Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, based off of the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, is a work representative of a particular place and time within both American and film history. Released in 1973, it came in the aftermath of the most turbulent years of the 1960’s, and in many ways stands as a denouement on the California that was synonymous with that time, a period chronicled by the likes of Joan Didion and Thomas Pynchon. Uncertainty hangs in the air like cigarette smoke, nobody knows what’s coming next but they can tell that whatever world they used to know is in its twilight days, if not part of the past already, and nobody understands that better than Philip Marlowe.
Marlowe, played to laconic perfection by Elliott Gould, is a private eye in LA who is unwittingly tangled up in the web of criminal activities of some of the various oddballs that populate his life. The plot, like many classic films noir, is rather convoluted, involving murdered wives, faked and real suicides, stolen cash, clandestine affairs, and flights to Mexico. But none of that really matters all that much, it’s simply a vehicle, an excuse to convey a much larger and more poignant story of a changing era and the people left spinning through it.
Amid this unmoored Los Angeles, Marlowe is something of a stable platform. Portrayed notably by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep in 1946, Gould’s Marlowe is a man that has been unstuck for quite some time, and has since learned to ride the waves of time as they pummel the shore in predictable and unexpected patterns. We first see him in this film sleeping with his clothes still on until he’s woken up by his hungry cat, and in Marlowe’s lackadaisical, out-of-touch character there’s a sense that he’d been sleeping since the 1940’s, frozen in a previous era’s attitudes, beliefs, and styles. He’s still a cynical, recognizably noir protagonist, but the cynicism is less hard-boiled than his predecessors, tempered by an existential tiredness. Altman was keenly in touch with this iteration of the character during development, nicknaming him Rip Van Marlowe and impressing the idea that Marlowe is a total loser onto Gould and the screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, and the introduction of the film is a perfect showcase of the character, as he valiantly tries and fails to find the only brand of food his cat will eat, buys some brownie mix for the hippie neighbors, and lets his cat slip out the door, with a mumbling monologue backing up all of his actions.
Despite being a born loser, or maybe because of it, Marlowe is the only person in Los Angeles that gives a shit about doing the right thing, for as confusing and obfuscated as that might be. The film is filled with colorful characters — Roger (Sterling Hayden) and Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt), an aging, alcoholic writer past his glory days and his philandering wife; Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), a Jewish mobster that will smash a Coke bottle on his lover’s face to make an example but takes issue with missing Shabbat; Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson), a New Age quack specializing in extorting his recovery patients; and Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), the man at the center of the mystery, a friend of Marlowe’s who enlists his help in fleeing to Tijuana, and who supposedly killed his wife, stole Augustine’s money, and killed himself in Mexico. But all of them belong in some way to this world, and as such they are intimately caught up in the details of their lives, the schemes they are formulating, the people they love and hate. They lack a broader perspective, and we get that in Marlowe’s POV. Most of the actual detective work happens between scenes — somehow Marlowe pieces it together that Lennox set him up for the fall so him and Eileen could live out in Mexico in peace — leaving Marlowe less as an actively investigatory presence and more an observatory one. And because he is not a product of this world, his gaze on it often ends up revealing how absurd and self-deceptive it is. Everyone is the star of their own movies, desperately trying to create some significance and motivating drive to justify their own self-conceptions in that regard, but they’re too late. Some people, like Roger, recognize that they’re too late, and drown themselves in alcohol before drowning themselves in the ocean; some, like Marlowe’s topless hippie neighbors, don’t recognize it, and try to cheat their way to enlightenment with drugs. Marlowe wasn’t around to buy in to the individualist mythology of the ‘60s, so he doesn’t care about that stuff. He knows he’s a loser and always will be, and he still abides by that most unfashionable of personal beliefs, a moral code. He can tell what’s right and what’s wrong, and unlike everyone else he takes that very seriously. It’s what motivates him to feed his cat at 3 am, and it’s what eventually motivates him to kill Lennox in Mexico.
