How The Long Goodbye Gave Noir a Much-Needed Shakeup

Funny yet melancholy, Gould's take on Philip Marlowe divided fans but produced a classic.

Written by Chrishaun Baker
Originally Published: 
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On the first day of shooting for Robert Altman’s 1973 film The Long Goodbye, Elliott Gould sauntered onto set and improvised four simple words: “It’s okay with me.” On-screen, they reflected a certain uneasy acceptance of the eccentric paradoxes of contemporary American life, but off-screen, they were a testament to the laissez-faire energy between director and actor. Gould was an actor prone to fits of sudden inspiration, and Altman was a filmmaker who nurtured spontaneity. It was a match made in heaven, but for fans of Raymond Chandler, it was an unacceptable one.

When Altman first encountered Leigh Brackett’s screenplay, he was disinterested in the hard-boiled edge of Chandler’s detective novel. However, he was drawn to Brackett’s shocking ending and the updated setting of ‘70s Los Angeles. He began to realize the story’s potential as a satirical odyssey through the rosy facade of Hollywood, skewering everything from fascist cops to pretentious novelists to noir itself. Contemporary audiences were perplexed by its narrative formlessness and wry humor, but over 50 years later, The Long Goodbye is a cult classic, and its unforgettable ennui has paved the way for an entire genre of melancholic anti-noirs.

Crucial to the film’s enduring legacy is the pitiable charm of Elliott Gould's Phillip Marlowe, a sleepyheaded, mumble-mouthed slacker with more of a resemblance to Seth Rogen than Humphrey Bogart. Both Gould and Altman saw him as a relic of the ‘40s, reawakened in a time of rapid social transformation. The loyalty and stoicism that had once sanctified him now clung to his back like a “kick me” sign; even Marlowe’s cat takes advantage of his good nature and coaxes him into wandering out for fancy food at 3:00 am. When his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) shows up in the middle of the night nursing scars and asking for a ride to Tijuana, Marlowe asks few questions before taking off. Why would he? Isn’t that what friends are for?

After being manhandled by crooked cops in connection with the brutal murder of Terry’s wife Sylvia, Marlowe doubles down on his convictions and decides to solve the crime, resolute in his belief that his friend is innocent. Though his investigation puts him through the wringer physically and mentally, Gould never loses the disaffected swagger that Marlowe carries with him, observing and reacting incredulously to the world’s shifting cultural landscape. He’s constantly out of his element, but he has a preternatural capacity for punishment, and the smug grin on Gould’s face is a constant reminder that he’s at his most comfortable when he’s being underestimated.

The rhythmic structure of the film is less like a traditional mystery and more of a dreamlike sleepwalk through L.A., a city brought to life by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Altman was obsessed with using naturalistic lighting to reflect the warm glow of Hollywood’s allure, and when coupled with the texture of the film grain, it imbues The Long Goodbye with a hypnotic quality. Both Altman and Zsigmond were adamant about keeping the camera in perpetual motion, mesmerizing audiences into a voyeuristic perspective where, like Marlowe, they’re constantly trying to get a peek into a blinding world of stars that isn’t quite meant for them.

Marlowe’s world is one you can smell through the screen.

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Eventually, that world seeks out the P.I. on its own, as fate brings him into the orbit of Terry’s former neighbors: Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt), a secretive and withdrawn socialite who tasks him with finding her husband, a depressed alcoholic novelist named Roger (Sterling Hayden). In both the movie and the novel, Roger Wade is a reflection of Chandler himself. His struggles with alcoholism and the volatile domestic relationship between Roger and Eileen speak to how devastated the author was by the passing of his own wife. The Wades are perhaps the most potent representation of Altman’s critique of the charade of fame, and there’s a tragic callousness to the way that Roger’s demons are taken advantage of by everyone around him.

Similarly, Marlowe’s stubborn dedication to Lennox’s innocence is severely tested when he discovers that the man had been working as a money runner for sadistic local gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell). Augustine’s quiet authority and eloquent charm are initially played for comedic effect, but it doesn’t take long before Altman reminds us that the real world is filled with simultaneous humor and horror. In the film’s most chilling scene, Augustine shatters a Coke bottle against a young woman’s face just to prove a point. It’s remarkable how casually cruel it is, and it’s a perfect microcosm of the moral perversity encircling Los Angeles like a sinister haze.

Even heroes need to buy cat food.

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At every turn, Marlowe’s dogged pursuit of the truth of Sylvia’s murder is obscured by people who seem fundamentally disinterested in the answer. The officers formally investigating the crime are content with accepting Terry’s sudden suicide as the end of the case, and Altman is adamant in showing contemporary policing as a structure of incompetence and authoritarian suppression. The idea of “finding justice” in a city as fundamentally unjust as ’70s L.A. is a joke that everyone except Marlowe seems to be in on.

Yet for as much grief as he stumbles into, Marlowe’s rigid sense of right and wrong makes him the unlikely hero. When he returns to Tijuana and discovers that Terry faked his death to get away with the murder of his wife, we expect his disappointment, we expect his pain, and we expect him to feel betrayed. What we don’t expect is for him to pull out a pistol and shoot Lennox dead. While many have decried the ending as extremely out-of-character for Chandler’s detective, it’s in the explosive finality of those last moments that Robert Altman’s appreciation for the character becomes clear. When justice has been rendered meaningless by a corrupt society, it’s our responsibility to meet deception head-on and cut through to the truth with the brazen finesse of a smoking gun.

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