The Long Goodbye (1973)
Director: Robert Altman
Screenwriter: Leigh Brackett
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
++++THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS++++
One of the films I often come back to is Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. There’s no real mystery surrounding why it would particularly appeal to me. On the surface, it’s a grimy crime thriller, where a private eye (Philip Marlowe) becomes embroiled in a murder case after helping a friend (Terry Lennox, here played by former baseball star, Jim Bouton) skip town only to find his friend’s wife has been murdered just hours before. But you don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface to find a masterpiece of maverick cinema that stands head and shoulders above much of the work of perhaps the most creative era in American cinema.
Based, of course, on the 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler, it is a film that ties a toe-tag to the corpse of Hollywood counterculture, carefully structured but with a true Nouvelle Vague heart, a film written by one of the most fascinating women in pop culture history, with cinematography by the man who shot The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters and Deliverance, and a career best performance from its star, Elliott Gould.
It begins famously with a long, languid sequence wherein Marlowe is wakened by his cat, a pet so persistent she forces Marlowe to get up, scratch around his pigsty of an apartment looking for something to feed her before eventually venturing off out into the Los Angeles night in search of an elusory can of Curry Brand Cat Food. As he heads to the store, we meet Marlowe’s neighbours, a group of free spirited young dancers, who practice nude yoga and dine on hash brownies, seemingly oblivious to the broiling cesspit that exists at the very foot of their tower.
Marlowe’s frequent mantra throughout the film is that pretty much everything is “…ok with me.” Gould plays Marlowe as a man who has learned not to judge. But not through any quest to improve or become a better person, judgement is simply bad for business. This Marlowe is smart, pragmatic and not above a little mild larceny. But he’s also sad, broken and compassionate, a tumbler away from being a drunk and as lost and bewildered in the mire Hollywood has become as anyone. As screenwriter Brackett observed, Marlowe was an addled anachronism, a man “…trying to invoke the morals of a previous era”.
The film also features a bravura performance from noir stalwart Sterling Hayden, here playing Rodger Wade, a washed up novelist (and fairly obvious Hemingway avatar). Wade is struggling with writer’s block, but more than this, he is a frequently relapsing alcoholic and later he admits, also impotent. Hayden delivers a rage-fuelled storm, a chilling yet poignant portrayal of a shattered ghost at the Malibu feast, his best years long behind him. Coddled and indulged too long, Wade is a man unequipped and unable to address the howling sadness at his heart with anything other than a growl and a ready bottle of booze. He finds a kind of kinship with Marlowe. They are both men out of time. It’s an interesting footnote that Bonanza star Dan Blocker was originally preferred for the role, but died before filming began.
The film may have drifted along as some kind of loose commentary on the ultimate corruption and death of the counterculture ideal had it not been for the part played by Mark Rydell, Marty Augustine. Already an accomplished film maker in his own right, Rydell would go on to make his name with The Rose, On Golden Pond and For the Boys. But here, in a relatively rare screen acting performance, he plays a character who personifies the menace behind the big city bright lights, the base corruption that ensures the death of any high-minded ideal.
In the film, Augustine becomes convinced that Marlowe knows something about money owed to him by his runaway pal, Terry Lennox who is now understood to be dead. In a deeply disturbing scene, Augustine maims his girlfriend with a broken bottle in front of Marlowe to show he means business, before saying, “That’s someone I love. You, I don’t even like.”
It’s a jarring and in some ways puzzling scene. Why not just hurt Marlowe? Why maim an innocent, someone he professes to care for? The answer is delivered through Rydell’s performance which brilliantly captures a narcissistic, erratic psychopath, a substance fuelled force of enmity who changes lives on a whim. He hurts his girlfriend because it gives him far more pleasure to destroy innocence than it would to hurt Marlowe, a man for whom a few smacks is par for the course, the cost of doing business. It seems to give Augustine intense pleasure and a deranged sense of nobility to hurt his girlfriend and then pay for her reconstructive surgery. In the twisted mind of Augustine, he is fixing the wrong he did her, and views this as a kindness he deserves kudos for. His true aim of course is to control her. To Augustine, she is nothing more than a toy, a prop to be used as he sees fit, in this case to scare a gumshoe into telling him what he wants to know. In a film populated by broken-down hippies, alcoholic artists, parasitic quacks and cynical cops, Augustine is the wolf behind the palm trees, the corruption that seeps into everything like mould in a windowframe, the driven, crystalline evil that delights in tearing at the façade of civility.
In the end, Marlowe discovers that Terry Lennox has scammed him. Lennox murdered his wife, tried to rip off Augustine’s money and is alive and living in Mexico where he waits for his wealthy mistress, Rodger Wade’s wife, Eileen. Marlowe confronts and kills Lennox, unable to forgive the trail of death and misery his friend has caused. In the end it turns out that not everything is ok with him. In a world where morality has been obliterated by booze, drugs, sex and bewildering excess, Marlowe insists there are still lines you just do not cross.
The film received a mixture of favourable and scathing reviews when it came out but has gradually come to be recognised as one of Altman’s finest films. It was written by Leigh Brackett, who also wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back. Brackett was a prolific novelist and science fiction writer and latterly became the first woman to be nominated for a Hugo award. She was hired by Howard Hawks to co-write The Big Sleep with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman after he was impressed by her novel No Good From a Corpse. Hawks is famously said to have told his secretary to get “this guy Brackett”, assuming she was a man. The cinematographer was Vilmos Zsigmond, who would later go on to win an Oscar for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
When it came to writing The Edge Off, I wanted the voice of our main character Lee to have that same slippery, out-of-time feel as Marlowe’s in this movie. Recognisably noir, but a little off, hinting at something very wrong in the background. In The Long Goodbye what has gone wrong for Marlowe is the world around him. A modern day Sodom where anything goes. Where playing by the rules makes you a chump and a sucker. In The Edge Off, it is something quite different, but the through-line remains. The Long Goodbye is one of a raft of 1970s films that bridge the square-jawed noir heroes of a bygone era to the Statham-style modern action heroes who also permeate The Edge Off’s DNA, adding depth, ambiguity and human frailty to the classic moral hero.
And if nothing else, it’s worth watching for that opening scene alone – a cat, a hungover but kindly private eye and the quest for that elusive can of Curry Brand Cat Food.