Widely misunderstood at the time of its release in 1973, The Long Goodbye has, like fine wine, got better with age. Top 10 Films goes down memory lane as the film arrives on blu-ray in the UK…
When private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is visited by an old friend, this sets in train a series of events in which he is hired to search for a missing novelist (Sterling Hayden) and finds himself on the wrong side of vicious gangsters. So far so faithful to Raymond Chandler, but Robert Altman’s inspired film adaptation of the writer’s most personal novel takes his legendary detective and relocates him to the selfish, hedonistic culture of 1970s Hollywood, where he finds that his old-fashioned notions of honour and loyalty carry little weight, and even his smoking (universal in film noir) is now frowned upon.
When The Long Goodbye was first released in cinemas back in 1973, loyal hard-line fans of Raymond Chandler dropped their jaws at what they perceived as an utter outrage as they began questioning how Robert Altman – one of America’s most creative, irreverent filmmakers of his generation – could possibly turn Chandler’s super-sleuth, Philip Marlowe, into a not particularly sharp slob. And of course, this is exactly the kind of fuss Altman has always relished. However, despite those cries of outrage from the Chandler purists, this is, along with Hawks’ The Big Sleep, easily the most intelligent of all screen adaptations of the writer’s work.
Altman stays faithful to the source novel’s basic narrative, staying close to its story (albeit with a couple of crucial changes), but when he comes up with something totally original, it is based on his ironic updating of the story and characters. For instance, Gould’s Marlowe is now a laid-back, shambling slob who, despite his incessant claim that everything is “okay with me”, actually still harbours the same honourable ideals as Chandler’s Marlowe; but Altman implies that those idealist values don’t fit harmoniously with the neurotic, uncaring lifestyle led by the LA of the 1970s/80s.
Altman cleverly hired Leigh Brackett, who had co-written The Big Sleep, and she helped Altman lay out a picture that is as much a crisp comment on contemporary LA and its full-on sense of egotism as it is a tale delineating Marlowe’s crime-busting pursuits. The film pulls in many twists and turns, reflecting Marlowe’s descent into a weird widening web of discovery and betrayal, and occasionally, the film becomes a bit too twisty for its own good, but that’s only a minor issue. Shot in gloriously cool and steely colours by Vilmos Zsigmond with a continually moving camera, the film manages to capture the stark and gritty hard-boiled realism of 70s LA that will have no doubt been the main inspiration for films to come like Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.
Altman employs both laser-sharp irony and broad jokiness (the latter often through John Williams’ score) as he places Los Angeles under the microscope, while the sublime Elliott Gould seems to relish the joke of serving up Marlowe in a radically different way. He captures the seedy untrustworthy side of Marlowe with a sharp twinkle in his eye, and his shambling, cat-obsessed detective ranks alongside the more outwardly faithful interpretations by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum.
Widely misunderstood at the time of its release, The Long Goodbye is now regarded as one of Altman’s best films and one of the outstanding American films of its era.