Gould’s performance is extraordinary enough to embody the ambivalence of these shifting temporal tides and their cultural clashes, but Altman’s cinematic approach plays largely on mood, emphasizing the almost dreamy haziness of Los Angeles at this time and the strange people and places of it. Vilmos Zsigmond’s camerawork has a soft-focus, naturalistic quality that feels at once real and unreal, and it has the trademark Altman restlessness, constantly moving and shifting around spaces and characters. The images have an idyllic brightness to them, borderline blown out, softening the colors and lightening the darks, creating this postcard quality, but a postcard of a memory still in progress. Lou Lombardo’s editing is built around ellipses and languors, often letting shots go long and transitioning between scenes with extended dissolves and fades. Like everything else, the distinction between the end and beginning is blurry and unclear, just one prolonged limbo between past and present.
The Long Goodbye represents a similarly transitional period of film history. The late 1960’s saw the developments of French, Italian, Japanese, and other global New Wave movements make their way to America, where the generation of filmmakers dubbed as New Hollywood was born and took lessons from their international peers, Robert Altman being one of the more prominent ones. Much of these developments were stylistic and philosophical in nature, disrupting the established modes of production of the previous fifty years and challenging conventions of what could be filmed and how. Part of this challenge was in the realm of genre filmmaking, a consistent interest of this ongoing blog series. Westerns, musicals, horror, film noir, all saw drastic reimaginings during this period, upending the classical approaches. John Ford and John Wayne became Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, Gene Kelly went from MGM to Jacques Demy, Universal’s monster movies turned into ultraviolent Italian slashers, and so on. The crime film was a particular interest to the French New Wave directors — Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is in many ways a jazzy riff on the classic Hollywood film noir, and Jean-Pierre Melville applied a watchmaker’s precision to the crime film with Le Samourai, both of which continue to exert a profound influence on modern filmmaking. 1967 became the year that American crime films began truly reflecting the influence of this genre tampering. John Boorman’s Point Blank is a fairly direct predecessor to The Long Goodbye, showcasing an expressionistic sun-drenched LA filled with hypnotic rhythms and popping colors while Lee Marvin hunts for revenge; Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde follows suit, with an emphasis on sex and violence; Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood is a low-budget indie retelling of Truman Capote’s famous true-crime novel, shooting on the location of the actual murders with documentary-esque realism.
The Long Goodbye then comes in at an important point in the genre’s history. The classic film noir belongs to a now-nonexistent form of filmmaking, and many filmmakers are choosing to experiment with the tropes and conventions of these long-established formal structures. Altman was no stranger to genre revisionism, experimenting with the Western in 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and was perfectly poised to do the same for the film noir. The Long Goodbye ditches the darkness, the overt fatalism, the traditional protagonist, and updates the formula. Noir has always been a genre about mood over plot, and Altman updates the vibes from dark cynicism to sun-stroked melancholy, moving away from the extreme realism and grotesque expressionism of classic noir to a calmer impressionistic approach. It’s obviously still a recognizable work of the genre, but developed for a contemporary aesthetic sensibility, one of the first neo-noirs. Historically speaking, The Long Goodbye’s formal approach has an inverse quality to the text itself: where the content has the effect of watching an era pass by, the form has the effect of bringing a new era in.
It is exciting to see The Long Goodbye as the opening of a passage to a newer kind of filmmaking, one populated by the likes of the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Abel Ferrara, but there is still an unshakeable sadness to it, even considering its formal evolutions, as evolution does necessitate its sacrifices. The kinds of movies that Altman is playing off of are not made anymore, part of that being a result of Altman’s work and part of it being the inevitable advancement of the medium. The security guard Marlowe is friendly with is a minor character but one emblematic of this change; he spends his days guarding a wealthy Malibu community, but he’s clearly been charmed by the legacy of Hollywood, as he practices impressions of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, and Walter Brennan for anyone that will stop to listen. He’s good at them too, but nobody seems to be very impressed, nobody besides Marlowe. The Long Goodbye is almost prophetically trapped within its time, and not in the sense that it’s dated but in the sense that the intersection of its sociological, narrative, and formal interests will only ever exist at that one time. And once again, it all comes back to Marlowe. Gould’s Marlowe is really the last of his kind, and impossibly enough he seems to know it. The way he talks to himself, his chain-smoking, his outfit, it has the impression of not being for anyone but himself. He is facing an existential dilemma more profound than any of the Marlowe-types have faced before or since, and he knows there isn’t anything he can do about it, so he doesn’t. He’s resigned to just ride the currents wherever they’ll take him.