The Long Goodbye – 1973 – Dir. Robert Altman
The late, great Robert Altman once again lends his distinctive, experimental style to what has come to be regarded as this definitive interpretation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. It’s a winner! Thirty-six this year, the film still plays as fresh and as contemporary as it did the year it was made. The tale of a double murder and the unfortunate detective who gets dragged, kicking and screaming, into the thick of it is filled with a permeating cynicism, underhanded absurdities and shattering acts of violence. Crime author Raymond Chandler, like his contemporaries Dashiell Hammett and Ross McDonald, created glamorous worlds of danger and intrigue where a usually hapless, albeit decent guy, finds himself way over his head in the soup. Here, Chandler’s anti-hero, Phillip Marlowe, is helmed by the underrated Elliott Gould. A huge star in the 60s and 70s (Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, M.A.S.H.), Gould brings a bizarrely effortless spin to a role played in more traditional ways by everyone from Bogart to James Garner. His dopey, befuddled schmuck look assists him ably in Altman’s clever conceit of placing a 1950s-style detective into a 1970s-style world. It is as if this “Rip van Marlowe”, waking from a long slumber, has been transported via some private eye time tunnel twenty years into the future — a future he does not understand and is more than a little bit lost in.
Watch with glee as a long, meandering montage of Gould attempting to buy a can of cat food for his feline friend, including a comic stopover at the hippie harpies’ haven next door, outlines for us everything we need to know about this guy’s sloppy-souled, rumpled gestalt. Soon, we are whisked along with him into intrigues that challenge his and perhaps our own moral constitutions and subject them to deceptions, even evil, of the highest kind.
The plot is not that important; Altman agreed with Hitchcock that a movie’s plot doesn’t matter as much as does character exposition. The real point of the story is to let the characters have at each other. And what a gallery of characters it is!! The larger- than-life actor, author, adventurer, Sterling Hayden, 70s model icon, Nina van Pallandt, the diminutive, sadistic Henry Gibson (of “Laugh-In” fame) and a very young Arnold Schwarzenegger as — what else! — a musclehead!! Film director, Mark Rydell, here plays a slimeball crime boss, Marty Augustine who, after bloodyingup a girl’s face with a Coke bottle, gets to utter the now classic line: “Now that’s someone I LOVE; you I don’t even LIKE”. Gould, as stated, is a marvel. His smartass remarks come fast and funny but they act as a smoke screen (like the cigarette clouds he keeps blowing out at us and into his own face) to cover over the confusion he feels about where the heck he is and what the heck this is all about.
One of the stars of the show (and a character in itself) is the title theme song. Composed by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, it weaves its way, eponymous, throughout the entire movie, in various incarnations, as a hippie chant, a jukebox song, grocery store muzak, a blast on a car radio, the best of these being the boozy vocal intonations of legendary jazz trumpeter, Jack Sheldon. The music is one of the true delights of the film. It even appears as part of a Mexican funeral march!
The Long Goodbye scores as both a faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s work (Chandler purists will be more than satisfied) and also as a tribute to Altman’s genius for creating the study of a good man cast adrift on a bad sea where selfish, self-absorbed society does whatever it pleases to get what it wants, and where any idea of friendship or loyalty are easily flushed down the toilet. Some viewers have had a hard time swallowing the off-the-wall ending but if you think about it, it is really the only ending there can be, the perfect ending to another perfect Robert Altman film.
After all, “Nothing says goodbye like a bullet”.