The Long Goodbye January 17, 2015
All the disarray is led by Robert Altman, a director you wouldn’t at first think to be the first choice, let alone a choice at all, to command a project with material as esteemed as The Long Goodbye. When we think of Robert Altman, we don’t instantaneously reminisce about the times of dames and pistols; in fact, we don’t think about anything so exclusive or one-note. Dozens and dozens of actors pop into our minds, weaved into a story of startling complexity that, by the end, is framed in a splattering of words like “genius,” “brilliant,” or “masterpiece.” (Examples: Nashville, Short Cuts, The Player.)
But Altman is a chameleon of a director — never once does The Long Goodbye head into fish-out-of-water territory, as if Ingmar Bergman directed Iron Man 2. The Long Goodbye makes you forget about the tough-guy rawness Humphrey Bogart left behind, the black and white, gumshoe focused detective picture of the 1940s and ‘50s. It’s such a wonder of a film that one can only sit in a state of puzzlement and come to terms with the fact that Robert Altman has made a golden, almost nostalgically antique genre unravel before our very eyes.
Phillip Marlowe is a national treasure in film, this time portrayed by Elliott Gould with staggering nonchalantness. A detective with a cigarette attached to his lips at every waking moment, Marlowe finds himself perplexed when his good friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), becomes the prime suspect in his wife’s murder. The police are so convinced that Lennox is the killer that Marlowe, ever calm, decides to investigate the case himself.
This leads him to a sexy but enigmatic blonde, Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), who hires him to probe her husband’s (Sterling Hayden) sudden disappearance. The case, however, isn’t just a social call out of the blue — it appears that Wade, whether she’d like to admit it or not, has something to do with the whole Lennox situation.
There is a profusion of colorful supporting characters that glide in and out of scenes with sly influence: Henry Gibson as the crooked doctor, Mark Rydell as the lunatic gang leader who uses carefully selected politeness to cover up his pungent barbarity (this is a man who slams a glass bottle into his girlfriend’s face but places it in the grips of a morality lesson), and Ken Sansom as a security guard who would rather entertain onlookers with imitations of Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Brennan than actually do his job. In the ‘40s, these figures would be destinations, guest spots for big names to run by and maybe get an Oscar nomination. But Leigh Brackett, the screenwriter who also penned the script for 1946’s The Big Sleep, characterizes these personalities with such a spicy aroma that they are just as critical to the film as Marlowe himself.
Ultimately, Altman hoped The Long Goodbye would be seen as a sort of Rip Van Winkle story, a movie about a detective who falls asleep during the Hollywood Golden Age and wakes up to find himself in the hazy decade that was the 1970s. This idea alone only proves why Altman was and is such a visionary — would other directors during the time have dared to do something so bold, something so potentially poisonous? In all likeliness, probably not. There’s a reason why adrenaline junkies tend to leave a bigger mark that those who place themselves in the status quo. A
Trading fedoras for shaggy hair, Lauren Bacalls for Nina Van Pallandts, gun molls for kitty cats, The Long Goodbye is the antithesis of the cherished film noir genre, throwing away any tough-guy rawness Humphrey Bogart left behind, replacing it with the moppet placidity of Elliott Gould. At first glance, it’s a mess of a movie, the equivalent of a stoned rant Raymond Chandler may have had if he was alive during the days of Twitter. But if you look closely, you will find that The Long Goodbye is not as straggled along as you might so quickly think. It’s a reinvention of the black-and-white, gumshoe focused detective pictures of the 1940s and ‘50s. The film, to say the least, isn’t an easy, merry-go-round homage. It’s an assortment of film noir trademarks thrown onto a sticky wall, crossing its fingers that the oddest of the odd concepts will stay in place.