quality into Augustine’s weaselly persona.
Altman had one of the most striking visual styles as a filmmaker. He was famous for overlapping dialogue and ad libbing by his actors. Visually, he liked very long takes with tracking shots following the action from actor to actor. His camera moved, often pushing in and pulling back in the same scene. He composed within the camera as he shifted perspective from one part of the scene to another, an example is when Marlowe and Eileen are talking at the window and we see Wade walking toward the ocean, with the camera pushing in to just focus on him while we hear the others talking. Altman was known to use foreign cinematographers who softened the image and washed out the color. Sometimes Altman’s scenes would feature dialogue that did not match what the viewer was seeing, as if we were eavesdropping on something else. To say that studios often complained about Altman’s films as non-commercial or confusing, is an understatement. They seemed to want his hippness but not his actual style.
For all of the effort, The Long Goodbye was a major failure at the box office. The reviews were mostly negative and the studio did not put much muscle behind it, although it was released a second time, with a different ad campaign, but without much improvement. A few critics embraced the spirit of the Altman-Brackett-Gould experiment. On rottentomatoes.com, the audience and critic scores are very respectable (88%, 97%). Over time, the film has found an audience of folks who have watched and watched, to soak up the Altman magic. Not everyone loves the film but it stands as one of Altman’s braver efforts.