Film Review: The Long Goodbye: A Marlowe for the 70’s

Raymond Chandler’s iconic creation, detective Philip Marlowe is usually seen as the epitome of the hard-nosed, no nonsense detectives who inhabit hard-boiled American fiction. On screen he has been portrayed by a number of actors who themselves very much inhabit star personas that conjure up classic images of Hollywood masculinity such as Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep, 1946) and Robert Mitchum (Farewell My Lovely, 1975 and The Big Sleep, 1978).

With his 1973 adaptation of Chandler’s sixth Marlowe novel The Long Goodbye, originally published in 1953, Robert Altman made the hard-boiled crime film for the new Hollywood of the early 1970s. To create this take on a Hollywood classic, Altman worked with a script by Leigh Brackett who had already contributed to the adaptation of The Big Sleep for Howard Hawks’ 1946 film version. As with her earlier adaptation of Chandler, Brackett’s version of The Long Goodbye seems less concerned with clarity of plot development that it is with character. However, this 1970s version of Marlowe could not be more different to Bogart’s. Here he is portrayed by Elliott Gould, an actor who had found film stardom in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and had previously worked with Altman playing one of the leads in M*A*S*H (1970). He had also achieved a level of celebrity through his marriage to Barbra Streisand (1963-1971).

Originally from Brooklyn and describing himself as having a ‘very deep Jewish identity’, Elliott Gould was not your typical Hollywood star. He certainly offered something different to other popular male stars of the era such as Robert Redford or Paul Newman, and in doing so reflected how the Hollywood of the early 1970s was tentatively re-negotiating male film stardom. Reflecting these changes, Gould offers a very different version of Marlowe. His detective is driven by uncertainty. He is a doubter, someone who is not sure of anything, a male lead who finds it difficult to decide upon any course of action. This Marlowe seems a man out of time and place. In the hot Californian sun, he wears a crumpled dark suit and drives an old 1940s car. Continually smoking, he doesn’t seem to be able to make sense of the early 1970s in general never mind solve any of his cases. To this end Altman dubbed his detective ‘Rip Van Marlowe’ indicating that he saw the character as someone who could have been asleep for 20 years awaking into a new world he could not make head nor tail of. This Marlowe repeatedly responds to difficult situations, questions and challenges with the line ‘That’s OK by me’. As the film progresses this phrase comes to sum up the character’s unwillingness or inability to intervene in anything. It is with this underlying uncertainty that Brackett and Altman really create a Marlowe for the early 1970s.

In one of the film’s most fondly remembered moments Gould’s indecisive Marlowe can’t even keep his pet cat happy. Following a scene where the cat bullies the detective into going to the store to buy its favourite brand of cat food, Marlowe tries to dupe the feline by swapping an un-favoured brand into the empty tin of the cat’s favourite hoping it will eat it. It won’t and briskly turns its nose up and leaves through the cat flap leaving Marlowe to mutter his response, ‘That’s OK by me’. One certainly can’t imagine Bogart or Mitchum’s Marlowe getting into such a standoff with a pet.

The visual style of The Long Goodbye also enhances the feeling of indecisiveness that pervades the California represented on screen. Working with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Altman adopts an ever-moving camera, one that is unable to ever settle on any person or object.

This style beautifully captures the uncertainness of this 1970s Marlowe, reflecting perfectly his lack of drive and his continued inability to join any dots as he searches for the whereabouts of missing writer Roger Wade. Rarely does a film’s writing, acting and visual style come together so perfectly to reflect the ambiguity of a time as it does the 1970s of The Long Goodbye. And then there is the film’s ending…

The Long Goodbye screens as part of our The Dark Page film season on Sun 12 Aug, 17:50. You can find out more here.

Words by Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies, School of Arts and Media, University of Salford