The Long Goodbye is a 1973 Neo-Noir film based on a 1953 Robert Chandler novel of the same name. The screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote the screenplay for Chandler’s movie The Big Sleep. It was directed by Robert Altman and stars Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe, an unlikely private detective. In short, Phillip Marlowe goes to take on various cases in the movie. From getting money owed to the mob to finding the whereabouts of a wealthy novelist, Roger Wade, with a history of alcoholism. One case, in particular, is the death of his friend, Terry Lennox, wife, who is never seen on camera. Phillip Marlowe is convinced Terry is alive, and there is a conspiracy afoot where he is being used as a pawn. He eventually tracks down his pal Terry who admits to murdering his wife, his wife having an affair with Roger, and having to be in debt with the mob. In a surprise ending Phillip Marlowe kills Terry Lennox, which is the only seen murder in the film after having been passive for the entire film.
It has also been defined as a satirical mystery crime thriller. Despite being a cult classic and in 2021 being added by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film was not a success upon its release. Robert Altman reportedly walked out of a question-and-answer session at the Tarrytown Conference Center in Tarrytown, New York. The film was not positively received by the audience, who were reportedly “vaguely hostile” apparently leaving Robert Altman “depressed.” It isn’t hard to see why the film wasn’t a success. It was far from the violent neo-noir action films like Dirty Harry, the psychological artistic thriller like Blow Up, or Blaxploitation films like Shaft. The lead, Elliot Gould, isn’t exactly the stereotypical noir film lead. He isn’t imposing, incredibly rugged, or charismatic in the film. In some ways, Elliot Gould is a lampoon of Humphrey Bogart. A tall and scruffy loner with a Mad magazine sense of satirical humor even in the face of some of the brutality faced in the film, such as murder, a brutal assault scene with a coke bottle, and suicide. Phillip Marlowe, in this rendering of The Goodbye, rarely faces much direct danger in either directly or indirectly giving Elliot Gould a higher level of moral importance over other characters who all seem to be facing some sort of adversity despite being a bumbling loner type.
The drifting, constantly panning or zooming camera, along with a natural script, gives the movie an incredible sense of life beyond the story. We appear to be voyeurs following Phillip Marlowe as he drifts from one case to another, seemingly through little to no doing of his own. We are made to feel like Hollywood tourists or guests peering into the dense life of the rich and famous. One scene comes to mind in which the aging and washed-up writer Roger Wade, played by Sterling Hayden, and his wife Eileen Wade played by Nina Van Pallandt, argue in their beachside estate while Phillip Marlowe waits. The camera transposes a shot Marlowe staring at the waves while the couple argues and seemingly, these different scenes are all being fused into one. Transitions in the movie are often accompanied by the theme, which plays throughout the movie in different genres/styles, giving the movie this constant sense of fluidity and Phillip Marlowe’s drifting from one scene to another.
It should be noted in relation to Leigh Brackett’s version of the script. Leigh Brackett was primarily a science fiction writer who holds the title “the Queen of Space Opera.” She also worked on an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back. She was chosen to work on the script because of her connection to working on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Brackett found it hard to translate the long Chandler novel into a screenplay. She says that had she written it like the novel, it would have been a five-hour film. She also notes that she had to take creative liberties to keep the dated 1940s novel relevant. She goes on to explain that in film, private eye detective stories had become cliché and would render a film “funny” even if that wasn’t the intention. Brackett decided to omit various aspects of the film, such as Sylvia Lennox appearance and Roger Wade being murdered. In addition to the cuts made adapting the novel into a screenplay, director Robert Altman took additional measures to cut the script or restructure it. A scene in which Roger Wade commits suicide by gunshot was replaced with him going into the water and drowning himself. The screenplay is in some ways far different than the actual film because of its novel-like structure. Robert Altman took many liberties in reconfiguring scenes and dialogue to work for the screen.
Personally, I think both Leigh Brackett and Robert Altman did a great job collaborating on an update to this novel. Unlike many films of the era, they did not give in to creating a hip version of The Long Goodbye with hippies, militant activists, or bikers, something Clint Eastwood’s films fall victim to. Rather, they examined the role of Phillip Marlowe, a conservative detective, in a liberal, post-modern world. A man stuck in the 1940s trying to solve crimes in a world past black and white good and evil. One scene in particular sums up the film quite well. At the end where Terry Lennox berates Phillip Marlowe as being a “loser” for tracking him down in Mexico. Lennox goes on to tell Marlowe “nobody cares” which is seemingly true as the police have given up looking for him, Roger Wade is dead, and the mafia acquires their money. Seemingly Phillip Marlowe is the only one interested in holding morals. I enjoyed the movie more than the screenplay because I think Vilmos Zsigmond did a great job giving the film a very ambient and natural look which looks nothing like the black-and-white detective films of only twenty-something years prior. My only drawback of the film is how it can be unclear, especially in terms of Phillip and Terry’s relationship with the mafia. After watching the film five times now, I could never understand how the mafia acquires the money to save Phillip his life. It seems too connivant. I also never bought the mobster bashing his wife with a coke bottle vs. Phillip Marlowe. I’ve read this was added to add suspense, but the connivance that often gets Phillip Marlowe out of trouble doesn’t always translate well. Beyond these small elements of story and plot, The Long Goodbye is one of my favorite movies of all time, redefining what is needed to tell a thrilling and suspenseful action movie without car cases and stereotypes.
Written by Rogers Campbell