The Long Goodbye (1973)

“It’s okay with me.”

I am amazed that Elliott Gould is still alive at seventy-one after the amount of smoking he does in The Long Goodbye.  He sparks up a cigarette in nearly every scene in which he appears, even if he was already smoking in the scene previous.  It’s an interesting satire of the health-conscious 1970’s California, and goes hand-in-hand with the other jabs at Hollywood that pepper this engaging private-eye film.

I’d rate Gould at the top of the list of actors who have portrayed Philip Marlowe.  Bogie and Mitchum and the others do a fine job in their respective films involving the character, but Gould really seems comfortable in Marlowe’s shoes: he’s relaxed and funny enough to be a nondescript neighbor, yet he gets serious when he needs to.  Maybe they should do another film with Gould in the lead, since I’m not sure there’s really been one since 1973.

The story involves Marlowe’s best friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) running away to Tijuana saying he had a fight with his wife.  Marlowe is arrested the next morning, being told by police that Lennox and his wife are both dead.  The gumshoe decides to plumb the mystery, meeting a variety of colorful characters including Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) and her Earnest Hemingway look-alike husband, played by an aging Sterling Hayden.  When you see this character’s ultimate fate in the film, it’s hard to deny that he’s a satire of Hemingway, but regardless, he’s one of the more appealing and interesting entities the film has to offer.  Marlowe’s quest also leads him to the bad side of a gangster called Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) and his motley crew of thugs, including the hilarious Harry (David Arkin) and a wordless, mustached gorilla of a man played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his second film role ever.

Most interesting to me are the scenes involving Marlowe’s domestic life.  He cares deeply for his cat, yet can’t make nice with him.  His neighbors are a congregation of women who meditate and do nude yoga outside (Harry: “I think they’re a coupla lesbians!”), and occasionally ask Marlowe to pick up groceries for them.  The women seem to fawn over Marlowe, but he never obliges them or even hangs around to say much to them, even when he’s got nothing better to do (his excuses include, upon being asked if he wants a brownie, “No, they hurt my teeth”).  One of my favorite scenes occurs when Marlowe is shopping for cat food and asks a grocery worker if they have a certain brand.  “Man, all this shit is the same,” the worker says.  Marlowe then asks if the worker has a cat.  “What I need a cat for?  I got a girl.”  When Marlowe is dragged into jail, the worker is there, too.

Some of the other humor, which seems clever only at face value now, was new and progressive in the seventies.  The best example is when two cops attempt to shake Marlowe down, and he says, “Oh, is this the part where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s this all about?’ and then you say, ‘Shut up; I’m the one asking the questions?” satirizing the norms of storytelling whilst living in a story riddled with conventional devices.

Take a look.

The film is a great re-imagining of Chandler’s novel and surely one of the highlights of Gould’s career.  The way he deals with other characters (as seen above), especially the motley assortment he encounters in this story, make me wonder whether he wouldn’t be at home in a Jonathan Lethem novel – read Gun, With Occasional Music if you’re interested in an Orwellian twist on the gumshoe genre.  It involves a private-eye living in a future where the very act of asking questions is illegal.  Marlowe’s predicament in The Long Goodbye is at least internally analogous, and both protagonists discover what they’re capable of in the end (which, in both cases, shocks the audience, too).

P.S. “Nothing says goodbye like a bullet” is never spoken in the film.  I don’t even know what the hell that’s supposed to mean.

The Long Goodbye (1973); written by Leigh Brackett (based on the novel by Raymond Chandler); directed by Robert Altman; starring Elliott Gould, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell and Nina van Pallandt.

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