Film Noir Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

“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.

The film's appropriately zany poster.

The film’s appropriately zany poster.

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.

Marlowe stumbles around looking for cat food.

Marlowe stumbles around looking for cat food.

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.

Marlowe chats with the boisterous Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden).

Marlowe chats with the boisterous Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden).

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.

Altman directs Nina Van Pallandt and Elliott Gould.

Altman directs Nina Van Pallandt and Elliott Gould.

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.

This entry was posted in Film Noir Review, Posts by Danilo Castro and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Film Noir Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

  1. Nat Segaloff says:

    I handled the initial director’s sneak in Boston of “The Long Goodbve” with Altman et al and was heartbroken when it didn’t click with the public who thought, from the initial adverts, that it was a serious film. Later UA reissued it with Jack Davis’s Mad Magazine-style campaign and it picked up a little. More than merely “Rip Van Marlowe,” what Altman is saying is that Marlowe will always be out of place because he is a moral man in an immoral universe (hence Los Angeles). Note that Marlowe doesn’t solve the mystery, the mystery solves him; he can’t even find his own cat. The most innovative aspect of the film is that Altman and Vilmos Zsigmond kept the camera moving for every shot. It either zooms, pans, tilts, or tracks, the point being to keep the viewer constantly unsettled. Lou Lombardo had a heck of a time editing it, but it works, and influenced every modern movie in that constantly moving cameras (usually for no reason) are now the norm, albeit for reasons of audience ADHD, not artistry. Along with “Chinatown” and “Night Movies,” “The Long Goodbye” is the holy trinity of 70s film noir. Gould and Altman even discussed a sequel before Altman died. I think it may also be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dramatic film debut (billed as “Arnold Strong”).

    • Danilo Castro says:

      Wow, thanks for the additional information! I did not know about their plans to make a sequel, but I do love the way Altman always kept the camera moving, it gives the film such a unique intensity. I also agree with your assessment of the Holy Trinity of 70s noir, it was truly a renaissance for the genre. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Steven Chaput says:

    As a Chandler fan I was as taken aback by the choice of Gould as anyone. His interpretation was so (literally) out of character for the Marlowe most of us knew. I recall enjoying moments of the film, but left unsatisfied. Seeing the film later, like you, I was surprised by how much I liked the film. I really enjoyed your review.

    • Danilo Castro says:

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who felt that way about the film. In comparison to The Big Sleep and the other Marlowe films, its definitely an acquired taste. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  3. A Long says:

    Just watched “The Long Goodbye” this week. Enjoy your thoughts and comments on the story, but glad I read afterwards, would have spoiled it, I think. I tried to watch it a long time ago but was thrown off a bit from the intro, so stopped. Glad I jumped in this week. Your summary of Marlowe’s mantra: “It’s okay with me.” is fitting. Love Gould’s characterizations and this one did not disappoint. There IS some resemblance to Marlowe and loved how he followed the thread of deception , arriving at the truth (although a few times I got lost and had to re-watch a few scenes). Loved the hippie girls, the crooks, who the gangster must have gotten from 1-800-HENCHMEN (Die Hard), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sterling Hayden and the complete 70’s setting. Such zaniness made me laugh more than once, but could not cover some of the dark aspects of the film (i.e. the bottle shattered on the girls face). The back and forth to Mexico was amusing. All in all, I felt satisfied that I finally viewed the film.

  4. David Hollingsworth says:

    A very unusual film in Robert Altman’s filmography. The bottle smashed in the girl’s face still gives me that jolt. Never had I seen a film with such a lovable loser in Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe.

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