“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 of 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 (and parody) that’s materialized over the past several decades.
Given the stature of the character, one might assume that Marlowe is a rigid source; when 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 besides his penchant for smoking, they all differ wildly in tone and character. 1946’s The Big Sleep was a glossy affair that gave Marlowe 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 reticent swagger of James Garner, while 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely veered into lonely 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 know and love is a pulp superhero, a handsome loner who constantly outsmarts the femme fatales and the crime bosses. Here, Marlowe is a bumbling deadbeat, a guy who can’t even talk his cat into eating a knockoff brand of cat food. Chandler would surely have rolled over in his grave had he seen a mumbler like Elliott Gould pretending to be his articulate shamus.
I was similarly annoyed the first time I watched The Long Goodbye. The 1953 novel upon which the film is based is arguably Chandler’s best, with tight prose and a genuine character arc that makes it unique among Marlowe’s stories. To me, the notion of director Robert Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who co-wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep) substituting these beats for 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.
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 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 cliché, 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 went as far as to call the character “Rip Van Marlowe” on set, the idea being that he’s a 1953 detective who wakes up in a 1973 world; a moral person who wakes up in an immoral society.
This subtext highlights the brilliance of Altman and Gould’s bizarre style. Marlowe wears a dark suit and a white shirt when everyone else has converted to bell bottoms and polyester. He still puffs tobacco, when everyone else has moved on to grass. He helps out a friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), when its painfully clear that Lennox has plans to leave him high and dry. He rebukes violence, even when he’s nearly tortured by a frenzied 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 unfamiliar 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 worldview. It’s an unusual choice, especially for a film noir, but it’s one that ultimately works because of Gould’s sweet presence. Once you warm to his mumbled delivery, you’ll also find that Gould is the best when it comes to capturing Marlowe’s sociable nature. As part of the character that’s rarely shown on film, Gould makes his banter with prison bums, henchmen, and hospital patients feel both comedic and oddly 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 chunks 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 to solve, but Altman’s instincts as a director, his ability to coerce memorable improvisation from his cast, elevate the film beyond the simple trappings of a film noir. It’s the eccentricity, and not the explanation, that lasts. I have since forgotten who blackmailed who, but I’ll always remember Marlowe’s tiny harmonica, and the titular musical theme, which is cleverly recycled throughout the film.
Despite its lukewarm 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 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 famous detective. That they make it work is nothing short of a miracle. 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.