Kevin Jack Hagopian
Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University
The Long Goodbye was the last great novel by Raymond Chandler featuring his sardonic, occasionally knightly detective Philip Marlowe. Published in March 1954, the book marked the end of Chandler’s creative life. He had begun drinking heavily, his respiratory and heart troubles were back, and his wife was dying, slowly and agonizingly. She would not survive the year. Chandler himself would struggle on, in pain and in an alcoholic haze, until 1959. But Marlowe, the laughing, tough, and lonesome shamus, had said his own goodbye to Los Angeles, a place he had made his own in the halcyon 1940s, in the pages of Chandler masterpieces like The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. The Marlowe movies of that decade, with actors like Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Robert Montgomery, had made the detective with a bottle of Scotch in the desk drawer and an unquenchable thirst for the truth an icon of gritty rectitude.
Into the smoggy twilight of 1973 wandered screenwriter-director Robert Altman, with his adaptation of THE LONG GOODBYE. Altman seemed a character out of Chandler, for like Marlowe, he was an outsider who seemed to relish being a pariah, and a man who made the lack of trappings of success into proof of his own integrity. For Altman, the new Los Angeles, and its rusting hulk of a movie industry, was a modern ruin in which his leaden vision of humanity could frolic, and where he could endlessly riff on the ironies of a hollow world of material pretense and spiritual poverty. Chandler had written in 1950 a description of an artist who could very well be Altman: "The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities . . . It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization." THE LONG GOODBYE captures the Absurdist universe that was always latent in Chandler’s best work, at the expense of the Romanticism the movies drew out of that same work. Here, Altman deconstructs Marlowe thoroughly, and as he does, he shows us a new L.A. If the Marlowe of old had raged against an L.A. that was too often heartless, this Marlowe can only shrug at a new L.A. that is simply spineless, gutless, and bloodless.
THE LONG GOODBYE ignores movie history, and makes Marlowe a schlemiel, rather than a hardboiled saint. (Many years before, Chandler himself had proposed Cary Grant for the role, but had loved Bogart’s turn as Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP.) Elliott Gould, the decade’s every-schnook, first appears, wrinkled and disoriented, struggling to find his finicky cat something to eat. In the rest of the film, he will be similarly confused, albeit by bigger events and far more absurd characters.
THE LONG GOODBYE is filled with Altman grotesques, characters that are only thin coverings for the petit-celebrities Altman loved to cast. There is the broken-down baseball pitcher and author of a tell-all book on the game, Jim Bouton, as "Terry Lennox," the mysterious Tijuana-bound fugitive. There is Nina Van Pallandt, a marginal figure in the early 70s jet set, as femme fatale "Eileen Wade." And there is even a refugee from Olde Hollywoode, Sterling Hayden, as "Roger Wade," one of Chandler’s best corrupt patriarchs. Hayden, once a screen glamour boy, is now craggy and messianic, and his own strange life as an ocean-going recluse, a Sausalito bohemian, and a regretful "friendly witness" before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, is inscribed in the deep creases around his sad eyes. For seasoning, there is even a lesser movie director, Mark Rydell, tossed into the mix as gangster "Marty Augustine." This is L.A., but it is emphatically Altman’s L.A., a melange of exotic has-beens in a desolate cultural landscape. THE LONG GOODBYE is a rough draft for the country music Gomorrah of Altman’s NASHVILLE two years later, of his military-hospital-as-madhouse in 1970’s M.A.S.H., and of his deranged Wild West tent show in BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS (1976). In Altman’s world, every citizen is an inmate, and society is only a way to multiply the psychological infirmities and pathologies of its members.
Marlowe’s trademark line throughout the film is "It’s OK with me." Where the Romantic Marlowe incarnated by Bogart had been a man of reaction, Elliott Gould’s Marlowe is a man entirely of reaction. Altman has said that he thought of the Marlowe character as "Rip Van Marlowe," a relic of old L.A. who’d been asleep for 30 years. Early on, critics interpreted this to mean that the old Bogart Marlowe had simply gotten out of step with the new realities and the new metaphors of Los Angeles. In fact, Altman may have meant exactly what he said: Marlowe is simply asleep throughout much of the movie, a sleepwalker in a place where sleepwalking is the preferred mode of existence. Altman remanufactures Marlowe, replacing the detective with a guy whose real purpose is to witness the vagaries of the world around him.
Gone, for instance, is the old Marlowe’s sexual aura. In THE BIG SLEEP, Bogart’s Marlowe had made lady bookstore clerks, taxi drivers, and millionairesses swoon. Now, Gould’s Marlowe has trouble even recognizing when he’s being seduced. He’s much better at watching than doing, better at being than becoming. Perhaps Chandler, in his 1940s salad days, when the writing was easy and the checks were big, might not have acknowledged this Marlowe as his own creation. But in the 50s, when his typewriter seemed not to work but the bottle always did, when he spent months grieving over a dead house cat, and when he wandered the world in search of new material and old friends, he might very well have nodded a greeting at this Marlowe, and smiled.
Revisiting Altman's 'The Long Goodbye'
By Terrence Rafferty
New York Times
FridayApril 13 2007
Altman's "Long Goodbye" ... is neither a homage nor a deconstruction, though it contains elements of both. It's a film about transience, about the awful fragility of the things we want to think are built to last: friendships, marriages, faiths of all kinds - including the faith that pop culture can sometimes makes us feel in powerful fantasy figures like Marlowe and his jaunty, street-smart, superbly incorruptible ilk.
