Elliott Gould and Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Long Goodbye.
The Long Goodbye is Robert Altman's take on film noir as updated to the 1970s. It is based on the 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler, featuring his legendary fictional private eye Philip Marlowe. The screenplay was adapted by Leigh Brackett. 27 years earlier she co-wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep, based on another Chandler novel in which Marlowe appeared. Instead of Humphrey Bogart we have Elliott Gould as the famous gumshoe.
Altman said that he envisioned the story as if Marlowe had been asleep for 20 years and woke up in the 1970s. His behavior is out of step with the times. He drives a 1948 Lincoln Continental Convertible Cabriolet and chain smokes cigarettes, while none of the other characters in health conscious, sunny California are shown lighting up.
Gould's Marlowe is laid back and wisecracking but also a bit of a bumbler. He's an outsider looking in at the rest of the world. In what must surely rank as one of his finest performances Gould manages to be hip and fresh while also seeming like an anachronistic tough guy detective from the early 1950s.
The movie opens with a cute sequence where Marlowe wakes up in the middle of the night to feed his cat, only to discover he's out of cat food. He goes to an all night store but they are out of his cat's favorite food. He buys another brand and tries to fool his cat by putting the different brand in the favorite brand container. The cat, of course, doesn't fall for it and runs away. This was the same cat that would later become famous as the finicky Morris in those long running commercials.
Marlowe's neighbors are a group of young women that spend all their time on their balcony either scantily clad or naked, doing yoga and getting high. Robert Altman was a connoisseur of the female form and most of his movies include at least one naked woman. Whereas every male visitor to Marlowe's apartment cannot take their eyes off of his sexy neighbors, Marlowe himself seems oblivious to their presence.
Later that same night after the cat food incident, an old friend of Marlowe's shows up asking for a ride to Tijuana. Marlowe obliges him, not realizing that he has just gotten himself caught up in the middle of a murder mystery. This involves an older alcoholic Hemingway-esque writer (Sterling Hayden in a great performance), his much younger trophy wife (Nina Van Pallandt in another great performance), and a ruthless Jewish gangster (Mark Rydell making it three for three in the great performance category).
The story leads the viewer on a twisting road where things and people aren't who they seem to be. Altman films the proceedings with a constantly moving camera that tracks here and there and zooms in and out without ever seeming to get in the way of the story by drawing too much attention to itself. No director has ever done this better than Robert Altman.
Although the story is a serious murder mystery with one surprisingly violent scene, it also has a sense of humor. There is a Colony security guard who is friends with Marlowe and who does impressions of old time Hollywood stars like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. His best impressions though are less expected. He does a great Walter Brennan as Stumpy in Rio Bravo complete with his exaggerated limp and a truly hilarious Barbara Stanwyck that goes like this, “I don't understand. I don't understand it at all. I've never understood it, Walter. I just don't understand why I don't understand it all.”
There are only two songs heard in the entire movie. One is “Hurray for Hollywood” and the other is the eponymous theme song written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer. One little detail that Robert Altman came up with was to include many various arrangements and recordings of the theme song that are incorporated throughout the movie. These include as a song on the radio, as supermarket muzak, as a hippie chant, as a dirge played at a funeral by a Mexican marching band, and even as the first notes of a doorbell chime.
Look for Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Carradine in cameos. Schwarzenegger plays one of Mark Rydell's henchman and doesn't get a single line of dialogue. Carradine plays a philosophy spouting cellmate of Marlowe's in a scene where he goes to jail.
The final scene caused a bit of controversy among Raymond Chandler purists. I won't give it away but it departs from the way the novel ends and the morality of Philip Marlowe's behavior is called into question. I personally enjoyed the ending but then I've never read the book. The Long Goodbye is a forgotten gem in Robert Altman's legendary career and featuring Elliott Gould in what I think is his finest screen hour.
Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.
I wanted to like this movie. After Patrick's glowing, 4 star review, I had high expectations for this Altman directed, neo-noir update to the character of Phillip Marlowe. While I agree that Gould is good in the lead role, unfortunately the central story is quite dull, the mystery weak and some of the dated elements are now laughable.
Gould plays Marlowe as a mumbling, withdrawn character. There's no voiceover narration, but he does comment often, almost under his breath, about what is happening. He's an eccentric whose closest relationship seems to be with his cat. He drives an anachronistic old car and lives in High Tower Court with its iconic elevator tower that viewers may recognize from other movies, including Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again. He glides through the movie, seemingly unfazed by threats and time in jail, only really showing a sense of emotion at the film's climax.
I also agree that Sterling Hayden does a fine job as the writer. I've not really been a fan of his because he always seems so stiff and wooden in all his parts. Reportedly he was high during most of the filming on this movie. If so, he should have started smoking marijuana earlier in his career.
My central complaint is that I never cared about the mystery at all. I took no interest in any character outside of Marlowe. The writer and his wife were boring and the missing Terry Lennox is a non-entity. Marty, the gangster, sparks up the story but then turns into a joke during the scene where he wants everyone to strip.
The 1970s setting is no friend to the movie either. Although the naked, hippy neighbors are an amusing and pleasant distraction, too often the styles and the attitudes work against the tension of the story.
Altman's camera work is interesting in the way it never stops moving, but it quickly becomes distracting. I would have enjoyed the movie more with a less artistic director, but a stronger script.
I ended up feeling like Marlowe's cat did about the food he's offered at the beginning of the movie. It may say that it's a murder mystery on the outside, but in reality it's only pretending to be. I've never read a Raymond Chandler novel, but I can see why purists would be upset with this adaptation.
Did a tobbaco company finance this film?
Elliott Gould as a 1940s type detective living in the 1970s is The Long Goodbye's lone saving grace. He is a man of few words and very little seems to bother him. He takes everything in stride. One line he says several times sums himself up, "It's okay with me." He is so easy going that when he leaves his apartment to talk to someone, he first addresses the detective assigned to watch him, "Listen Harry, in case you lose me in traffic, this is the address where I'm going. You look great...I'd straighten your tie a little bit. Harry, I'm proud to have you following me."
However, like Scott, I cared little for the mystery and I cared not what happened to anyone outside of Marlowe. The plot is a bit slow and none-to-exciting. The one thing to enjoy is the old fashioned Marlowe living by standards long past. When the larger than life writer, says to Marlowe, "I tell you what we're gonna do, Marlboro. You're gonna take that goddamn J.C. Penney tie off and we're gonna have an old fashioned man to man drinking party." Marlowe responds, "Well, that's okay but I'm not taking off the tie."
Speaking of taking off clothes, I agree that the strip scene Scott mentioned is ridiculous. Clearly Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his second screen appearance, was hired just to add some beef cake to off set all the female nude scenes. As Patrick noted, Schwarzenegger has no lines but suddenly stands in the middle of the shot in his underwear.
The ending is unexciting, uninspired and completely predictable. I liked much of the dialogue, but Marlowe's line of, "Nobody cares but me." contradicts all that has come before and adds nothing to the proceedings. This is a lesser Altman endeavor and I disagree with Patrick, this is by no means a four star film.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1973)