Even by the downbeat standards of the mid-’70s noir boom, The Long Goodbye is dark as hell, notwithstanding the film’s major subcurrent of bone-dry humor. Adapted from the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel featuring iconic fictional detective Philip Marlowe, the movie blends Chandler’s cynical worldview with that of director Robert Altman by updating the storyline to the modern era and inserting additional nihilistic violence. Yet The Long Goodbye is essentially a character study disguised as a murder mystery, because, as always, Altman is far more interested in the eccentricities of human behavior than in the mundane rhythms of straightforward plotting. And, indeed, the storyline is murky, albeit intentionally so; presumably, the idea was to make viewers feel as mystified about whodunit (and why) as Marlowe himself.
In broad strokes, the storyline begins when Marlowe’s pal Terry Lennox (portrayed by former pro baseball player Jim Bouton) has the detective drive him from L.A. to Tijuana for unknown reasons. Returning home to L.A., Marlowe learns that Lennox’s wife is dead. Lennox is the principal suspect, so Marlowe gets busted as an accessory—until a report surfaces from Mexico that Lennox committed suicide. Meanwhile, Marlowe gets pulled into two other mysteries with unexpected connections to the Lennox situation. Marlowe’s asked to track down a missing author, and he’s harassed by a psychotic gangster who believes Marlowe knows the whereabouts of a suitcase full of loot.
While The Long Goodbye unfolds in an extremely linear style compared to other Altman films of the period—this isn’t one of his big-canvas ensemble pictures—the director’s roaming eye serves the material well. After developing Marlowe as a loser who can’t even keep his housecat satisfied because he fails to buy the right cat food (an unsatisfied cat—how’s that for an impotence metaphor?), Altman drops Marlowe into a world of wealth and privilege by setting most of the detecting scenes inside the exclusive Malibu Colony. With his cheap suit and vintage car, Marlowe’s a walking anachronism as he rubs shoulders with rich narcissists like the runaway author, thundering alcoholic Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), and Wade’s desperately lonely wife, Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt).
Furthermore, Marlowe can only watch, helpless, as the gangster, Marty Augustine (played wonderfully by actor/director Mark Rydell), abuses his people—such as in a shocking scene involving Marty and his mistress. Altman illustrates that Marlowe’s pretty good at discovering facts simply through shoe-leather tenacity, but that he’s powerless to effect positive change in a world overrun by fucked-up people determined to hurt each other. The best moments of the movie are scalding, notably Hayden’s riveting scenes as a formidable man hobbled by liquor. And the scenes representing pure invention on the part of screenwriter Leigh Brackett, including the Augustine bits, are vicious. (Brackett, it should be noted, was one of the writers on the classic 1946 Marlowe mystery The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart.)
Gould is ingenious casting, because his sad-sack expressions and wise-ass remarks clearly define Marlowe as an outsider who’s been screwed over by life—thus subverting audience expectations of a super-capable sleuth—and Altman surrounds Gould with an eclectic supporting cast. (Watch for a cameo by David Carradine and an uncredited bit part by a pre-stardom Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Aided by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who literally probes the darkness of Los Angeles with grainy wide shots peering far into shadowy tableaux, Altman transforms Chandler’s book into a ballad of alienation.
The Long Goodbye: RIGHT ON