by J.D. Lafrance
“I felt that the film was almost an essay, an education, to the audience, to say, ‘Stop looking at everything exactly the same way.’” – Robert Altman
When The Long Goodbye was released in 1973, United Artists promptly bungled its ad campaign. Robert Altman’s film radically reworked Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name and the studio had no idea how to market the offbeat movie. It polarized critics and promptly disappeared from theaters. People weren’t ready for its offbeat vibe and the way it satirized Los Angeles culture. However, it was Elliott Gould’s unusual take on private investigator Philip Marlowe that drew the lion’s share of people’s criticism. His loose, easy-going style flew in the face of the traditional interpretation made famous by Humphrey Bogart and was tantamount to heresy among cinephiles but in retrospect paved the way for a film like the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), which also confounded the mainstream with its own eccentric take on West Coast culture.
While trying in vain to feed his cat late one night, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Gould) receives a visit from his friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana, Mexico. When he returns home, the police are waiting for him and claim that Lennox brutally murdered his wife. Marlowe does not believe that his good friend is a murderer and refuses to tell the police anything. After three days in jail, he’s released when the police inform him that Lennox committed suicide in Mexico. It’s an open and shut case but something doesn’t quite sit right with Marlowe. He is subsequently hired by the wealthy Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her alcoholic husband, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a famous author with an Ernest Hemingway complex. Marlowe learns that the Wades knew the Lennoxes and that there is more to Terry’s suicide and his wife’s murder than initially reported.
The Long Goodbye is bookended by the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” and the song quickly fades out as if to signal that this film will not be a classic noir take on Chandler. Marlowe wakes up after an undetermined period of time. How long has he been asleep? He mutters to himself while trying to feed his cat, a very fickle pet that will only eat a specific brand of food, and when he tries to fool the feline with another brand hidden in an old can, the cat bolts. So what is the purpose of the first ten minutes of the film dedicated to Marlowe feeding his cat? First off, it establishes that this is going to be a very different take on Chandler’s book and that Marlowe’s friend, Terry Lennox, is as fickle as his cat – he only hangs around Marlowe when he needs him but when he’s no longer of use, he splits. This opening scene came from a story a friend of Altman’s told him about his cat only eating one type of cat food.
The Long Goodbye is much more than a murder mystery. Taking Chandler’s novel set in the 1940s and updating it to the 1970s, Altman is also interested in satirizing the superficiality of L.A. culture. Marlowe is surrounded by an odd cast of denizens that populate the city: his neighbors are a group of women who spend their time getting high and doing yoga with very little clothes on, the security guard for the Wade’s gated community does impersonations of famous actors like Barbara Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart, and Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) is a nasty gangster who is proud of his Jewish heritage. Throughout it all, Marlowe repeats his own personal mantra of sorts, “It’s okay with me,” which personifies his easy-going nature.
The heart of the film is Elliot Gould. His Marlowe is a laid-back guy in a rumpled suit that wanders through the film muttering jokes to himself and chain smoking constantly. Gould’s character is man out of time, a throwback to another era, which provides a sharp contrast to the trendy, health-obsessed ’70s culture that surrounds him. Altman nicknamed Gould’s character Rip Van Marlowe, as if he had been wandering around L.A. in the early ‘70s but “trying to invoke the morals of a previous era.” The actor delivers a wonderful assortment of smart-ass comments to anyone who gives him trouble but also knows when to play it straight during key dramatic moments. He’s also not afraid to improvise in a given scene like when the police interrogate him and he smears the fingerprinting ink under his eyes like a football player and then applies it to the rest of his face a la Al Jolson, riffing off the police officer that is giving him a hard time. Gould delivers a multi-layered performance that ranks right up there with his other classic Altman films, M.A.S.H. (1970) and California Split (1974). There was clearly a creative synergy between the two men that resulted in both of their best work to date.
Producers Jerry Bick and Elliott Kastner commissioned a screenplay from Leigh Brackett, who had written the script for the Humphrey Bogart version of The Big Sleep (1946). The producers offered the script to both Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich. Both directors passed on it but Bogdanovich recommended Altman, whom he admired. Bick and Kastner sent Brackett’s script to Altman while he was shooting Images (1972) in Ireland. Brian Hutton was supposed to direct but was offered another film and Altman took over. Initially, he didn’t want to do it until he was told that Gould would be cast as Marlowe.
In adapting the book, Brackett had problems with its plot, which she felt was “riddled with clichés,” and was faced with the choice of doing it as a period piece or updating it. Altman and Brackett spent a lot of time talking about the plot. He wanted Marlowe to be a loser. Her first draft was too long and she shortened it but the ending was inconclusive. She had Marlowe shooting Terry Lennox because it was the way Hutton wanted it. Altman liked the ending because it was so out of character for Marlowe. He agreed to direct but only if the ending was not changed.
Altman conceived of the film as a satire and it was his decision to cast Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt. The director only knew Van Pallandt from The Johnny Carson Show and from the Clifford Irving scandal. He felt that she resembled a character from Chandler’s novel and the studio allowed him to do a screen test. He also made all kinds of changes to the script, like Wade’s suicide and Marty Augustine smashing the Coke bottle into his girlfriend’s face. Altman did not read Chandler’s book and instead gave copies of Raymond Chandler Speaking to the cast and crew and advised them to study the author’s literary essays. Altman originally wanted Dan Blocker for the role of Roger Wade but he died just before shooting began and the director was persuaded to meet with Sterling Hayden.
