Sometimes the best thing about a film is also the worst thing about it. The Long Goodbye is a memorable film experience, but much of its appreciation comes from the ability to understand how it goes against a genre, and your appreciation of other films by the same director. If you’re well versed in noir and Robert Altman films, you’ll find this film interesting for the way it takes liberties with the genre. If not, you may experience a story that feels as though it never quite finds its way.
- Director: Robert Altman
- Writer: Raymond Chandler, Leigh Brackett
- Cast: Elliot Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Jim Bouton, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin
Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is a detective who is thought to be an accomplice for the murder of his friend Terry’s (Jim Bouton) wife. After being interrogated and spending a few days in jail, Philip gets released when Terry is said to have committed suicide, leading the police to close the case. Philip suspects this conclusion to be inaccurate, and takes it upon himself to investigate further, a decision that will throw him into a sphere of odd characters and life-threatening danger.
Not only does The Long Goodbye go against the conventions of the detective genre, it also stands outside what we typically expect from Robert Altman. Unlike classic screen detectives such as those played by Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart in a previous era, this Philip Marlowe doesn’t have a suave and calculating exterior. Despite not being normal people per se, Altman’s heroes and villains are more quirky than they are representations of what we came to expect from super clever detectives or purely evil villains. The narrative is mostly plot-driven, which is not typical of Altman, but in a sense, it manages to also have a meandering quality about it. It is still very much like an Altman film.
Beginning with an amazing opening kitchen scene where he discusses the eating habits of his cat to himself, Philip mumbles his way from one strange event to another while a nudist set of yogis prance around naked as his neighbors (they show up throughout the film). When Philip’s investigation begins, we meet Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), a mysterious woman who is married to Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a writer that no longer has a grip on himself or reality. Roger is held hostage by an eerie Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson), one of two villains in the story but not one that ever really pays off. The other villain, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), is maybe one the strangest criminals ever in a detective film, at one point demanding that his henchmen undress in Philip’s presence as a form of intimidation. You may find it interesting that in this scene we are presented with uncredited appearances by Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Carradine. There are times in The Long Goodbye when it feels more like a black comedy. Harry (David Arkin), one of Marty’s henchman, is a man who at times must be reminded how to do his job by Philip. The dialogue packs plenty of witty dialogue and quirky behavior, while Altman is not so much making fun of the genre as acknowledging it and deconstructing it. While plot points are left with a great deal of ambiguity, it is difficult to watch this film understand exactly what to make of it.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Robert Altman seems to be taking the romanticized characters and conventions of film noir and then stripping them further down to their flaws, without heroic or villainous extremes. In your first review, you cleverly mention that Altman doesn’t string his scenes together to tell a taut story, but that he directs each scene as if he were. This is what I think is most interesting about The Long Goodbye. Knowing that Altman disliked plots, it is interesting how this film has more of focused plot than many of his other films but nevertheless still feels loose. In your second review, more than 30 years after the films original release, you do a great job of posing all the questions that an audience would ask while watching this film, reassuring your readers that their oversight is not to blame if certain plot points don’t make sense. As you also state, “The plot can be summarized in a few words, or endlessly.” I’m still scratching my head about this one. It carries itself like a good film, even as it barely provides us with anything concrete.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like The Long Goodbye? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Spirit of the Beehive
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye this week, he now has 300 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.