The Long Goodbye (1973)

Country: United States
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Elliot Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Music: John T. Williams
Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler

It has been said that Robert Altman’s film of The Long Goodbye is a send up of Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. I don’t buy it! I admit it is very different to all the Philip Marlowe films that have been made before. Even Marlowe, with James Garner, which was made only six years prior to this, and had a contemporary setting, still had an old school feel to it. But The Long Goodbye has a distinctly 1970’s feel to it, and the Marlowe character, as played by Elliott Gould is not as ‘hard boiled’ as previous Marlowes. Gould applies some method acting to the Chandler universe. So when Marlowe is worked over by hoods, he mumbles, staggers and slurs a defiant wisecrack, rather than ‘spitting out a wisecrack’. I guess it is a more human depiction of Marlowe, than has been seen before.

The story has two concurrent story threads, which initially appear to be unrelated – but of course, become entwined by the stories end. The first concerns a friend of Marlowe’s, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Lennox turns up on Marlowe’s doorstep in a spot of trouble. He asks his old pal to drive him to Mexico, which Marlowe does. Only later, does Marlowe find that Lennox is wanted for the murder of his wife. Marlowe is arrested as an accomplice, and spends three days in jail. Finally the Marlowe is released, when Lennox commits suicide in a hotel, in a small rural village. Case closed. Marlowe is free.

The second story thread concerns Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), who hires Marlowe to find her missing husband. Her husband, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) is an author, with writer’s block and a drinking problem. He has disappeared on previous occasions, usually into rehab institutions, but on this occasion, Eileen has not been able to find him anywhere. Marlowe agrees to take the case.

As I have suggested, these two story threads intertwine in a rather typical Chandleresque fashion – serving up the requisite low-life characters, hoods, corrupt cops, and even a young Arnold Schwarzenegger as a two-bit henchman. All-in-all it’s not too bad – even if some of the character motivations and plot strands are a little fuzzy.

But what makes this film controversial, in some people’s eyes, is the ending. Warning; major spoilers ahead. I try not to spoil the films I review, but we are talking about a film that is thirty-five years old, and I am sure I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to talk about the ending to The Long Goodbye. Put simply, Marlowe figures out that Lennox is still alive, and tracks him down to his villa in Mexico. Then he shoots him down in cold blood. Those familiar with Chandler’s book, will know that in the original story, Lennox did indeed fake his death. But Marlowe didn’t track him down. Lennox came to him, albeit after having had plastic surgery, and trying to pass him self of as a Mexican who was working at the hotel on the day that Lennox purportedly killed himself. Marlowe sees through Lennox’s ruse. But he doesn’t kill him. Lennox walks away and into – supposedly – his new life.

The other difference between the stories, which supposedly justifies Marlowe’s actions, is that in the film, Lennox did kill his wife. In the book it is Eileen Wade who is the killer. The bit that get’s my goat, is there is no need for the change. The set up is complete in the film. It appears to have been changed for the sake of change – all at the expense of the source material. And furthermore this dramatically, and out of keeping with the rest of the film, alters Marlowe’s character. Philp Marlowe would not shoot a man down in cold blood. And certainly not one, who never intended to do him any harm. So rather than being the hard boiled, world weary Philip Marlowe, that the world has come to know, we have a petulant schoolboy with a gun, who is angry that he has been duped, and inconvenienced. The Marlowe I know has been duped, inconvenienced, beaten and bruised so many times that it is second nature. But still, he comes through all this with some sort of battered nobility. But there is no nobility in the closing of Altman’s film. It’s a temper tantrum, but with a bullet taking the place of angry words.

At the top of this review, I suggested that many people have called The Long Goodbye a send up. A send up, is something that takes the piss out of overused genre tropes. Therefore, I don’t think the film of The Long Goodbye is a send up. It serves up the genre tropes gleefully. I guess the tag ‘send up’ was applied by some marketeer as a defence against the film deviating from the source material. If you say it’s a ‘send up’ – then people cannot complain that it isn’t the same as the book. But I take offense at that. Any book lover, who has seen a film version of a book they have read knows that it will be different – whether that be Harry Potter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. All you can hope for, is that the film makers faithfully capture the spirit of the book. Changes are necessary. And I fully realise that condensing down – well my version of The Long Goodbye is 320 pages, and small type at that – into a 120 minutes movie, means jettisoning more than half of the book. I accept that. But the thing is, the film-makers had mostly succeeded in doing that. But then they contemptuously changed the ending and the character. My problem being, if you don’t like the Marlowe character, or the ending to the story, why acquire the rights and make a film out of it in the first place? The film-makers can write an original script from scratch, presenting their own unique vision of the detective story, rather than writing over and tarnishing one of the twentieth century’s most indelible fictional characters.

The Player is a send up. The Long Goodbye is just arrogance and contempt.

Elliot Gould has appeared in a number of spy productions; such as Who?, The Lady Vanishes (1979) and S.P.Y.S, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid – and I don’t remember it too fondly – but maybe some of the humour just went over my head. I will have to check it out again one day. And Gould was the voice of Mr. Stoppable in the Kim Possible tv series. Some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films, such as Eraser (and others) are cusp spy films.

10 Comments Posted in Film
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  1. I was planning on watching this, but now…not so sure I want to.

  2. Take a look at it Tim. Never let one of my rants dissuade you!

  3. I would encourage you, Tim. I have a totally different take on this film, one of my favorites actually (and I am a massive, massive fan of Chandler), but unfortunately no time to get into it!

