[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabe and Mrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.
As directed by Altman and acted by Elliott Gould, Marlowe is a shabby, shambling private dick who becomes the avenger of a moral order which perhaps only he still cares about. In McCabe the modern era caught up with a scrubbily mythic Altman hero, and in this one the 20th century goes right on past a scrubbily unmythic Altman hero who is determined to hold his ground. The Altman-Gould Marlowe has his trademarks: an unkempt blue suit, a “J.C. Penney’s tie,” unfiltered cigarettes lit with wooden matches, a 1940s Lincoln Continental—but most importantly of all, a favorite and deceptively casual rejoinder and shrug: “It’s okay with me….” Ultimately, this seeming tolerance of the world around him proves emphatically apparent. And so the customary solitude of the Marlowe figure (think of Bogart in his little coupé on a long and dreary stakeout) becomes a moral solitude here: the Gouldish Marlowe’s mumbly disdain for his turned-on California Girl neighbors reflects a weary, shaggy puritanism. Blake Edwards’s Gunn did something like this too, but Altman has a much greater sense of the anxious ambiguity in hip and square styles, and Gould’s weary shrugs reflect the datedness of even the Edwards-Gunn (1966) version of detectives-as-victims-of-(pop)-cultural-lag. Here even the downtown cops are hipper than Marlowe. And gangster styles have reached an advanced point of suburbanization in the form of a snappy thug (Mark Rydell, actor turned director turned actor once more) who mixes Angeleno business flair and encounter-group habits with Nixonian success values and Capone-esque sadism (inflicted with a bottle on his bland, “gorgeous” mid-American Barbie-doll mistress).
Rydell’s thug is the film’s single most impressive creation, but The Long Goodbye gets much of its energy and appeal from Gould’s interesting, offbeat Marlowe and from the richly textured, updated version of Chandler’s L.A. which Altman’s direction and Vilmos Zsigmond’s remarkable dusky color cinematography have provided. Sterling Hayden seems self-indulgent in a part that leans rather ponderously and pathetically in the direction of Hemingway; the Lincoln Continental and “Hooray for Hollywood” on the soundtrack seem campy and, hence, incongruous and unworthy of the film; and Elliott Gould does not always conquer the cuteness that seems to go with being Elliott Gould. But the thing has real quality and I’d rank it above Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway and Blake Edwards’s The Carey Treatment—two other recent underrated movies which get a lot of mileage out of genre, milieu, and people who care about a world that doesn’t.
THE LONG GOODBYE
Direction: Robert Altman. Screenplay: Leigh Brackett, after the novel by Raymond Chandler. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Music: Johnny Williams.
The Players: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Jim Bouton.
Copyright © 1973 by Peter Hogue