The Long Goodbye - Revisited April 27, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , trackback
I wrote a few paragraphs about Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye nearly a year ago, when I knew even less about movies and writing about them than I do now and before I realized any one else would see my drivel. I was perceptive enough then to guess that an additional viewing would greatly enhance my appreciation of the film and my instincts proved accurate. As with Altman’s subsequent teaming with Elliott Gould, California Split, the director’s update of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe mystery improved dramatically on a second screening. Seeing both in fine-looking theatrical prints surely helped, but it was just as important to sit down and relax with the film, enjoying its little inspired touches instead of focusing on the advancement of the story.
The plot, a little convoluted and slightly tweaked from Chandler’s novel, proved to be much less a distraction than it was the first time I watched The Long Goodbye. It keeps everything in gear and running properly, but isn’t what makes the film so fun. The source of enjoyment instead rests on the shoulders of Elliott Gould and, in a duel of the crazies, Sterling “Balls” Hayden, who’s almost painfully realistic as a drunken novelist. Gould’s inspired performance had actually been preceded by a psychological examination mandated by the studio. He hadn’t worked in almost two years, after going to Sweden to do The Touch with Ingmar Bergman. The character’s frequent muttering, often dubbed over to give the impression the viewer is hearing Marlowe’s thoughts I presume, makes him also initially seem a few cards short of a deck. As the film progresses, though, Marlowe is shown to actually be the most sane and decent character in the film.
With nearly twenty-five years of hindsight, the cast of characters reads like a guest panel on a B-level celebrity game show. The motley assortment includes Laugh-In regular Henry Gibson, Nina Van Pallandt, who was the girlfriend of noted hoax artist Clifford Irving, Mark Rydell, director of On Golden Pond, future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, baseball player and author Jim Bouton, and, of course, Johnny Guitar himself, Sterling Hayden. Altman’s casts are often eclectic, interesting mixes, but several of these gained added notoriety after The Long Goodbye. The oddness of the ensemble only adds to the weird feeling emanating from the film. Even in the 1970s, there’s almost nothing that really compares to Altman’s film. It’s a completely unique experience and doesn’t fit comfortably within any genre or category.
Appropriately then, Gould’s Marlowe doesn’t really fit within the established mold for movie private eyes. Laid back, striking matches in nearly every scene, and almost always ahead of the person he’s talking to, this Marlowe is one for the ages. ”It’s okay with me,” is a favorite phrase, mumbled repeatedly by the detective. Elliott Gould is everything I like about off-center film protagonists here, cool and quirky without being annoyingly hip or goofy, and watching The Long Goodbye makes me think I’d be happy if he starred in every movie I ever watched. The bottled lightning captured here unfortunately didn’t translate into many other films though, and Gould’s leading man days were short-lived. The reasons hardly matter, but it’s nearly impossible not to wonder how he segued from the two back-to-back Altman films into some of the dreck he’s done since.
Much of the charm in watching the film a second time comes from Gould and the details shown indicating Marlowe has literally been transported from the late ’40s/early ’50s, waking up at the beginning of the movie suddenly in the ’70s. That’s not a problem for Marlowe (”It’s okay with me,” he might say), but there are a few giveaways in the film that show the audience that the world has passed him by. He still drives a 1948 Lincoln Continental (Gould’s actual car at the time), dresses from a previous era, and the specific brand of cat food he wants is unavailable in a large supermarket. He’s literally been transported to the early ’70s, with the help of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who bathes much of the film in a sun-baked haze, epitomizing the iconic Los Angeles atmosphere established in movies and television shows of the color era.
Then there are the deeper, more serious parts of Marlowe’s anachronism. Deceit and disloyalty are at every turn and friendship doesn’t mean what it once did. By the end, Marlowe seems genuinely hurt by what his friend Terry Lennox has done both to him and Lennox’s wife. A man he thought was a friend has betrayed him without any hint of remorse and Marlowe is forced to adapt to a time that had previously felt foreign. The beginning and ending snippets of “Hooray for Hollywood” take on opposite effects, hopeful nostalgia deteriorates into cynical frustration. The Long Goodbye is given new meaning, a metaphorical descent from a better place perhaps.
Playing to substantial crowds and a good deal of publicity (it’s not every day an actor gets a Village Voice cover story, much less one whose halcyon days were thirty years ago) at New York’s Film Forum this past week, The Long Goodbye may be part of the beginning of the rediscovery and reevaluation of Robert Altman’s creative peak of the 1970s, following the director’s passing last November. Not that Altman hasn’t enjoyed a vocal group of supporters for several years, but death does funny things to the public conscience and posthumous reverence seems more common than living accolades. People tend to take notice when someone’s gone often more than even if they’re still around making quality, relevant work as Altman was as late as the last year of his life. Witness the individual DVD releases of three of the director’s films these past five months, all announced after his death, as an example of death being a perspective changer.
Death probably changes how we look at artists as well, maybe in a subconscious way or maybe more willfully. I know I watched one of Altman’s films the night after his death and I’m sure at least hundreds of others did the same. Because his movies often use character more than plot, they shine brighter with additional viewings and The Long Goodbye is typical of this. I noticed numerous new things when I saw the film again and the aspects I liked the first time were even better. The repeated use of the title song never gets old and the inventive ways Altman found to stick it in scenes was much more noticeable this second time. Particularly, the cutting back and forth between Marlowe at the grocery store and Terry Lennox driving in his sports car while using different versions of the song for each setting was brilliantly done. I’m not sure how many new things are still waiting to be discovered in a third viewing, but maybe I’ll find out next year and let you know. Or maybe not. Whatever. It’s okay with me.