Is this show a hatchet job on Raymond Chandler’s confidential agent, or do Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett honestly find a place for Philip Marlowe in the laid-back 1970s? Vilmos Zsigmond’s even more laid-back ‘pushed and pre-flashed’ cinematography made industry news by shooting in places that normally needed three times more artificial light. The characters are vivid, as portrayed by Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, and Mark Rydell. It’s also a terrific Los Angeles film, from Marlowe’s Hollywood apartment to the Malibu Colony, and a dangster’s Sunset Blvd. tower office suite. Elliott Gould’s mellow Marlowe may be unfocused and sloppy, but he still subscribes to the old ethics, particularly where friendship and betrayal are concerned. And darn it, he cares about his pet cat.
The Long Goodbye
KL Studio Classics
1973 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 112 min. / Street Date December 14, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, Jim Bouton, Warren Berlinger, Enrique Lucero, Ken Sansom, David Carradine, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Second Assistant Director: Alan Rudolph
Film Editor: Lou Lombardo
Original Music: John Williams
Written by Leigh Brackett from the novel by Raymond Chandler
Produced by Jerry Bick, Elliott Kastner
Directed by Robert Altman
Robert Altman didn’t get much praise from my college friends back when his films were new. Critics (especially Pauline Kael) treated Altman as if he were God’s gift to the cinema, while good old Robert S. Birchard shook his head, visibly offended that the man from Kansas City could make bomb after box office bomb and keep his career on track. I personally don’t care for some of Altman’s pictures but find plenty to enjoy in some of his spacier efforts, like Three Women. And he excelled with takes on various genres: there’s plenty of interest in Altman’s revisionist western McCabe and Mrs. Miller and his gangster tragedy Thieves Like Us.
Did 1973’s The Long Goodbye distinguish Altman as a brilliant adaptor of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe? Some critics thought so, and some of his usual defenders were on the tepid side. With its first release fumbled by United Artists, the show was mostly ignored, and a Hail Mary reissue effort with a new ad campaign didn’t turn things around. In the early ’70s standard detective and police stories were being supplanted by action films and the beginning of the kung-fu craze. The term film noir was not yet standard parlance, not even in film schools. Four years before, James Garner’s witty turn as Philip Marlowe had not fared well. Polanski’s magnificent Chinatown was still a year away. Neither Pulp nor Gumshoe made a dent in the depressed filmgoing climate — although Gumshoe is rather good.
Meet Marlowe, mellow mumbler.
Robert Altman’s detective update is now lauded for its breezy style, good acting, and willingness to re-frame Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character. As far away from Humphrey Bogart as one could imagine, Elliott Gould’s slouchy & unkempt Marlowe has become a counterculture icon, as fixed and unique as A.I. Bezzerides’ revised Mike Hammer. Gould’s take might be a serious inspiration for the Coens’ latter-day Jeffrey Lebowski. Come to think of it, both Lebowski and Marlowe are partly introduced trudging into all-night supermarkets. Marlowe frequently talks to himself, even when cops want him to answer questions.
Displaced thirty years in time, everything in Chandler’s story is the same, but different. Detective Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) helps his best friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) flee to Mexico, only to be hounded by the police when Terry is accused of murdering his wife Sylvia. The cops tell Marlowe that Lennox committed suicide in Mexico, a report he refuses to believe without proof. Notoriety from this incident lands Marlowe an assignment from Malibu resident Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), who wants Philip to retrieve her alcoholic husband Roger (Sterling Hayden) from his hiding place in a sanitarium. Philip discovers that the two cases overlap: not only did the Wades know the Lennoxes, local gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) had money dealings with both. Worse, the unpredictably violent Augustine expects Philip to cough up a huge sum of money he believes Terry ran off with. In addition to protecting Eileen and Roger, Marlowe has to think about saving his own skin as well.
If you haven’t caught up with The Long Goodbye it’s going to be a pleasant surprise. Altman and writer Leigh Brackett (screenwriter of the ’46 Hawks The Big Sleep>) do indeed monkey with the detective format. Elliott Gould’s Marlowe is an anachronism out of step with the L.A. of the Nixon years. He drives an oversized ’48 Lincoln and is overwhelmed by the complexities of the modern world, with its Zen-nudist lesbian neighbors and its Courry Cat Food. The laid-back vibe is established in Marlowe’s first ‘case’: he must decamp to the supermarket at 2am because he’s out of cat food and his cat won’t accept substitutes. How resourceful can Marlowe be, if he can’t even con a cat?
