The random number generator I’m letting run this whole project seems to be giving us alternating weeks between movies I’ve seen before and loved, and ones I’m seeing for the first time. So, after getting to experience A Matter of Life and Death for the first time last week I guess it’s fitting to change things up this week by talking about a movie I really love, and which came incredibly close to being featured in my Cinematic Century project. At the time that I was trying to pick my favorite film of 1973 I found myself wrestling with choosing the Sting, which is what I ultimately went with, and today’s film, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. It’s still a contentious year, and I really love both movies completely, but I guess it worked out alright because now I get to end up talking about both! I’ve said it before on the site, but I’m a really big fan of noir media, especially the hardboiled detective subgenre. And, of all the detectives out there my personal favorite has always been Phillip Marlowe. I love Raymond Chandler’s original novels, and just about every adaptation of his work I’ve ever seen has been up my alley. There’s a sort of flawed humanity that I love about Marlowe, especially compared to some of the other towering figures in the genre who all seems a little too cool and put together. Marlowe’s usually portrayed as a shambling mess doing his best to survive in an insane world, and that makes for some really great stories, regardless of medium. There have been several great Phillip Marlowe films, although not nearly enough, and one of my favorites of them is certainly the Long Goodbye, even though it’s one of the less faithful adaptations that we’ve gotten. I first saw the film several years ago when I was first discovering Robert Altman’s filmography, and it seemed like a strange idea to me. Altman tackling one of the best Marlowe novels, but transposing it to then then-modern time of the early 1970’s, and featuring Elliot Gould as the down-on-his-luck detective just seemed like a strange combination to me. But, it really works. I was swept up by the movie, and ended up seeing the lasting footprint it had on movies, especially the Big Lebowski, and it ended up becoming one of my favorite films of the 1970’s.
The Long Goodbye was the final Phillip Marlowe novel released before Raymond Chandler’s death in 1953, and it seems like it was bouncing around Hollywood for the ensuing twenty years before Altman finally got his hands on it. Marlowe novels have made for great movies, so it seems like a logical choice to take a stab at adapting one of the best novels in the series. But, it just kept not happening, passing from hand to hand until finally United Artists go a hold of the rights, and passed the screenwriting duties off to Leigh Brackett, the legendary screenwriter who had actually written the Big Sleep adaptation from 1946. Brackett found the adaptation process to be a challenge, partially due to the length and complexity of the novel, and partially due to the fact that two decades had passed since the novel was originally written, and the times had certainly changed. She didn’t think that the detective story could be done seriously anymore, and that it had become cliched. She considered making it a period piece, taking it back to the 1950’s where the character seemed to work better, but after the film got passed to director Robert Altman, the two agreed to transpose the story to the modern day. It seems like Altman and Brackett worked well together, coming up with a way to modernize the story while keeping Marlowe the sort of character that he’d been for the last forty years. It became a sort of “man out of time” story where they wanted Marlowe to still act like he was living in a much different world than everyone else in the film. Hell, Altman seemed to even want to lean into it and make the film a satire of the detective genre. They wanted Marlowe to be a sadsack loser wandering through modern Los Angeles, having his 1950’s sensibilities destroyed. And, the ended up getting Elliott Gould to play Marlowe, seemingly because the studio owed him a movie on their contract and also because Altman had worked with him before, and he ended up slipping into the sad shoes of Phillip Marowe perfectly. However, when the film was released, people didn’t really connect with it. It seemed to largely be seen as an affront to the character of Phillip Marlowe, a put-down against a classic character. Things were so bad critically that they ended up holding up the release of the film, and completely changed the marketing of the film, hoping to make it clear that this wasn’t going to be the Phillip Marlowe you were expecting. Some people at the time seemed to buy what the film was selling, such as Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, but the film was largely seen as a disappointment upon release. However, over the years it became much more beloved, and has gone on to be seen as a classic of the era.
The film begins on a lonesome Los Angeles night with private eye Phillip Marlowe trying in vain to please his finicky cat, attempting to find the right brand of cat food it’ll eat. But, his night takes a turn when he suddenly gets approached by an old friend of his, Terry Lennox. Lennox looks like he’s in rough shape, and he makes a comment about getting in a fight with his wife, and asks Marlowe to help him get out of the country. Marlowe complies, and drives Lennox out to Tijuana, where Lennox leaves him. Marlowe returns home, and finds some police officers waiting for him. They ask him some questions, and end up bringing him into the station, where they reveal that Terry Lennox’s wife Sylvia has been murdered, and they think Lennox did it. Marlowe is seen as an accomplice, and is arrested and jailed for three days, until the policy free him after they’re told that Lennox has committed suicide after confessing in Mexico. Marlowe finds the whole thing suspicious, but doesn’t have the ability to fight against it. So, he tries to get back to normal, and takes a case. He’s hired by a woman named Eileen Wade, who happens to live in the same Malibu community that the Lennox’s did. She’s the wife of Robert Wade, an alcoholic novelist who has disappeared on a bender. This is a frequent occurrence, and Eileen just wants Marlowe to find which detox center Wade has checked himself into, and bring him home.
