The Long Goodbye (1973)
Written by Leigh Brackett
Directed by Robert Altman
“There’s a long goodbye/And it happens every day.”
So go the lyrics of a song you will hear many variations of while watching The Long Goodbye. To say this film upset many people, both critics & the general audience, would be an understatement. The character of Phillip Marlowe was a highly revered cultural icon to the adults of the 1970s. In tandem, Humphrey Bogart, forever connected to Marlowe, was seen as the epitome of the movie detective. You cannot watch any American detective film or television series without it being profoundly influenced by that ur-text. So when iconoclastic director Robert Altman released his adaptation of The Long Goodbye, it was not initially well-received. However, The Long Goodbye would be re-released in the same year with a new marketing campaign and find an audience that truly loved it.
Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is a private detective trying to feed his finicky cat one night when he receives a visit from his old pal Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Lennox needs a lift to the Mexican border, and Marlowe obliges. When he returns home, Marlowe finds police detectives waiting for him with the news that Lennox’s wife was found murdered, and they think the P.I. was in on it. Marlowe plays it cool, and once he’s released after questioning, tries to make sense of what happened. He’s hired by Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt), a wealthy woman whose famous author husband Roger (Sterling Hayden) has disappeared. He’s a Hemingway analog, quick to chug down alcohol and impose himself on whatever audience is willing. Marlowe discovers the Wade and Lennox cases have an unexpected connection, but he might be killed by vengeful crime boss Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) before he fully understands it.
The most obvious thing about The Long Goodbye is the mood it sets right away. This is Los Angeles in the 1970s, right in the middle of the aftermath of the Free Love 1960s and the growing cultural disillusionment of the current decade. Marlowe isn’t a hard-nosed gumshoe but a freewheeling clown; he knows to clam up around the police, but instead of playing it silently, he sarcastically jabs at them. There’s very little here where Marlowe goes about traditional detective work. Instead, he’ll either sneak around maybe learning something essential or directly confront people involved and watch how they react. While based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is clearly influenced in its look & tone by The Long Goodbye.
The song The Long Goodbye was composed by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, and you will hear it often. Altman struck upon the idea of presenting the song in various music styles after its introduction. You hear it performed in multiple jazz styles but also as a tango, mariachi, hippy chant, a pop song on the radio, and even grocery store muzak. It’s one of those brilliant creative decisions that makes the picture stand out from the crowd. The song becomes an integral part of understanding the overall themes of the work. The original version sets the film’s tone so exceptionally well, with the feeling of a dark jazz club, cigarette smoke hanging in the air, the tragedy of life visiting day after day, and like, Marlowe, we just become jaded towards it.
The other important song is Hooray For Hollywood, played in the opening and closing credits. It’s not just a style choice that this song bookends the picture. Robert Altman’s career was intensely focused on upending commonly accepted American mythology. His first significant breakout film, MASH, did this with the fawning over the military, and he continued that in every picture he made. The Long Goodbye is Altman turning over the prevalent film noir detective concept. Marlowe clings tightly to his belief that Terry Lennox is being framed for his wife’s murder and pushes back against any evidence to the contrary. However, the further down the path we go, the more it looks like Lennox did it; he killed her, and Marlowe cannot wrestle with this idea.
Marlowe is a massive contrast here. He drives a vintage car and even a nice suit, but the sun-bleached, washed-out nature of Los Angeles at the time has left him fried. Marlowe doesn’t have real connections with the world outside of himself. His neighbors are a clan of topless young women engaged in hippy/New Age ventures, and he barely seems to notice them. Like Altman’s Popeye, Marlowe is always mumbling something to himself, some half-developed observation that he gives up on. Altman picked up on the latent homoeroticism of Chandler’s work and incorporated that here, too; with Marlowe seeming almost in love with Lennox, the lyrics of the title song can be interpreted as being about the two men. Marlowe’s indifference towards his female nudist neighbors is another piece of evidence for this and another reason traditionalists like balked at the picture.
Altman used film genres to express his anger about the betrayals he felt from America. These myths, whether the military in MASH, westerns in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or detective noir with The Long Goodbye, were destructive to people’s mental health. They encourage us to believe in and chase after something unattainable, obscure the brutal reality. It communicates that Altman had faith in the United States as a concept but felt the people shaping its history and obscuring its truths were harming what could have been. By the film’s end, it’s hard to imagine Marlowe believes in anything anymore. He’s seen people betray those they committed their lives to and let it hit him that everyone he knows is a liar and worse. But as the song says, it’s a long goodbye that happens every day. So you wake up tomorrow and do it all again. What else is there?