Robert Altman brought Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye to the screen 50 years ago in a neo-noir crime thriller starring Elliott Gould.
Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is no stranger to the screen. Raymond Chandler created the private detective for a short story in 1939’s The Big Sleep. The first film adaptation came in 1942. Throughout the years, Robert Mitchum is the only actor to make two appearances as Marlowe on the big screen. Until this past year, the character hadn’t made an appearance since 1978. In any event, The Long Goodbye marks its 50th anniversary since Gould starred as the legendary PI.
The gist of the film is that Marlow gets a visit from Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), who needs a lift to the Mexican border. Who is Marlowe to turn him down? It’s only after returning in which the cops interrogate him. What he didn’t know is that Lennox is now being accused of killing his wife, Sylvia. Anyway, the cops jail him for three days. They only release Marlowe when they hear that Lennox killed himself. Marlowe thinks that there’s more to the story. Meanwhile, Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) employs Marlowe to find her husband, novelist Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden). After finding Roger Wade, Marlowe learns of a connection between the Wades and Lennoxes. Is there something there or could it just be misdirection?
Meanwhile, gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell)–sporting a Magen David necklace–goes after Marlowe because of money that Lennox had on hand. If this isn’t enough, Roger Wade presumably drowns and then Eileen brings up his affair with Sylvia Lennox. I’m not going to spoil the ending but it’s quite the thriller. The fact that Marlowe figured it out just shows why he is so good at the job. Where the police think it’s case closed, Marlowe digs deeper and gets to the truth. Again, no spoilers from me.
Screenwriter Leigh Brackett had her own reservations especially because of Gould. In simple terms, the screenwriter didn’t see Gould as Marlowe. His casting came from above–either make a film with Gould or don’t make one at all. In any event, Brackett had her work cut out because The Long Goodbye was Chandler’s longest novel. It’s so long that filmmakers could probably make two or three books out of it. How would you approach making such a film? Anyway, the screenwriter makes some changes in adapting the book for a new era in Hollywood, not to mention inventing some characters, too. One such invention is Marty Augustine–the Jewish gangster in the film–and the subplot about him.
One of the best decisions about the film is that the moved the setting to 1970s Hollywood. While it works for the film, there are probably things they couldn’t do had they kept the original 1940s-50s setting. For instance, there would probably not be any nudity in the prior time period. But at the same time, Hollywood was in a state of transition as New Hollywood was only recently beginning to make waves. The industry was still two years removed from Jaws changing up the game with the blockbuster. But going back to my original thought, they do keep some things that make PI’s what they are, even though it looks out of practice in the 1970s. Marlowe drives a car that is over 20 years old and chain smokes, hardly ideal for a 1970s California setting.
Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond lenses the film while John Williams composes the score. Williams also composes a pair of songs with Johnny Mercer.
Robert Altman handles directing duties behind the camera. Altman approaches the film without a care in the world for Raymond Chandler fans. It certainly shows in the film as Marlowe does things that are otherwise against type for the character’s history.
Robert Altman and Elliott Gould might not be the ideal director/actor for Phillip Marlowe but they really make The Long Goodbye their own with their satirical contribution to the genre.
DIRECTOR: Robert Altman
SCREENWRITER: Leigh Brackett
CAST: Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, with David Arkin, Warren Berlinger, Jo Ann Brody, and Jim Bouton
United Artists released The Long Goodbye on March 7, 1973. Grade: 4.5/5
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