Marlowe does some digging, and ends up finding Wade more or less held captive in a private hospital for alcoholics, controlled by a doctor named Verringer. Marlowe manages to get Wade out of the hospital, skipping on his tab, and brings him home to Eileen. And, in the process he learns that the Wade’s knew the Lennox’s, and decides that they may be a good source for him to continue looking into Sylvia’s murder. He speaks with both Wade and Eileen separately, and seems to become convinced that they know more than they’re letting on about the Lennox’s, and specifically Sylbia’s murder. He decides that they’re going to be his best bet in finding the truth. Which, is made more difficult when Marlowe meets a local gangster named Marty Augustine, who Lennox apparently had been working with. Augustine claims that Lennox ran away with a substantial amount of money that belonged to him, and holds Marlowe responsible. Augustine gives Marlowe a time-frame to find the money that he views he’s owed, and sets one of his dumb goons to follow Marlowe. Unfortunately, Marlowe has no idea where the money is, and tries to just keep this tangle out of his mind. He tries going to Tijuana to see what happened with Lennox, but is unable to learn anything more about Lennox’s suicide.
So, Marlowe returns to the States, and goes to meet with the Wade’s, and finds them in the middle of a party. Roger Wade is stumbling around drunk, making a scene of himself, when Dr. Verringer appears, looking for Wade to pay him. They have an altercation, and Wade ends up kicking everyone out. Marlowe stays to accompany Eileen as Wade goes through an alcohol-fueled fit. Marlowe attempts to pump Eileen for information, starting to assume that Wade and Sylvia may have had an affair, and that Wade may be the murderer, when they suddenly see the man heading into the ocean. They try to rescue him, but he’s swept out to see, and when the police arrive is declared dead. Eileen then admits to Marlowe that Wade had been having an affair with Sylvia, and was with her the night she died. Marlowe tries to give this evidence to the policy, but they maintain that Wade’s time in the detox facility was an alibi. Marlowe is left adrift at this point, until he’s picked up by Marty Augustine again, who reveals that his missing money has been found, pointing him back to Tijuana. So, Marlowe heads down to Mexico, and using some of Augustine’s money that he stole, he bribes some people to reveal that they set up Lennox’s suicide. He’s still alive and well, and Marlowe heads to the villa where he’s living. Lennox reveals the truth at that point, that it wasn’t Wade and Sylvia who were having an affair, but Lennox and Eileen. Lennox killed Sylvia and fled to Mexico, waiting for Eileen to involve Marlowe in the whole scheme to try and implicate Wade so she could leave him and be with Lennox. Marlowe responds to the revelation that he’s been used the whole time by shooting and killing Lennox. He then begins making his way back home, as he passes a terrified Eileen.
I feel like Robert Altman is probably a director that some people have difficulty connecting with. He’s one of the big figures of 1970’s American cinema, but he never really became one of the blockbuster guys, or one of the directors that the average public obsessed over. Which, is maybe understandable. His movies are strange. They’re often quiet and feature mumbling performances, sometimes with over-lapping dialogue that can make simple scenes a little more complicated to watch. But, if you can get on his wavelength, I really think he made some phenomenal movies. And, I would probably put the Long Goodbye as my favorite of his work, although Nashville certainly gives it a run for its money. Part of that is definitely the fact that I’m an enormous Phillip Marlowe fan, and am inclined to be into any adaptation more than most people may be. But, I really do think that this is a great movie. It adapts the book in broad-strokes, taking some things out and adding some things in, while over all taking a much more cynical look at the proceedings that Chandler really does. But, it works. From what I could tell people were pretty unsure about Elliott Gould as Marlowe, especially because he’d previously been portrayed by typical tough guys like Humphrey Bogart and would later be portrayed by people like Robert Mitchum. Gould kind of sticks out of the list of actors, but I honestly think he does a fantastic job as Marlowe. The reason that I gravitate towards Marlowe more than some of the other hardboiled protagonists is that he’s more of a neurotic mess than most of them. He’s kind of a sucker, always getting screwed over, and Gould plays him as a very world-weary character who just kind of drifts through the story, still doing is job, but always on the lookout for someone to come and crush him, because that’s all his life really is.
Which, honestly is one of the reasons that this movie succeeds, and a reason I think that the detective genre came back after it. From what I read it seemed like by 1973 people had assumed that the detective genre was too hokey to work anymore. Leigh Brackett basically said as much. So, this film attempts to take a character from a bygone era, and have him interact with a much darker and cynical time. And, I think it works wonderfully. I don’t think the Long Goodbye is solely to credit with the rise of detective fiction in the 1970’s, especially because it didn’t seem to be that big of a hit when it was released, but it probably helped. After the Long Goodbye the detective had to evolve, and kind of took up a role similar to that of this movie. Shows like the Rockford Files managed to take the noir detective, and bring them into a more modern sensibility. But, by and large, what stays the same with those newer detective stories is the way the characters act. Jim Rockford is a good guy at heart, someone who just wants to help people out, and is willing to stick his neck out for the right thing, just like this version of Phillip Marlowe. The world around them is crumbling, and they often get hit with some tough consequences for being so trusting, but they still do it. It’s movies like this that helped formulate what the private eye could be going forward, building a foundation that the world can evolve around them, but their central personas stay the same.
Once again, it’s probably pretty obvious that I’m going to recommend people check this movie out if they haven’t already. If you like detective stories, it’s certainly a unique take on them, if you’re an Altman fan I really think it’s one of his best, and if you’re a fan of 1970’s cinema it’s a movie that I think often gets overlooked. Obviously, it’s not going to work for everyone, but if anything about this movie sounds interesting to you I’d highly recommend crossing it off your own Bucket List.
The Long Goodbye was written by Leigh Brackett, directed by Robert Altman, and released by United Artists, 1973.
Categories: The Bucket LIst