Watching The Long Goodbye for the second time last night afforded me the opportunity to truly appreciate the original work crafted by historic director Robert Altman. Released in 1972, The Long Goodbye suffered at the box office and was panned by critics until it’s new marketing campaign came out and was championed by controversial film critic Pauline Kael. The Long Goodbye follows Phillip Marlowe (Elliott Gould), the classic detective character of many Raymond Chandler novels, including the source material for this film. Although this Marlowe is a phantom of 1950’s culture, trying to find his place among the materialistic and shallow denizens of 1970’s Southern California, he is the only character with a conscience in a world where everyone is a self-serving opportunist, only out for themselves. Everywhere he goes, he smokes a cigarette, something that separates him from the health conscious population he finds himself in. Marlowe, a private investigator, is hounded by the police when his friend, Terry Lennox, (Jim Bouton) who he provides a lift for at the beginning of the film, winds up dead. His wife is also dead and the Police hold Marlowe for three days before cutting him loose.
While the movie has an aloof style that matches the attitude and disposition of Marlowe, it’s a real world. Complete with violent consequences, unsavory characters, and the abyss always lurking on the surface. All that Marlowe has is an orange cat, exposing the initial plot beats of the film, and a wonderful juxtaposition of his own isolation and loneliness. Soon after Marlowe is contacted and hired by Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), the wife of a famous writer, Roger (Sterling Hayden). Marlowe tracks Roger down at a rehab retreat run by Dr. Verringer, who seems to have a drugged hold on Roger and does everything to prevent him from leaving. Able to get Roger back to Eileen and their home, Marlowe becomes a frequent guest over the next days at their home. While there, he observes that Roger is a constant drunk and frequently belligerent to his wife while making a spectacle of himself, bringing a beach party to a close. It’s in the scenes on the beach and by the beach house that are most memorable, seperate from the film’s final one, of course. In one particular scene, there is a continuous one shot of Marlowe excusing himself outside to the beach as Eileen and Roger argue inside. The scene in question is beautifully captured with the brightly lit landscape, crashing waves of the ocean, and the reflection of the glass of the beach house capturing the arguing couple inside and Marlowe pacing. The camera work throughout the film is never resting, always moving, always capturing something new while still maintaining it’s voyeurism.
Marlowe is accosted one evening leaving his apartment by the thugs of Marty Augustine, a local loan shark and criminal. They want to know where Terry Lennox is and the location of the $350,000.00 he took with him. Marty threatens Marlowe with violent threats and keeps prodding him with questions as to the money’s whereabouts. The scene culminates with Augustine smashing a glass liquor bottle across the face of his girlfriend. Altman utilizes slow motion to maximize the viciousness of the impact, a moment jars you out of the playful slumber of the scene and reminds you of the world you’re in. Following Augustine, Marlowe finds that he heads straight to the home of Eileen Wade to discuss something, leaving a short time after. The entire film is a manipulation, every character but Marlowe corrupted by this seedy world, stuck in the middle of a bad joke and hung out to dry. Even those that are friendly with him are not to be trusted and ultimately seek to use him for all that he has. Shot by legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, The Long Goodbye has a pastel visual composition that places us in hazy 70’s post hippie days LA.
The music for the film is iconic as it consists of the song “The Long Goodbye” as it’s score and theme. The only exception being Hooray For Hollywood which plays at the beginning and end of the film. Four different artists are credited with performing The Long Goodbye in the end credits scene and the song’s consistency and insistence inject the film with a somber and melancholic ennui. It really adds to the already potent atmosphere of Altman’s Neo-Noir satire. And what about that ending? Are spoilers alerts needed for films that are 45 years old? What does that ending say about Phillip Marlowe? To me it says that living in a corrupt world one can only become corrupted. I love that we assume who this guy is all along, and Robert Altman surprises us with this bleak finality. Marlowe makes a cold and calculating choice as he’s at the end of his rope. The Long Goodbye is a surprising, odd, funny, compelling, and stylistic journey crafted through the mind of artist filmmaker Robert Altman.