But Gould’s Marlowe is still Chandler’s white knight, the lone wolf who maintains his dignity through a personal honor system. Critics crying heresy need to remember that Bogart’s strutting, egotistical and slightly arrogant Marlowe is also only partly faithful to Chandler.
That’s okay with me.
The ‘new’ Marlowe is suspiciously like the old Marlowe. He still pretends to be unfazed by the corruption around him as he suffers the indignities of his profession. Marlowe whines, “That’s okay with me” when it’s clear that it is not: many things get under his skin. He has no problem with the exhibitionist girls next door but doesn’t pretend to understand them. He gives the same insolent sass to both the cops and the hoods. The police cynically claim that he assaulted them, as a pretext for hauling him downtown for three days. Marty Augustine shows his power by playing kinky games with his colorful gang of thugs before instructing them to beat Marlowe up: “I can’t take my shirt off, Marty, not with all these scars!” Marlowe puts on his passive act for both camps until he loses his patience for real, and tells off the whole world. Being drunk helps, admittedly.
As often happens in detective fiction two unrelated cases collapse into one, leaving some questions answered and others not. Marlowe finds the truth because he’s more tenacious, more motivated than the lazy police. Neither the cops nor the crooks have patience for the kind of complexity that Marlowe knows every murder entails. He’s no Sherlock Holmes; when push comes to shove he has to hope that his sincerity and desire to help will help him obtain good information. Outright bribery helps as well. But most people betray Marlowe, with a casual selfishness that is definitely Not Okay by Him.
No Spoiler here. Okay by me.
Robert Altman must have known that his new ending would anger the Raymond Chandler faithful. My takeaway from Chandler’s book climax is Marlowe’s kiss-off lament that one can never say goodbye to the cops. When Altman’s Marlowe resolves the Terry Lennox mystery he does something completely unexpected. It’s the surprise of the film, and for some viewers the proof that Altman has no business interpreting Chandler. But Altman and Brackett are saying that the ‘sentiments’ of honor and loyalty are as out of fashion as the song ‘Hooray for Hollywood. Perhaps Altman read the mood of the times and decided that a contemporary Marlowe would just say ‘the hell with it’ and act like Dirty Harry.
Don Siegel’s film may be the key to this Marlowe’s fed-up attitude. Clint Eastwood’s resentful Harry Callahan remains in constant ‘revenge mode’; I don’t think he makes a single standard arrest. At the end of The Long Goodbye Marlowe just chucks it all. Try to be noble, like someone out of a movie? Forget it Philip, it’s Chinatown. Hooray for Hollywood.
After Elliott Gould’s big career kickoff in M*A*S*H, his star faded in a series of limp comedies. The kiss of death may have been the audience-alienating experiment Little Murders. Initial reviews of The Long Goodbye wrongly reported that Gould was again skating through a film, letting his personal brand of nonconformist cool do all the work. Even if that were the case, one has to admit that this Philip Marlowe is unique, a guy who hasn’t got a girl and can’t even properly keep a cat. This take on the detective movie is a darn sight more successful than Warren Oates’ 1971 stab at the genre, Chandler.
There are other fine performances to enjoy in The Long Goodbye. Nina Van Pallandt is luminous as Eileen Wade, the Malibu earth mother who cooks a mean chicken. Altman originally wanted the boisterous, bearish author Roger Wade to be played by actor Dan Blocker. Sterling Hayden’s unhappy, humiliated take on his character will feel autobiographical for those in the know about Hayden’s blacklist troubles. ↑ When the physically imposing Wade is cowed and bullied by the tiny, insufferable Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson, an Altman regular that I still find barely adequate), Marlowe is given his most telling clue.
↓ Mark Rydell’s gangster Marty Augustine resembles a slippery promoter who might be managing rock stars or sporting events. An accomplished director, Rydell plays Augustine as if auditioning for a part in a Scorsese film — he comes off as truly psychotic. His constant agitation makes us think he’s on cocaine, and his casual sadism creates one of the more horrible moments in ’70s films. There’s no missing the young Arnold Schwarzenegger as a crab-torso’ed muscle thug who can’t wait to strip off his shirt and pants. Carl Gottlieb is a party guest and Enrique Lucero is an evasively friendly Mexican cop. David Carradine has a one-scene cameo as a jailbird philosopher.
