Film Reviews

Amazon Prime Video Pick of the Week: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye

Amazon Prime Video, according to some reports, has around five times as many movies as Netflix, which is perhaps not all that shocking to anyone who’s ever glanced at Prime Video’s “recently added” section only to realize half an hour has gone by and you’re still sorting through all the options. For that reason, I thought it might be helpful to periodically drop in with my recommendation for what to watch out of the nearly 18,000 films on Amazon Prime. Given that bottomless well of content, allow me to offer some curation.

To kick this off, I picked a recent addition that was once named one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies.” Pauline Kael wrote a fawning 7-page essay about it as a giant middle finger to all of her fellow critics who loudly and rudely hated the film. (“It’s probably the best American movie ever made that almost didn’t open in New York” she lamented about the film’s critical/financial struggle.) It stars a post-M*A*S*H* Elliott Gould at his mumbliest, features Arnold Schwarzenegger – in one of his earliest film roles – at his most muscled, and opens with a “how pathetic is this?” sequence in which a man searches for cat food in the middle of the night. It’s often cited as a dark horse favorite among Robert Altman stans and 1,000% served as a direct influence on David Robert Mitchell’s divisive 2019 noir spoof Under the Silver Lake, though don’t hold that against it.

Behold, 1973’s The Long Goodbye!

The Plot

The plot, if it’s not already clear from the trailer, involves private eye Philip Marlowe (Gould) investigating the disappearance of his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton, a former MLB pitcher who gave acting a go throughout the 70s before returning to baseball for one last run). The authorities say Lennox killed his wife and then escaped to Tijuana where he committed suicide. Marlowe is the one who drove Terry to Mexico in the first place, but he didn’t know any of the details at the time and doesn’t trust the conclusions reached by the cops.

Separately, Marlowe is hired by Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her famous alcoholic novelist husband Roger (Sterling Hayden), whose latest bender has gone on for far too long. There’s also the little matter of a local gangster named Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who was owed thousands by Terry Lennox and is convinced Marlowe knows where the money is. What does one storyline have to do with the other? Yeah, that’s what Marlowe wants to know, and he’s sure to find out.

The Book

The story comes from the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, the second to last completed in his lifetime. At the time Chandler wrote the novel, he was dealing with his own alcoholism and feelings of inadequacy as well as the looming death of his wife, who lost her battle with a long illness a year after The Long Goodbye’s publication. Chandler based several of the characters on himself, most obviously Roger Wade, and used suicide as a frequent plot device since he was himself contemplating taking his own short goodbye to life. Though the novel was not overly loved by critics, Chandler regarded it as his favorite Marlowe story.

The Screenplay

In 1954, The Long Goodbye was adapted as the series premiere of Climax!, the CBS anthology series that also used its third episode to adapt Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. Classical film noir, however, fell out of fashion through the rest of the decade, eventually replaced by more deconstructionist minded works dubbed neo-noir. The Long Goodbye was kicked around by various producers and studios throughout the 60s before ending up United Artists, at which point there was only one other Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe novel that hadn’t already been turned into a feature film – 1958’s Playback, which remains unadapted.

The Long Goodbye adaptation duties fell to Leigh Brackett, a pioneering female novelist/screenwriter whose first credit was The Big Sleep (1946) and last credit was – somewhat controversiallyThe Empire Strikes Back. Her screenplay keeps the same basic story beats as the Chandler book. However, Brackett and Robert Altman, who was the studio’s third choice after Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich, looked at The Long Goodbye as an opportunity to re-examine the Philip Marlowe character in a modern setting. Thus, in a kind of reverse Motherless Brooklyn situation, they turned a period piece into a contemporary tale about a truly sad-sack detective in a world that has lost its taste for him.

Their Philip Marlowe doesn’t fall asleep in ‘53 one night and wake up the next morning in ‘73, but he might as well, considering that he drives a 1948 Lincoln Continental and still behaves like Bogart. Plus, he is woefully out of touch with modern morals and police practices. It’s not quite a literal man out of time story, but it’s close.

The Lead

Three men had played Marlowe in feature films since Bogart’s iconic Big Sleep performance – Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake (1946), George Montgomery in The Brasher Doubloon (1947), and James Garner in the more jokey Rockford Files precursor Marlowe (1969). Elliott Gould was not an obvious choice to become the fourth. After the one-two punch of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and M*A*S*H, Gould exploded in popularity but was overexposed, appearing in seven films between 1969 and 1971, and gained a bit of a reputation as “difficult.” By the time Long Goodbye came along, he hadn’t acted in anything in two years and was forced on the producers by David Picker at United Artists. His version of Marlowe proved to be completely unlike any of his cinematic predecessors.

A Marlowe Out of Time

For lack of a more delicate description, Gould’s Marlowe is a loser – a punching bag, sucker, chauffeur, “a wryly forlorn knight,” as Kael put it. He sure as heck doesn’t have his own office with his name on the door in big black print. He can’t even find the right brand of cat food for his rathe persnickety feline. The most he has going for him is a truly fantastic apartment in Hollywood’s historic High Tower Elevator neighborhood, so uniquely organized that he can see his across-the-way neighbors as they dance topless, party, and meditate.

This – the aggressively hippy-like behavior of his uniformly young and attractive female neighbors – is a runner throughout the story, but it’s also one of the keys to understanding this version of Marlowe. Dragged from the 50s into the 70s, this version of Marlowe is surrounded by wanton sex and amorality, but he’s still fundamentally good. At no point does he seem remotely tempted by the unspoken invitation for free love with any of the neighboring women. Instead, he picks them up brownie mixes and other requested groceries when he’s out on an errand run. “That’s alright with me,” is his frequent response to the craziness around him.

Gould’s Marlowe is a sleepy protagonist cooly mumbling his way through danger, but when you strip away his facade you see that he’s one of the last souls who truly cares what happens to the people in his town. It often makes him the fool, and that actually cuts to the core of what Chandler intended with the novel. When his agent criticized the Long Goodbye’s predictable ending, Chandler wrote back, “I didn’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people, about this strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.”

Altman and Brackett, in updating the story for the 70s, simply multiplied that by ten, added their own wry humor to everything, and came up with a new, very New Hollywood style ending. What that gives you is a detective story where the detective is repeatedly double-crossed by supposed friends and consistently outsmarted by the cops who view him as a nuisance.

The mystery, in the end, is engaging but not remarkably difficult to solve, and the concept of Marlowe as the last good person in a corrupt world never more pronounced. What he does in response, however, is fairly shocking, enough that you’ll surely remember The Last Goodbye. If the ending doesn’t do it for you, though, you’ll at least walk away with the title song stuck in your head since John Williams introduces a different version of it in every scene – a ballad one time, an instrumental the next.

Recommended if You Like: Motherless Brooklyn, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Big Sleep, Breathless, Robert Altman, Neo-noir

Streaming Where?: Check JustWatch for the Current Streaming Links.

Wait, What About Arnold?

This “Where’s Arnold?” Game Might Be Too Easy

Oh, I almost forgot. Yes, a Hercules in New York-era Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a surprise appearance. He features as a goon with no dialogue or official credit in the cast listing, but seeing as how it happens in a scene where the rather colorful big bad makes everyone strip to their underwear, the future Governator is pretty damn hard to miss. Let’s see, there’s one fairly healthy-looking dude over there, a pretty fit dude over there, a pretty normal-looking guy next to him, and, oh, yeah, there’s a mountain of muscles standing in the middle. For what it’s worth, Arnold’s autobiography Total Recall ignores Long Goodbye entirely.

1 comment

  1. I love this film and just rewatched it again recently. I also started rereading the novel, an old paperback copy of which I found at a used bookstore. Whoever owned it last apparently was not a fan of the movie because they wrote on the title page, “To reproduce accurately the effect and power of the Altman film, read this book upside down while standing in a hot shower.”

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