Robert Altman’s take on Raymond Chandler and Phillip Marlowe wasn’t a box-office hit, but it did capture a mid-70’s zeitgeist; arguably hit TV shows like The Rockford Files lift tonally from the so-laid-back-he’s horizontal presentation of the LA private eye. Purists seemed to feel that Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett had somehow defiled the memory of the writer and his creation; by 2020, when we’re used to regular reboots, re-nosing and retconning, this version of Marlowe seems to be a defiantly original fusion of the original writing and Altman’s patented fragmentation bomb. Which is a long way around the block to say that The Long Goodbye is pretty good.
Elliot Gould was the essence of an unlovely man in the 1970’s, but Altman’s M*A*S*H* helped make him a star, and he has an off-beat charisma here. Marlowe is presented in a lengthy scene organising pet-food for his cat, a scene so detailed you’d swear it got revamped in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Marlowe agrees to help out an old friend Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton) by driving him to the Mexican border, then takes a case in which missing writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) is traced to a private health-care facility. Meanwhile various parties want to locate missing money that Lennox knew about, and Marlow has to try and uncover exactly who is zoomin’ who.
Critics called The Long Goodbye plotless (it’s not) and that the central character was hopeless, and yet Marlowe seems to have a savvy grip on exactly what’s happening around him. The atmosphere of Malibu, usually glamorous, is rather seedy here, and so is the action; a startling act of violence hangs over the movie, and the finale is shocking because it’s out of character for both character and film. Never without a lit cigarette, Marlowe is presented as a man out of time, with hippies, drugs and parties all going on, but elsewhere, with Marlowe left to take the fall for all manner of bad behaviour.
There’s tonnes to enjoy in the Long Goodbye, from John William’s ingenious score, reworking the same theme as everything from a doorbell to a passing funeral band, and a brief but memorable de-clothing of future Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Vilos Zsigmond does a great job of making LA locations look striking and fresh, with Marlowe’s elevated pad was quite a find for the production team.
The Long Goodbye is a classic 1970’s film; unique, individual, downbeat and scuzzy; pretty much exactly what the subject demands. There are plenty of other Phillip Marlowe’s for purists to enjoy, but the 1973 vintage has gained in authenticity with age, and The Long Goodbye is good value for Altman and detective fans alike.