The Long Goodbye (1973)
To get this out of the way: I am a major Chandlerite. Okay, more of an extremely devoted fan to the Marlowe novels. (Which are the best literature I’ve ever read-still to this day.) To think that Chandler’s best novel (and my favorite book of all time) was made into a film by Robert Altman with Elliott Gould as Marlowe made my blood run cold years ago when I first heard of it. I just didn’t want to know. I really didn’t.
I’m not typically a huge Altman fan, but I like the points he tries to get at. What this version of The Long Goodbye gets at is alienation. Gould plays Marlowe as a throwback to earlier times in an ever increasingly hostile 70’s LA. I enjoyed the fact that the book’s plot was more window dressing than actually important to the story. Chandler himself would have likely enjoyed this. This Marlowe exists as a stodgy alternate version of himself. He is as if cast off into this new LA and wallows in the sewers with the same grace as before.
This is truly an alternate vision of Chandler’s literary world juxtaposed with a critique of the early 1970’s. This is what makes the whole thing work, and it’s really the only adaptation of Chandler that works well, save for Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1945) and of course Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). On fact, writer Leigh Brackett also co-wrote the Hawks film with William Faulkner. What carries over from the earlier film is the sacrifice of Chandlerism for movie storytelling. Goodbye works well because it doesn’t care about itself. It doesn’t care about the story, the plot, the characters…absolutely anything. It is irreverent, and this is what keeps you watching, oddly enraptured as Gould tries to feed his cat at 3 AM.
That cat is representative of the whole film. Marlowe must go to the store to buy food for the cat and grumbles about it the whole way. They’re out of the particular brand his cat eats. He gets a different one and switches cans. Then the cat comes to eat and refuses as it is different. This whole episode takes about 15 minutes of screentime and sets up everything you need to know about this world.
This Marlowe constantly talks to himself. This is a nice reflection of the original character’s constant self narration. It allows for the audience to more easily bond with Gould’s characterization. Another bonus is a rare appearance form Sterling Hayden as the alcoholic Roger Wade. (Watching Hayden here can give the viewer an alternate “what if?” view of Jaws-if Spielberg had gotten his choice of Hayden for the Quint role.) The ending is surprising, but also leaves you with a certain sense of satisfaction oddly enough. Hooray for Hollywood.
This is very good film, but I still feel a straight adaptation of Chandler’s original novel could be a great film. There is still so much more there that is completely unexplored in Altman’s film.
Three and a half stars out of Four.
Editions: I watched the original Letterbox MGM Laserdisc for this review. The available DVD is anamorphic 2.35 with several nice extras. The LD was clear and had a very nice deep sounding PCM mono track.