Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel, is quite possibly one of the most marvellous, compelling and intelligent American crime thrillers of all time. Starring an excellent Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe, a private detective with a lot of time on his hands and few clients to work for, he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving his friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), who was accused of killing his wife.
One evening Lennox appears at Marlowe’s apartment demanding that his friend drive him to Tijuana without any explanation, which Marlowe does. It is only the next day that something appears to have gone amiss when the police turn up at Marlowe’s apartment and arrest him for helping Lennox flee the country – because they suspect that he murdered his wife. After days of questioning and being banged up in jail, they release Marlowe on the basis that Lennox really did murder his wife and that his body was found near the border after an apparent suicide. Marlowe does not accept that his friend really did this awful thing and believes the death to be something more than a suicide.
Once out, Marlowe is hired to help find drunk Hemingway type writer, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) by his wife, Eileen (Nina van Pallandt). The audience soon find out that Wade had checked himself into a nearby facility for the rich and famous,
for his addiction & drinking issues but is now being held against his will after wanting to go back home. Alongside this, Marlowe finds some money sent to his apartment (from Lennox, before his death) – this is a red herring as he is about to be attacked by gangster, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) and his group of muscle (including a young Arnold Schwarzenegger) as apparently Lennox owed them money and Marty believes Marlowe knows the whereabouts of the cash.
These three stories work in tandem together and lead Marlowe to a surprise that no one could have expected, with an explosive ending. What this noir does so beautifully is satirise the times on which it is based. The story, originally from Chandler’s novel, has been updated to the 70’s when the film was made and looks on at a culture of self obsession and celebrity – where your face is recognisable and money will get you anywhere. This is beautifully and shockingly represented during one of the many conversations between Marty and Marlowe. To show how serious he is about getting the money, he attacks the face of his girlfriend, rather than Marlowe – he damages her face and yet continues to stay with her afterwards because he truly loves her. Furthermore, an incredibly dark scene is during one where he is convinced Marlowe is wearing a wire & he tells every man in the room to strip down to their pants – whilst incredibly homoerotic, this is also Altman’s vision of stripping the layers and looking deeper for meaning in this dark crime story.
Furthermore, the first sequence of the film is simply so masterful, introducing Gould’s character, Marlowe. He wakes when his cat wants something to eat and he continues to chat with cat for at least the first ten minutes of the film as there is no one else around to keep him company. When he tries to trick the cat into eating a non-label brand of cat food, his pet isn’t interested and instead, he has to leave for the 24 hour market to check to see whether they have the label brand in stock because this is all his cat will eat. Already the audience is introduced to this incredible sense of humour and satire, which darkly clouds throughout the whole film – his cat is even aware of labels and is ‘cool’ to eat! When he leaves for the market, his neighbours, a group of half naked, hippie young women are holding one of their parties (probably aided by some drug or other) and they ask Marlowe to bring back brownies for them. This entire sequence is so seductive in nature to the audience and really makes them enjoy spending time with Marlowe who seems both funny and intelligent.
Aided by a great, emotive soundtrack and incredibly skilled filmmaking, which really brings the audience into the story and intimately alongside the range of characters, The Long Goodbye is an ode to crime thriller long lost. The style and tone of the 50’s, mixed with the satire of the 70’s, which we saw long last through the 80’s and into the 90’s; forecasting an impending yuppie culture, Altman’s The Long Goodbye keeps you guessing till the very end.