The Long Goodbye


‘…a classic 1970’s film; unique, individual, downbeat and scuzzy…’

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 2021, 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 still pretty good.

Elliott 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.




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  1. The archetypal Elliott Gould performance, laid-back, full of the drawl, hidden in smoke, so offbeat a tune would miss him by a mile, and yet as a PI not to be messed with. Sterling Haydn top notch.

  2. A classic! Love this one. Gould is so so so very cool – and you’re right, pretty smart too. Altman really makes it with some ingenious touches, and it’s one of his best. The Jewish gangsters are the greatest scenes!

  3. Sterling Hayden’s performance is one of the best screen portrayals of the Hemingway-esque toxic masculine writer. I’ve seen ‘The Long Goodbye’ twice on the big screen. Several moments from this film have stuck with me over the years, but Sterling Hayden’s performance was masterful, almost as good as Ripper in ‘Dr. Strangelove.’

  4. I’ve never read any of Chandler’s works and I suspect there is a reason, even if I can’t nail it down. So movies based on his books have even less of a chance.

    But really, the threat of a naked Ahnald is more than enough to steer me clear. Thanks for the warning 🙂

  5. Funnily enough I’ve just started thinking about writing on The Long Goodbye. i agree with all your comments here but there is a great deal to say about the film. The novel was published in 1953. It’s my favourite Chandler novel and I was also a big Altman fan in the early 1970s so I was very conflicted when I first saw it. It made much more sense when I revisited it in the 1990s. A crucial point is that it was written by Leigh Brackett, a remarkable woman who wrote science fiction and crime novels and stories. She wrote the screenplay for the Howard Hawks version of The Big Sleep in 1946 and for several more Hawks films as well as the initial script for The Empire Strikes Back for Lucas.

    The casting of Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade is a master stroke. The original setting of the narrative was late 1940s/early 1950s in the era of HUAC and McCarthy and Hayden ‘named names’ about his communist contacts. His star persona carried that stain. His character also has the pain of alcoholism that was Chandler’s at the time he wrote the novel when his wife was dying. This is a very rich text. I’ll stop there.

    • A rich text is right. Like you, my first impressions of this film were conflicted, but time works wonders, and it now seems to be a classic 70’s if if not a conventional detective picture. Hayden is larger than life here, and that backstory your describe adds a layer for sure. I seem to remember a critical line that ran ‘Altman’s fragmentation bomb blows itself up’ but I think that’s not true; it’s just a very 193 version of a familiar character, and I think it’s some of Gould’s best work. Brackett is a seminal character too, as you say, the link between 40’s classic and the franchise world of today.

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