When Bogdanovich was briefly attached to the project, he wanted Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin to portray Marlowe. United Artists president David Picker may have picked Gould to play Marlowe as a ploy to get Altman to direct the film. Bogdanovich did not see Gould in the role because he was “too new” and left the project. Brian Hutton also wanted Gould to play the private detective. At the time, the actor was box office poison in Hollywood after his rumored troubles on the set of A Glimpse of Tiger where he argued with co-star Kim Darby, exchanged blows with director Anthony Harvey, and abused drugs as well as being unreliable and absent.
Warner Bros. stopped the production early on and Gould claimed that he was blamed for its failure. The studio collected on an insurance policy that attested the actor was crazy. For The Long Goodbye, United Artists gave Gould the requisite physical before approving his contract and demanded a psychological exam to determine that the actor was mentally stable. Gould read the first draft of Brackett’s script described it as a “pastiche” and very convoluted. Altman called Gould to discuss the film and the actor told him that he always wanted to play Marlowe. Altman asked Gould to read the novel as well as Chandler on Chandler. Gould discovered that he was exactly the same age, height, and weight as Marlowe.
When it came to the scenes between Marlowe and Wade, Altman had Gould and Hayden ad-lib most of the dialogue. Hayden, with his long, scraggily beard and scattershot delivery of his dialogue, is great as the eccentric writer who constantly refers to Marlowe as “Marlboro” (“the Duke of Bullshit,” he adds at one point), in reference to his ever-present cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Hayden delivers a wonderfully unpredictable performance full of bluster and eccentric line readings. According to Altman, Hayden improvised a lot of his dialogue and was drunk and stoned on marijuana most of the time. In the scene where Marlowe tries to save Wade from drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean, Gould almost drowned when he went out too far. He was only able to do three takes. The director decided that the camera should never stop moving and put the camera on a dolly. However, the camera movements would counter the actions of the characters so that the audience would feel like a voyeur. To compensate for the harsh light of southern California, Altman gave the film a soft, pastel look reminiscent of old postcards from the 1940s.
Mark Rydell is something else as Marty Augustine. In the first scene we see him in he threatens Marlowe, then talks sweetly to his girlfriend, and then goes back to menacing Marlowe. At times, Augustine is downright charming and then he suddenly and shockingly smashes a Coke bottle across his girlfriend’s face just to make a point. With the shocking violence of this scene, Altman said, “It was supposed to get the attention of the audience and remind them that, in spite of Marlowe, there is a real world out there, and it is a violent world.” Augustine is clearly a psychopath and Rydell nails the character’s shifting moods with unsettling intensity. The Coke bottle scene is like a cold splash of water to the face and it causes not only the audience to sit up and notice but Marlowe as well, who, up to this point, has mostly been in his own little world. Now, Marlowe has a real, vested interest in what happened to his friend Lennox because he owed Augustine a lot of money and is now threatening Marlowe’s life.
The Long Goodbye was previewed at the Tarrytown Conference Center in New York. The gala was hosted by Judith Crist, then the film critic for New York magazine. Altman flew in for the Q&A session. The film was not well-received by the audience except for Nina Van Pallandt’s performance, which got good notices. The mood at the Q&A was “vaguely hostile” and afterwards Altman was reportedly “depressed.” The Long Goodbye did not fair well in its limited release in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami. As a result, the New York City opening was canceled at the last minute after several advance screenings had already been held for the press.
The Long Goodbye received mixed reaction from critics and performed poorly at the box office because of the unconventional story, plot, and character changes from the novel. Sight and Sound and The Film Quarterly attacked the depiction of private detective Philip Marlowe, saying: “one can not satirize or destroy a hero image until one defines it.” Time magazine’s Jay Cocks wasn’t crazy about the film either: “Altman’s lazy, haphazard putdown is without affection or understanding, a nose-thumb not only at the idea of Philip Marlowe but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized. It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire.”
The film was abruptly withdrawn from release by United Artists with rumors that it would be re-edited. Altman went to Picker and told him, “No wonder the fucking picture is failing. It’s giving the wrong impression. You make it look like a thriller and it’s not, it’s a satire.” The studio analyzed the reviews for six months and concluded that the advertising campaign was too narrow. They created a new release strategy for The Long Goodbye with a novel ad campaign that featured a poster illustrated by legendary Mad magazine artist Jack Davis. Altman explained that he “had to prepare audiences for a movie that satirizes Hollywood and the entire Chandler genre.”
United Artists spent $40,000, and the New York City première was profitably and critically successful. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Don’t be misled by the ads, The Long Goodbye is not a put-on. It’s great fun and it’s funny, but it’s a serious, unique work.” Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Elliott Gould’s “good performance, particularly the virtuoso ten-minute stretch at the beginning of the movie when he goes out to buy food for his cat. Gould has enough of the paranoid in his acting style to really put over Altman’s revised view of the private eye.” The Long Goodbye ended up on The New York Times’ year-end Ten Best list. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond won the National Society of Film Critics’ award for best cinematography in 1973. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done and the film still failed to perform well elsewhere.
The Long Goodbye has endured and become one of Altman’s signature films. It also has some famous fans, chief among them the Coen brothers who cite it as their favorite of Altman’s and an influence on The Big Lebowski. Aside from being a cheeky satire on Hollywood almost as much as The Player (1992) was, a later Altman film that brought him back into the mainstream, it is a film about loyalty. By the end of the film, Marlowe has learned a valuable lesson – there are some friends you don’t stick your neck out for. He is loyal to a fault and realizes that Lennox wasn’t the friend that he thought he was. As the Altman quote states at the beginning of this article, Marlowe is forced to stop looking at everything exactly the same way, just as we are, and see his friend for who he truly is.
Gardner, Paul. “Long Goodbye Proves a Big Sleeper Here.” The New York Times. November 8, 1973.
Kass, Judith M. Robert Altman: American Innovator. Warner Books. 1978.