Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” can be seen as an update of the film noir detective genre. He takes a very familiar character from 40s noir, Phillip Marlowe, who was portrayed by such film legends as Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Robert Montgomery among others and plants him right in the middle of 1970s counter-culture Los Angeles. The Marlowe seen in the earlier films was usually a white knight in a dark criminal world. He was incorruptible, and usually smarter than everyone else in the room. He was rarely fooled, and was always one step ahead of the criminal. But Altman shows us in the 1970s that his Marlowe is a man out of time, always one step behind the shades of grey characters he stumbles upon, sometimes bumbling onto scenarios he isn’t always in control of. However in the end he’s able to find a new moral code that may not fit so much with the old ways, but he’s still able to come out the hero.
“The Long Goodbye” was adapted from the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel of the same name and was written by Leigh Brackett who co-wrote that other Phillip Marlowe classic “The Big Sleep” which starred Humphrey Bogart as the titular character. Altman was known to play it loose with the script and was not afraid of having his actors improvise, however much of Brackett’s overall outline still lives on in the film, and she was reported to have been “satisfied” by it.
The new Marlowe for this strange world is played by Elliott Gould who to me feels like somewhat of a forgotten star of the 70s even though he made so many important films. We first see Gould’s Marlowe sleeping in his bed when he’s awoken by his hungry cat, for whom he goes to a 24 supermarket for in order to get its favorite cat food. It goes without saying Marlowe loves this cat and speaks to his character that he’s willing to go in the middle of the night in order that its fed.
It’s pretty soon after that Marlowe has to go to great lengths for another friend, this time a human named Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Terry wants Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana without much explanation other than a fight with his wife. Marlowe hardly bats an eye, so being the dutiful friend obliges. The next morning, Marlowe is picked up by the police under suspicion of the murder of Lennox’s wife, then later he learns Lennox himself died from apparent suicide.
This doesn’t add up for Marlowe as the cops believe Lennox is the guilty party, but he constantly defends him. Pretty soon the labyrinth of a plot most accustomed to these types of movies begins to form. Marlowe is hired by the beautiful Mrs. Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her husband Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a boisterous alcoholic writer, who is drying out and is at the mercy of a corrupt medical doctor (Henry Gibson). What is their connection to Lennox? There is also a violent gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who Lennox owed money to and who thinks Marlowe knows where it is.
The mystery does all come together in the end, but the idea behind the film noir is really in how the story is told. There is the cliché of light and shadow during the old black and white days, while the detectives wore fedoras and trench coats with hazy cigarette smoke filling the screen. Altman plays with these tropes with Marlowe being the only one who is constantly smoking, while his neighbours, who are half-naked hippy girls, mostly meditate, eat hash brownies, and do yoga (this isn’t the time for the classic detective).
The film does have the hazy look which comes courtesy of the late great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who also shot Altman’s other genre-bender, the western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”. Zsigmond shoots Los Angeles like a smoky landscape, very dreamlike complementing Altman’s roaming camera, as it zooms in and out on the people and places all the time. There are moments that seem unreal such as a prominent scene where the camera zooms away from a conversation between two people to focus on a major character in the background running into the ocean about to commit suicide. There is another important cut of violence involving a coke bottle and woman’s face which seems to come out of nowhere making it all the more shocking. Altman was not known for being a very violent director, but when he uses it in his movies, they are like a wake-up call that there is more at stake here than originally meets the eye.
Then there’s the music by John Williams. This is early John Williams before he would become Spielberg’s personal composer and writing for intergalactic space operas. Williams score for this is a smooth jazzy feel which adds to the haziness of the film. Along with that is the recurring title song written by Williams and Johnny Mercer. The song is weaved into the story used with different orchestrations and singers. It compliments the film almost as a hypnotic reminder of how Marlowe is running around in circles unsure of himself, chasing something that isn’t there.
Yet in the peripheral of this story, Altman is using his murder mystery as a sort of commentary of 1970s America. We aren’t taken too far away from what Altman (A counter-culture hero) thinks is wrong with his country. There’s a reason Marlowe is so confused and can’t keep up with what’s going on, it’s a world that doesn’t make sense to him, a world that is full of people you can’t trust, even those who are close to you. Altman taps into a certain paranoia not seen in the earlier Marlowe iterations. Gould’s Marlowe is so mixed up, at one point he becomes drunk raving at the police and losing his cool, that’s not something Bogart would ever do, yet that’s the point, the times they are a’changin. However despite these changes, Marlowe is still the moral compass, he’s the one you can count on to see what’s right, he’s just having trouble trying to adjust which direction he should go.
I never lived in the 70s, I was born in 1980 so I just missed it. I can’t exactly understand what it would’ve been like to live in that decade but in terms of cinema, I’d like to think Robert Altman was what the 70s really meant to some people. Altman was probably the greatest filmmaker of that defining decade with a prolific filmography which averaged about 1 a year, that’s pretty impressive. Most of his films during that period dealt with America in a lot of ways. Altman sometimes revised many film genres or deconstructed them in order to comment on what America was at the time. There was never a filmmaker like him, and probably never will be again.