Robert Altman isn’t yet into his lazy years, simply hosing down ‘pageant’ scenes with multiple cameras with zoom lenses. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond relies on long zooms and shallow focus, but in an artful way, letting the light stay natural and allowing heavy backlight to bleed through. His anti-Hollywood style attracted new-generation directors like Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. Altman and Zsigmond play focus-pull visual games with reflections through the window of the Wades’ beach house, revealing key action playing out in the surf beyond. ↓ Did Zsigmond operate his own camera? If not I nominate credited camera operator Joe Wilcots as a serious contributor to the brilliance of The Long Goodbye. The gentle re-framing of the image during shots can only be attributed to the artist working the zoom lens with such sensitivity.
Directors have sought to capture the Los Angeles vibe for decades, and The Long Goodbye nails the town for the early ’70s, upscale and down. Welcome to L.A. by Altman’s protégé Alan Rudolph is so ridiculously mellow that its characters seem to sag and droop. Altman’s gated-community Malibu has more flavor than the beachfront apartment seen in Arthur Penn’s moody Night Moves — the only way that guy could be living on such choice real estate is if he were house-sitting.
The most nostalgic L.A. scene for me is Elliott Gould’s midnight foot chase through Westwood, trying to catch Nina Van Pallandt’s Mercedes. It’s the old Westwood, all right, a very different place dominated by UCLA, just up the street. We knew it well, and it’s all different now.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Long Goodbye follows earlier Blu-rays from 2013 (Arrow) and 2014 (Kino). The text announces a new remaster job at the 4K level; hardcore Altman fans might ask why a 4K disc wasn’t offered. I’ve seen both the older transfers; this one has a slightly different appearance. It’s still better than my memory of theater screenings where film prints generally looked pretty sad. There is a buzz going around online right now, saying that the earlier discs had a Zsigmond-approved look that this one lacks. But to what degree did the cinematographer revise his work with the video colorist? Zsigmond pre-flashed and ‘pushed’ his cinematography – to shoot in adverse conditions, not necessarily avoiding lighting but avoiding a standard Hollywood look, which is what appealed to Robert Altman.
These carefully timed Blu-rays look great — but frankly, several Zsigmond features I saw on screens back in the ’70s looked terrible. A premiere engagement print might be made from the original negative (actually from a printing negative from the negative). But general release prints were normally several copy-steps down the line … enough generations to make Zsigmond’s delicate, marginal images look pretty ratty. By far the biggest offender was 1976’s Obsession from Brian De Palma. Zsigmond added heavy diffusion to the formula, which may have looked okay at an Academy screening, in first-generation. The normal release print I saw, and most later video versions, looked like grainy green mush. Zsigmond found a great look, but one can’t argue with the fact that his photochemical stylization more or less degraded the image.
On the other hand, Altman’s soundtrack work was always more interesting than the Hollywood norm. The Long Goodbye’s busy, pleasant sound-scape mixes the textures of John Williams’ score with old radio songs. Williams’ and Johnny Mercer’s title tune is heard in no fewer than six different treatments with four different vocals. One cover is played by a rural Mexican band.
Kino’s extras retain MGM’s old DVD items, the best of which is Vilmos Zsigmond Flashes, with the celebrated cameraman giving a nice explanation of working relationship with director Altman. The old making-of piece with Altman and Elliott Gould is also present, as well as the film’s American Cinematographer article. The one NEW to disc extra is a fact-filled Tim Lucas commentary, along with featurette input from David Thompson (on Altman), Tom Williams (on Raymond Chandler) and Maxim Jakubowski (on hardboiled fare in general).
The outside sleeve carries original reissue Jack Davis art. The inside disc artwork is reversible, alternating with another poster design. The very Jack Davis – Mad Magazine text balloons from the one-sheet are just legible if you zoom in on this slice of the original poster.
And by coincidence, The Long Goodbye was entered into the National Film Registry Today.
The Long Goodbye
Supplements (from Kino):
NEW Audio commentary by Tim Lucas;
Rip Van Marlowe with Robert Altman and Elliott Gould; Vilmos Zsigmond Flashes The Long Goodbye; David Thompson on Robert Altman; Tom Williams on Raymond Chandler; Maxim Jakubowski on Hard Boiled Fiction.
American Cinematographer 1973 Article; Trailers from Hell with Josh Olson, radio & TV spots.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 11, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson