“I have two friends in the world. One is a cat. The other is a murderer.”
Next to the Western, no genre is quite so rooted in a specific time period as the film noir. You couldn’t walk into a theater in the 40s and 50s without catching a black and white story about a world of grays, of tough guys and tricky gals, of world weary detectives and crime bosses who almost got away with it.
By 1973, the genre was pretty much dead. Chinatown was a year off. Most detective stories leaned heavily into action territory, replacing fast-paced dialogue for faster-paced shootouts.
Which makes the very existence of The Long Goodbye that much more absurd. Based off a 1953 novel of the same name from one of the noir godfathers, Raymond Chandler, the film updates the setting to 1970s Los Angeles while leaving its hero a relic of the 1950s.
It’s difficult to think of another director who would’ve touched the concept with a ten foot boom other than Robert Altman. He’s arguably most famous for his directorial debut – M*A*S*H (1970). The staunchly anti-war satire wowed critics and audiences alike, giving Altman nearly free rein to choose his next project. So he chose to direct McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a Western that thumbed its nose at just about every cliche of the genre. Roger Ebert went on to call the film perfect. You could say Altman was on something of a roll.
So what does he choose as his next big project?
A twenty-year-old detective story updated to health-crazy, shallow-as-a-kiddie-pool 1970s L.A..
If you didn’t know and haven’t noticed, Altman was something of a rebel.
He had one proviso about helming the picture, though – Elliot Gould had to star as legendary fictional detective Philip Marlowe. Gould had recently been blackballed out of the industry and, reputation aside, was the quintessential counterculture actor. In other words, he was no Bogart.
In fact, I’d wager he was better than Bogart.
The Long Goodbye doesn’t work as a 1940s thriller. In fact, it’s hardly a thriller at all. The pace is much more relaxed than the likes of The Maltese Falcon or Marlowe’s earlier outing, The Big Sleep. What we get is a meandering few days spent with Philip Marlowe, professional private eye and amateur loser.
Marlowe’s only friend in the world visits him in the dead of night to ask for a ride to Tijuana. Fully aware something’s fishy about the favor, Marlowe obliges his friend and drops him off.
The next day he’s arrested and rudely interrogated by police who inform him that his friend’s wife was murdered and Marlowe just got himself implicated.
From there, the story unwinds. Marlowe takes a seemingly separate missing persons case. He keeps asking around his apartment building for his missing cat. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes an appearance.
It would all probably get boring if it wasn’t for Gould’s Marlowe. The reason he manages to step out of Bogart’s shadow is that he’s just such a mess. On his best day he could be mistaken for a well-dressed homeless man. His cat ran away because he buy its favorite brand of food. He doesn’t seem to pose any threat in a fight.
But he’s smart.
He’s not the vulnerable tough guy with a trenchcoat and a past of Bogart (or Robert Mitchum, for that matter, who would play a more traditional Marlowe two years later in Farewell, My Lovely). He doesn’t tangle with the femme fatale only to realize he’s being played. He doesn’t intimidate anyone in the least. He’s just a smart misfit who’s never quite sure if everyone else is crazy or it’s only him.
And you can’t help but root for him, hoping his every move gets him closer to the ever-messier truth. 42 years removed from its release, Marlowe still works as a window into the story because he’s still an anachronism, but a timeless one. The battered loser with a code of ethics is an enduring character. It’s everyone else in the starkly realistic 70s vision of Los Angeles that seem absurd. But they don’t date the film; they just make Marlowe’s world feel that much more surreal.
From the strikingly real cinematography of the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond to the alluring, ever-present John Williams score, The Long Goodbye is a masterpiece in its own right, a lazy sort of mystery that, much like Marlowe himself, is much smarter than it lets on. Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (of, among other things, Empire Strikes Back fame) drag in most film noir tropes but only so that they can demolish them one by one. It’s an anti-noir that manages to celebrate the genre as it openly mocks it.
What other noir features a main character who not only shows no interest in the femme fatale, but only interacts with his topless, free love neighbors to see if they happened to spot his cat?
The Long Goodbye deserves a place among the film noir greats and should stand as one of the definitive adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective, even if it brings Marlowe to life with a devious grin.