Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

By Philip Schweier

The Long Goodbye (1973) features an impressive pedigree. It is based on the novel by famed mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and the screenplay was adapted by Leigh Brackett, who penned a number of hard-boiled detective yarns for both film and pulps. The movie was directed by Robert Altman and stars Elliott Gould, with music by movie maestro John Williams.

Despite such talent behind the picture, I found it utterly lacking in every area. Let’s examine them one at a time, shall we? (Beware! Spoilers ahead.)

First of all, Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe works best when left in the era that spawned him: the 1940s. This version is set in “present day” (1973), except for Marlowe’s car, which looks as if it was handed down by Chandler himself. So much for the private eye axiom of remaining inconspicuous.

Nevertheless, the events of the film are not germane to any specific era. After a particularly nasty fight with his wife, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), a friend of Marlowe’s, requests that he give him a lift down to Tijuana. Upon his return to Los Angeles, Marlowe is promptly arrested while police search for Lennox. It seems Marlowe’s pal is wanted in connection with his wife’s death.

After three days in the jug, Marlowe is freed due to the fact that Lennox has turned up in Mexico dead himself. So Marlowe buries himself in work, beginning with the task of rounding up Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) on behalf of the alcoholic writer’s wife, Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt). Marlowe locates him in a “rest home,” hidden away by Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson).

Ironically, the Wades live in the very same beachside community in which the former Mr. and Mrs. Lennox resided, leading Marlowe to ponder if there may be a connection. However, no sooner does he start digging than he is paid a visit from local hoodlum Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), searching for some money Augustine believes Lennox passed to him, since Marlowe was the last person in LA to see him alive.

Augustine’s subsequent visit to Mrs. Wade strengthens the Wade/Lennox connection, and he begins to suspect that someone somewhere was having an affair with someone else. But before that angle can be fully investigated, Roger Wade ups and offs himself. With all the players dead, Eileen fesses up that Roger and Mrs. Lennox were involved for a short time, and he may have killed her while in a drunken rage, thus sending him into the money-grubbing hands of Dr. Verringer.

Case closed, were it not for Augustine’s intent to collect his money, and a $5,000 bill turns up in Marlowe’s mail, seemingly from Lennox. Augustine is convinced Marlowe knows more than he’s letting on. He’s on the verge of giving the shamus the beating of his life (using a very young Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger to do it) when Mrs. Wade shows up with Augustine’s money, in the very satchel Lennox had on him when Marlowe dropped in Tijuana.

All of which convinces Marlowe that Lennox is alive and well, carrying on and affair with Eileen Wade despite the fairy tale Eileen told Marlowe. He then journeys down Mexico way, tracks his friend down and promptly plugs him. End of story.

I tend to classify detective yarns into one of three categories. There are those that are ludicrously simple to dope out, following clichés and dropping clues that are one notch above Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. Then there are those that are a little more intelligent, and with a little effort a mystery fan can reach the same resolution as the sleuth in question, if he/she wants. Then there are those, and I’m sorry to say that many of Raymond Chandler’s stories fall into this category) that are a confusing series of event involving murder, mayhem and red herrings. With these, all you can do is forget playing armchair detective. Just sit back and soak up the film noir atmosphere.

The Long Goodbye falls in the last category. Whys and wherefores don’t seem important, it’s all just a muddled mess. That brings us to the issue of the director, Robert Altman. I should be more generous here, seeing as how I had the privilege of being an extra in an Altman film, The Gingerbread Man (1998), when it was filmed here in Savannah. Despite taking direction from Altman, my scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

My experience in viewing Altman’s work is that he strives for a great deal of realism, forgetting the fact that realism is what people go to the movies to escape from. His constantly overlapping dialogue might add a touch of veritas, but it can be hard for many audiences to follow.

Another distraction in the film is the constant attention paid to Marlowe’s flaky neighbors. Feminists, lesbians, exhibitionists, hippies, call them what you will, they seem only there to illustrate what a tripped out place California was at the time. Yeah, we get it.

Altman also tends to use tricky camera techniques and odd angles, which are neat but should be used sparingly. Otherwise, he’s merely winking at the audience. “See what I’m doing here? Aren’t I clever?” Case in point, Marlowe and Eileen are having a conversation in front of a window, during which the camera begins to focus not on them, but on the window itself, then on what lies outside the window, and the tiny figure of Eileen’s husband on the beach in the distance. It’s cute, but tedious to watch.

The Long Goodbye has been criticized for featuring Elliott Gould in the title role. A Jewish Philip Marlowe? Well, why not? Marlowe might not be a Jewish name, but he wouldn’t be the first to Anglicize his name for business purposes. Gould is a fine actor, and pulls off the wise-cracking Marlowe pretty well. But this Marlowe pretty much chain-smokes his way through the entire film. Sure, it was 1973 and smoking wasn’t frowned upon nearly so much as it is today. But I haven’t seen this much lighting up since Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978).

Finally, there’s the interesting use of music in the film. For the most part, it features only a single song, “The Long Goodbye,” written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer. But the melody is applied in any number of ways: as a dirge played by a mariachi band in Mexico, and as Muzak played over the sound system in a grocery store; even as the Wade’s doorbell. It’s interesting and playful, but let us not forget that this is John Williams several years before Star Wars, and not too many years after Land of the Giants.

For fans of the private eye genre, I would recommend that they avoid The Long Goodbye in favor of either Marlowe (1969), presenting an updated version of the private eye, or Farewell, My Lovely (1975) starring Robert Mitchum in a tale set in the 1940s.

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DorianTB said...

Ironic that Ivan's guest reviewer should happen to be named Philip! :-) I enjoyed your review far more than I enjoyed Robert Altman's version of THE LONG GOODBYE. I don't mind updates of classic movies and Raymond Chandler stories, especially since I agree that the stories are more about the mood and the atmosphere than about figuring out who killed who and why. However, good though Elliott Gould always is, he's pretty much reduced to mumbling and shuffling around. For that I can watch COLUMBO reruns; at least they're coherent! I did enjoy the playful use of the "Long Goodbye" theme, however, and the cast was at least fun to watch. Philip, your review hit the nail on the proverbial head; well-done!

Jandy Stone said...

This is pretty similar to how I felt about The Long Goodbye the first time I saw it, about ten years ago. When I rewatched it last year, I LOVED it. It's not really about a detective solving a mystery - it's about movies about detectives solving mysteries. The film is replete with nods and homages to '40s and '50s hard-boiled detective films (right down to casting Sterling Hayden), but always with a very '70s veneer over the top of it - an uncomfortable homage that appreciates those films but wonders how that kind of detective is possible in the world of the 1970s. That's what makes the film fascinating, as well as Gould's peculiar take on the character, both detached ("it's okay with me" as a way to avoid consequences) and dogged, the only person who cares enough to follow the trail to the end. I admit, I'm a big fan of meta filmmaking, but The Long Goodbye is one of my favorites.