The Long Goodbye – 1973 – dir. Robert Altman
Based loosely on the Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye fits somewhere in the film noir repertoire, even if it’s not clear exactly where. Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould), suspects foul play in the suicide of his old friend, who is also alleged to have killed his wife. In another film noir trope, the most seductive woman around is also the shadiest: Director Robert Altman hints to the audience that there is a connection between the beautiful Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) and Marlowe’s dead friend long before Marlowe himself figures it out.
Maybe most importantly for the film’s noir status, The Long Goodbye’s world is filled with the heartless, the lost, and the vicious. The lack of moral rectitude is a subversive gesture; a sunnier thriller would end in the death of the worst characters, who would be marginal sorts only briefly disrupting the greater social structure. Here, however, it’s not one bad apple that creates the pain, it’s the whole barrel.
But rather than reinforce this dismal account of humanity, Altman’s movie subtly offsets the dark ambiance with the lead’s offbeat goofiness. This Marlowe is, more than anything, a bit playful. He tucks a half-eaten apricot in his breast pocket, he presses his nose plaintively against a screen door, and he argues in a drunk stupor with a policeman. He does not exude gravitas or tragedy so much as a bit of silliness.
Even so, he is the moral center of the film, as the only one apparently concerned by his friend’s death and, in most scenes, the only one that is halfway sane. But this doesn’t translate into nobility: This Marlowe talks to himself, making jokes that fall on uncomprehending ears that don’t see the absurdity of it all. Like some of Bill Murray’s characters, Marlowe is almost playing to an unseen audience, not to the people around him, creating a sort of sad, self-mocking effect.
There are other factors that divert the movie from serious melodrama. There is, for one, the eccentricity of its most terrible crook, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), whose rambling speeches and sporadic solicitousness are fascinating. He evokes that awkward criminal so often developed by Martin Scorsese, one so specific in his twisted particulars that he is hard to imagine as representative of any greater evil. He is terrible, sure, but his characterization is multifaceted, not limited to his role as a thug. Marty Augustine isn’t calculating so much as insane. (Incidentally, in the scene in Augustine’s office, the bulky guy in orange is the future Governator of California.)
In this way, Altman avoids making a broad statement, and there are other odd aspects of The Long Goodbye that pull the movie even farther from any coherent statement. Perhaps significantly, none of these are quite explained or motivated. There is, for one, the odd prominence of pets — no, seriously — starting with the much-celebrated sequence at the beginning of the film that finds Marlowe on an extended quest for cat food. And what do these references to domestic animals mean? I have no idea.
Nor is it obvious why the theme song, also titled “The Long Goodbye,” should surface in varying interpretations within the story. Here, the rules of continuity are slightly bent, since the tune would hardly be as likely to appear in real life as often as it does. Yet another strange touch is a conversation between Eileen Wade and her husband that is conspicuous for being the only extended moment that we are away from Marlowe’s point of view and restricted to his knowledge (as the entire rest of the film is, except for the early hint about the connection between the Eileen Wade and Marlowe’s friend).
These themes and moments are all the more intriguing for being narrative loose ends; I can’t seem to find any greater effect or idea they build upon, as prominent as they are. But they put a twist into a movie that could have been a painfully faithful adaptation, and it’s the better for them.