Movies We Love: The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973)

It’s okay by me.

Synopsis

Snarky, unlit-cigarette-gritting Private Detective Philip Marlowe is visited late one night by an old buddy, Terry Lennox, who asks Marlowe, without explanation, to drive him to Tijiuana. The next day, Marlowe is interrogated by two police detectives who inform him that Lennox’s wife has been found dead, and Lennox himself has reportedly committed suicide. Believing that Terry Lennox neither killed his wife nor committed suicide, Marlowe goes on a strange journey that takes him from the elite gated beach house communities of Los Angeles to the streets of Mexican border towns, with continued threats by an eccentric hoodlum and an alcoholic, mentally unstable popular novelist along the way, each leading him in circles around the Lennox case.

Why We Love It

Believe it or not, Elliot Gould was one of the most bankable movie stars of his day. It seems odd when looking back at film history that Gould would be the ideal candidate for the next big screen interpretation of Philip Marlowe – a repeated central character of many Raymond Chandler novels like the eponymous one from which this film is based, and a character first made iconic by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) – but, quite frankly, the man knocks the role out of the park. Altman and Gould were the Scorsese/DeNiro-Dicaprio (or, Scott/Crowe) of their day, but Gould’s typical roles in Altman films were more often than not part of an ensemble (MASH, California Split, a cameo in Nashville), so The Long Goodbye, being the rare iconic 70s Altman work that focuses on a central protagonist, is the one collaboration that truly lets both artists shine and bring out the best in each other.

As suggested by the huge differences between Bogart’s and Gould’s interpretations of the role, this isn’t your grandparents’ Philip Marlowe, which is to say, this isn’t your grandparents’ film noir. The Long Goodbye is a clever subversion of one of the most difficult-to-define of genres in Hollywood history, but it isn’t a deconstruction in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way that pulls you out of the film. The Long Goodbye excels in Gould’s charm, Altman’s wit, amazing performances all around (especially by an almost unrecognizable Sterling Hayden as the alcoholic writer), Vilmos Zsigmond’s luscious Los Angeles cinematography, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger in his brief, non-speaking introductory role as a mustachioed bodyguard.

Altman is known for encouraging improvisation amongst his carefully selected cast, but rather than offering us the often indecipherable overlapping dialogue he’s known for, the improv here more often than not strikes gold in its symphony of competing voices, especially when Marlowe is handling authorities with a casual injection of wiseassery, from Gould’s spontaneous Al Jolson riff in the interrogation room to the elusive deadpan explanations he gives to enigmatic objects found by the police in his apartment (“What’s this, Marlowe?” “A baby shoe…”). Yet, at the same time, the movie feels impossibly controlled, delivering a perfect, leisurely but always interesting slow-burn pace, beautifully composed imagery, and an impressively convincing oscillation between comedic and shockingly dramatic tones. Gould embodies cool, but not in the now-anachronistic Bogart sort of way, rather in his own awkward clever swagger. Gould was probably the first cool nerd movie star in Hollywood, and The Long Goodbye, if nothing else, cements that legacy. The film toys with a well-known genre (have you ever seen a film noir with such bright colors?), but never keeps that from investing you in the mystery therein. The Long Goodbye is a product of perfect synergy between a great actor and a great director.

The Moment We Fell in Love

What cements The Long Goodbye as a great film has to be the scene featured (in part) on most of the film’s DVD cover art. More than halfway through the film, Hayden’s author character asks Marlowe to step outside while he and his wife have a talk. What follows is a devastating, bitingly written breakup scene between the novelist and his wife, all shot through the window of their home. All this goes on while we see, reflected in the window, Marlowe exploring the vista of the Pacific coast beach. Shot in widescreen, Zsigmond’s composition of this scene is breathtakingly beautiful (remember, this was long before such an effect could be achieved in post-production), while the scene occuring indoors is incredibly composed through a perfect cacophony of words and ad-libbing realized in astounding performances by Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt, and the image of Marlowe’s introspection while peering out into the grand ocean serves as a perfect metaphorical summation of the unique loner protagonist.

Final Thoughts

The scene described above, as representative of The Long Goodbye at large, is, simply put, Altman putting all his best talents together: great writing and performances, an inimitably dry and charming comic sensibility, and a fascinating, all-encompassing widescreen vision of a complex simultaneous interaction, direct and indirect, between several characters and scenarios. It’s an impressive balance Altman and Gould have achieved, but with this film I’d even go one further: The Long Goodbye isn’t only representative of the best of Altman, but emblematic of the best of New Hollywood 70s cinema at large: a unique loner protagonist played by an actor with an anti-movie star quality (one can substitute Gould here for a Gene Hackman or a Dustin Hoffman), an iconic auteur at the helm with a signature style in tow, and a movie that plays with genre in a way that still feels innovative almost forty years later. It’s a seminal work of a director, an actor, and a decade, but most importantly it’s a truly great modern classic that’s worth our love.

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