The lone-wolf private eye was in its time - from the heyday of pulp magazines in the 1920s and 1930s through the film noir era of the '40s and '50s - a pretty unbeatable archetype of modern masculine heroism: more independent than a policeman or a soldier, sexier than a Spencer Tracy priest, more virile than a screwball-comedy playboy and exponentially wittier than a cowboy. It was a myth for an urban society, and it didn't quite survive the great postwar migration to the suburbs, where the streets just didn't seem mean enough (then) to need a Marlowe to go down them.
Chandler, who was over 60 when he wrote "The Long Goodbye," clearly understood that the private eye's time was passing, along with too much else he cared about: his wife of 30 years was dying, not quickly. "I wrote it in agony, but I wrote it," he told friends later, and you can feel his agony throughout the book.
The novel is more contemplative, less eventful, less exuberant than early books and although the story supplies a few gangsters and annoying cops for Marlowe to crack wise at, the jokes don't have their old gleeful snap. That's probably deliberate to some extent. Chandler was keenly aware that his once-distinctive style had been so widely imitated that, as he put it, "you begin to look as if you were imitating your imitators"; but it's also plainly a reflection of his mournful mood.
You don't call a book "The Long Goodbye" unless you're feeling elegiac. And Altman's movie, in its eccentric way, keeps faith with Chandler's melancholy. The mystery, such as it is, has to do with whether the detective's friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) killed his wife. Marlowe, who has obligingly driven him to Mexico in the middle of the night, doesn't believe he did; the private eye dummies up when the police come calling and spends a couple of nights in jail rather than betray his murder-suspect friend. This gesture attracts the attention of a cool blonde named Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), a Malibu neighbor of the Lennoxes. She hires Marlowe to bring home her wayward husband, Roger (Sterling Hayden), an alcoholic novelist suffering from a spectacular creative block of unknown (perhaps guilty) origin. All the mysteries get resolved, mostly unhappily and mostly no thanks to the investigative acumen of Marlowe, who looks as if he were so far behind the curve of the truth that he'd actually been lapped a few times.
The idea that the beloved Marlowe could be portrayed as a baffled anachronism wasn't an especially startling notion in the early '70s. Movie private eyes hadn't looked very vigorous for a while, even when they were played by actors as charismatic as Paul Newman in "Harper" (1966) and James Garner in "Marlowe" (1969), an updated adaptation of Chandler's 1949 novel "The Little Sister." The stars did their jobs, but the '60s milieu they moved through in those pictures failed to cooperate; it appeared flattened out, drained of energy, and the private eyes seemed stranded and maybe a little bored, as if the world wasn't really worth the trouble to make sense of. The verbal style of hard-boiled fiction (Chandler's in particular) and the high-contrast visual style of film noir added up to an impressively coherent imaginative universe, in which the classic private eye could operate effectively and get to the bottom of things with nothing more than nerve, mother wit and local knowledge.
But what Altman does in "The Long Goodbye" goes way beyond simply stating the idea that the private eye's day was over. Instead of trying to correct, or ignore, the creeping vagueness of the landscape in which his lonely hero is a figure, he actually emphasizes those qualities. The images captured by his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, are as un-noirish as they can be: sun-bleached, unstable, heat-shimmery as mirages.
The movie manages to stylize an absence of style, the bland fluidity of early '70s Southern California, the very thing that makes Marlowe obsolete. He wears a black suit and a white shirt; he's a hard-edged line drawing in the middle of a runny watercolor, and he couldn't look more forlorn.
And Gould plays Marlowe as if the character knows that he is disappearing. This private eye is so private that he seems always to be talking to himself, mumbling a running commentary on the action in an attempt to convince himself, against the evidence of the world's near-total indifference to everything he says or does, that he really does exist. That is what it's like when pop culture archetypes start to fade in the imagination: They turn inward, they become bewildered and self-aware, and then they just get smaller and smaller, as Marlowe does in the long last shot of "The Long Goodbye," heading for the vanishing point.
The funny thing is, he's dancing a little as he recedes from view. He looks magically unburdened of his mythic responsibilities. The surprise of Altman's "Long Goodbye" isn't that it's elegiac - it has to be - but that it's such a blithe, rambunctious elegy.
Chandler, with a touch of defensiveness, said of his novel, "I wrote this as I wanted to because I can do that now," and Altman, in that spirit, made his movie as he wanted to, because he could do that in the early '70s, before the world of Hollywood filmmaking changed on him. Watching "The Long Goodbye" in 1973, you could feel Marlowe dancing on his own grave. Watching it now, you can see Altman dancing with him.
(Robert Altman, 1973, Arrow Academy, 15)
Like Raymond Chandler, Robert Altman (1925-2006) was a difficult, hard-drinking, self-destructive artist, a brilliant maverick who achieved his first success late in life. In 1973, his career still in the ascendant after the popularity of his first expansive, widescreen movie, MASH, he made a controversial screen version of Chandler's last work of consequence.
Published in 1953, The Long Good-bye was arguably Chandler's best, certainly his most personal novel and turned upon his knight-errant private eye Philip Marlowe going down the mean streets of Los Angeles to defend the reputation of his friend Terry Lennox, who's accused of murdering his wife before apparently committing suicide in Mexico.
As played by Elliott Gould, Marlowe is a quizzical, self-mocking figure, constantly commenting on the world and his anachronistic presence in it. Indeed, everyone seems trapped in a vacuum of nostalgia and allusions to the past, especially Hollywood's.
Superbly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond in a desaturated colour that echoes a bygone age, The Long Goodbye is an elegant, chilly, deliberately heartless movie. A masterpiece of sorts, it digs beneath the surface of the supposedly liberated spirit of the times to expose the ethos that took America into the Vietnam war and produced Watergate. In pushing the cynical idealist Marlowe over the edge it ends up true to the spirit of Chandler.