“That’s you Marlowe. You’ll never learn, you’re a born loser.”
In the pantheon of great film detectives, Philip Marlowe stands alone. Sam Spade might have been first, and Mike Hammer might have more in common with the action heroes that are still prevalent today, but Marlowe, with his caustic demeanor and rigid moral code, is the definitive model. He was created by Raymond Chandler, the most articulate and iconic of pulp writers, and his stories have served as the basis for every detective homage that’s been made over the past several decades.
Given the stature of the character, one might assume that Marlowe is an impenetrable source; but in reality, he’s been one of the most versatile and malleable characters in film noir history. There are close to a dozen Marlowe adaptations, and barring his quick wit and penchant for smoking, they all differ wildly in tone and character. 1946’s The Big Sleep was a glossy affair that gave Marlowe all the magnetism and charisma of the actor who played him, Humphrey Bogart. 1969’s Marlowe was an attempt to capitalize on the James Bond craze with the quiet, reticent swagger of James Garner, while 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely veered into bitter nostalgia by way of an aging, unimpressed Robert Mitchum.
But no version of Marlowe breaks the mold as completely and unapologetically as 1973’s The Long Goodbye. A critical flop upon its release, the film dared to present the character as something we had never seen before: a loser. The Marlowe we all know and love is a pulp superhero, a handsome loner who constantly outsmarts the femme fatales and the gangsters. The Marlowe presented here is a bumbling deadbeat, a guy who can’t even talk his cat into eating a knockoff brand of cat food. Chandler would have rolled over in his grave had he seen what mumbler Elliott Gould did with his articulate shamus.
I was similarly taken aback the first time I heard about The Long Goodbye. The 1953 novel upon which the film is based is arguably Chandler’s best, with tight prose and a character arc that makes it unique among Marlowe’s cases. The notion of director Robert Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who co-wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep) switching these beats out with lucid ramblings was more frustrating than if they had never adapted the novel in the first place. I resented its placement among the other Marlowe films, and refused to see it.
A few years later, I caught The Long Goodbye on TCM. I was away from home, and therefore away from the luxury of choosing what I wanted to watch. I expected to groan my way through the opening scene, where Marlowe stumbles around and tries to buy cat food, but I didn’t. Whether it was my newfound appreciation for Altman’s work, or my increased awareness of film noir and its clichés, the scene hit me like a splash of cold water to the face. The Long Goodbye doesn’t ruin Marlowe, it reaffirms him. It stages a collision between the immovable object that is his character and the unstoppable force that is the paranoia and pot smoke of the hippie generation, and then films the results. Altman and Gould even made a point of calling the character “Rip Van Marlowe” on set, with the idea being that he’s a 1953 detective who wakes up in a 1973 world.
This subtext highlights the brilliance of what Altman and Gould do with the character. Marlowe wears a dark suit and a white shirt when everyone else has converted to bell bottoms and polyester. He puffs a cigarette in nearly every scene, when everyone else has converted to grass. He helps out a friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), when its painfully clear that Lennox has plans to screw him over. He rebukes violence, even when he’s nearly tortured by a manic gangster (Mark Rydell). He wanders through a culture he doesn’t understand and makes no attempt to, as though convinced that it’s all just a strange dream. The faded, fuzzy cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond and the niche L.A. locations further this detached feeling throughout the film.
Despite being the youngest actor to play Marlowe, Elliott Gould is the oldest soul, a quixotic figure who lives by the manta: “It’s okay with me.” His performance has a vulnerable, innocent quality that the other Marlowes lack, as though he’s refused to let the cruelty of his profession tarnish his outlook. It’s an unusual choice, especially for a film noir, but it’s one that ultimately works because of Gould’s likable presence. And once you warm to his mumbled delivery, you’ll find that Gould is actually the best when it comes to capturing Marlowe’s friendly nature. As part of the character that’s rarely shown on film, Gould makes his banter with prison bums, henchmen, and hospital patients both comedic and strangely poignant.
I’ve yet to discuss the plot of The Long Goodbye, or how any the scenes involving Marlowe fit together, but in truth, none of that matters. Altman and Brackett threw out huge sections of the Chandler novel, preferring to let the momentum of the actors propel the film, rather than the narrative. It might be irritating to some, especially given that there’s a mystery and there are still unresolved clues at the end, but Altman’s instincts as a director, his ability to coerce memorable improvisation from his cast, elevate the film beyond simply being a retrograde noir. It’s the eccentricity, and not the explanation, that lasts. I’ve since forgotten who blackmailed who, but I’ll always remember Marlowe’s tiny harmonica, and the titular theme, which is cleverly recycled throughout the film.
Despite its tepid release (and my initial reservations), The Long Goodbye has gone on to inspire a legion of directors to approach film noir on their own terms. Its iconography is evident in the opening scene of Joel & Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski, and its lucid, rambling narrative served as the blueprint for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Where these films created characters to adhere to their irregular style, however, Altman and Gould had the audacity to do it with the genre’s most notable detective. That they make it work is nothing short of masterful. A
TRIVIA: The film was originally going to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich, but he dropped out because he didn’t believe Gould would make a convincing Marlowe.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.