The Long Goodbye was Raymond Chandler’s favorite from among his novels. It was not made into a film until 1973, when Robert Altman tackled it. A few days ago I pulled it off my DVD shelf, and Sue and I watched it for the fifth or sixth time. I had forgotten how much I loved this movie. And a great thing about the DVD is that it came with interviews of Altman and Elliot Gould, who played Philip Marlowe
Now a lot of folks don’t like Robert Altman’s revisionist take on the Chandler classic. But when Altman explains it in one of the extras, it makes sense. He reset the murder mystery twenty years after the book was published (1953), with gumshoe Marlowe as “Rip Van Marlowe,” turning up in the hip, glib, go-go early ’70s. Marlowe even drives a 1948 Lincoln (that Gould owned). Moreover, the provenance of the script is impeccable—by Leigh Brackett, who wrote the script for The Big Sleep (1946), starring Bogie and directed by Howard Hawks.
Marlowe’s friend Terry is accused of murdering his wife, but turns up dead himself. Marlowe sets out to prove his friend’s innocence—running afoul of many shady and corrupt characters. There’s the drunk, impotent novelist who can’t write, and his gorgeous, inscrutable wife. There’s the gangster who wants back the 350 grand that Terry stole from him. There’s the treatment center shrink who is owed money. There are lots of cynical cops. The space-cadet neighbor gals who meditate topless. Marlowe ends up in the clink, gets beaten up repeatedly, tries to stop a suicide, loses his cat, and finally figures out what Terry did, and with whom. It’s noir of the highest order, though not in the traditional style.
The cast is to die for. Elliot Gould is an eccentric, laid-back Marlowe—a far cry from the tough guy in the trench coat and fedora. Sterling Hayden gives a raw, powerful performance of the drunken Hemingway-like novelist who is crashing. He steals every scene he’s in. The actor/director Mark Rydell is remorseless and scary as the gangster, especially when he uses his girlfriend’s face and a broken bottle to motivate Marlowe. Henry Gibson (of Laugh In fame) is the uber-creepy little shrink. Major league pitcher Jim Bouton plays the venal, slippery Terry. Nina Van Pallandt plays the novelist’s panicked, stressed-out wife. And one of the gangster’s muscle-bound thugs is none other than former Governor Schwarzenegger—who doesn’t even get a line.
As we were watching the film, I reminded Sue that we attended a screening of it about fifteen years ago at a theater near the campus of the University of Minnesota. The movie was followed by a Q&A with the star, Elliot Gould. We both remember that he was a little crotchety, which would be in keeping with his reputation. It was a treat to see him in person and hear his recollections of making this terrific flick.