    In short, I think Altman’s film IS a send-up, not of the genre, not of the novel, but of the then-contemporary time period. Like Chinatown, it shows that the sort of street level knight errant that was the PI of the early 20th Century can no longer function in the fake world of 1970s L.A.

    The screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett, who also wrote the much-loved Bogart version of The Big Sleep. As far as I know, the ending was hers, and I think that, in the end, Marlowe shooting Lennox is not him saying goodbye to Terry, or the cat, or Eileen, but to the whole disappointing world.

  4. Interesting interpretatation, Armstrong. But for that to have worked for me, then Marlowe should have been played by an old school actor – such as Robert Mitchum (a lazy suggestion I know, because as we all know, Mitchum would indeed play Marlowe in the following year in Farewell My Lovely).

    Then the juxtaposition of the old and the new would have worked better (superior minds to my own, may suggest that would be too obvious!) But somebody who is so obviously an anachronism, trying to survive in the synthetic 70s, would be far more interesting to watch. (Not that I particularly hate Gould’s performance – as I said above, it may be one of the more ‘human’ portrayals of Marlowe depicted on screen).

    However one thing is for sure, The Long Goodbye is a film that divides people.


  5. I loathe this movie because the book is my all-time favorite novel. While I can accept that most screenplays necessitate changes from the source material, I can’t accept the radical changes in this one. Far from being entertaining, I thought the entire film was obnoxious. (E.g., I was a smoker at the time I saw it, but Gould’s chain-smoking quickly became repulsive.)

    If the film was in fact intended to be a send-up of the hardboiled detective novel, The Long Goodbye is about as poor a choice of source material as any I can think of. Earlier Chandlers, especially Farewell, My Lovely or The High Window, would have worked better.

    Leigh Brackett’s own detective stories were heavily influenced by Chandler’s style. Having co-scripted “The Big Sleep” and knowing her way around Chandler’s work, I’m surprised she ended “The Long Goodbye” the way she did–unless it was Altman’s idea, which is a strong possibility.

  6. I think it’s telling that the two counter-examples you cite, the Mitchum “Big Sleep,” and Garner in “Marlowe,” are, in my opinion, sort of lousy films. In both cases, production values are substantially at fault (I think they both look like TV movies), but I think there were issues in contemporizing the setting without changing anything about the characters.

    From everything I’ve read, the ending was Brackett’s idea. I’ve also heard the studio wanted Lee Marvin, but I think the casting of Gould is spot-on. Marvin or Mitchum would have still played the role straight, but Gould is self-aware that he’s an anachronism. His witty jibes are muttered under his breath, as he knows he’s his only audience. He’s exhausted keeping up his existence even as the world around him has changed.

    The scene with Augustine and the Coke bottle is important for the film I think. Even in the seedy underworld of Chandler’s Marlowe, violence makes some amount of sense. Poeple kill because they’re angry, or jealous, or greedy. In each of his cases, to some extent, Marlowe’s job is to make sense of this. He’s not a Sherlock Holmes-style detective, looking for clues to reveal in the room of suspects, but he studies other people. But in this…I hesitate to say post-Vietnam era, but I will because it’s the most obvious touchstone…violence can be senseless. People lead constructed existences. Marlowe can no longer be an effective arbiter of people because the world in which he lives has grown inauthentic.

    Here’s a nice essay that I think does a nice job of summing up how I feel about the film:

  7. David—Thank you for a dissenting voice (finally) about a movie that I’ve found to be over-praised and over-hyped. The Long Goodbye is, I think, Chandler’s masterpiece, and I don’t believe that reducing the story line to movie length is in any way responsible for the bush-league feel of the film. As you say, changing the ending seemed clumsy and totally unnecessary–a kind of swaggering way of announcing that “movies must make changes to novels.” Of course they do, but not ham-handed changes… I’ve never quite understood why so many viewers have found Elliot Gould a successful Marlowe. It’s as though turning Gould/Marlowe into a cold-blooded killer at the movie’s end was intended to strengthen his character and effectiveness; this after having watched him otherwise behave like a superannuated hippie. So I find the movie weak, particularly because of its casting of Gould; he’s just not Marlowe–or even “a” Marlowe–and doesn’t carry the appeal or complexity of Chandler’s fully realized PI. Send-up? I don’t thinks so. “Send-up” is just another term thrown into the discussion to deflect attention away from the film’s various weaknesses, which I won’t belabor. Again, thanks for your very welcome dissenting opinion and critical assessment.

  8. I just watched a YouTube video with Elliott Gould being interviewed by Michael Connelly about “The Long Goodbye.” He’s an odd duck but he tells a lot about what he and Altman thought about the plot and the character during the making of the movie. I think he said that Altman said that Marlowe was the only moral force in the movie, the only one who wasn’t just looking out for himself, and the shooting was part of that. I think it’s a great, jazzy, Altmanesque turn, the only things I don’t like is the hitting of the girl in a rather brutal gimmick, and the fact that Jim Bouton came off as such a poor actor in the most important scene in the movie.

  9. Marlowe doesn’t kill Lennox in cold blood. The most important thing for a private detective is reputation. Marlowe was made a fool of. Since most cases are drawn from the shadows, Marlowe killing Lennox (who was already dead and the authorities weren’t about to also be made fools of) was necessary to maintain his standing…

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