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The Long Goodbye was something of a critical and box-office disaster when it first
appeared; this was identified as being down to United Artists marketing of the film, giving
prominence to the detective genre and the Raymond Chandler source material. Clearly the
territory is more typically Robert Altman's close scrutiny of types, and the resulting
satire, and exposure of perversity and pretension. That is not to say that Altman's targeting
of the turbulent underbelly of Los Angeles, and the troubled souls and sudden violence that
stalk the Hollywood hills, is far from what Chandler intended.
Private detective Philip Marlowe's meandering investigations, curious distractions, and inconclusive conclusions reflect some reactions to the original novel. Certainly they are on a par with the complicated and confusing plot twists of earlier cinematic outings, such as The Big Sleep (1946), which also featured screenwriting duties by Leigh Brackett (The Empire Strikes Back, Rio Bravo), and resulted in the famous story that director and writers had to contact Chandler during filming to ascertain if a certain character had been murdered or had killed themselves, only to find that the author was unable to work it out either.
Classically educated, at Dulwich College in London, Chandler is supposed to have viewed his detective as a modern manifestation of the knight errant from chivalric romance. His name might have been taken from the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, or from the narrator of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, and Heart Of Darkness, and it is that latter journey into the violence underpinning civilisation, and the blackness within the soul of modern man, that both Chandler and Altman explore through the investigations of Philip Marlowe. As Chandler expressed it in his essay 'The Simple Art Of Murder', "But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."
Elliott Gould (Ocean's Eleven) was not the studio's choice for the role, but Altman only came on board when he was allowed to cast him. Gould, who hadn't made a picture in a couple of years, allegedly had to undergo examination to convince the studio that he was physically and psychologically stable. Gould's Marlowe is a character out of step with the times; he drives a 1948 Lincoln (Gould's own vehicle), chain-smokes like Bogart, and wears a dark suit and tie in an L.A. where the beautiful people wear slacks and open shirts.
The film opens with a quirky scene where Marlowe attempts to feed his cat - which will only accept its favourite brand. Actor and cat work to upstage each other; with Gould creating a hideous concoction out of the contents of his fridge before admitting defeat and going to the supermarket. Marlowe passes his neighbours, a bevy of stoner ladies who spend the entire film variously undressed and performing yoga and other new-age rites on the shared balcony. Marlowe discovers that the supermarket does not stock the favoured brand, and when he attempts to fool his cat with a different make the cat absconds, never to return. Marlowe's friend Terry Lennox, played by former baseball pitcher Jim Bouton, arrives and asks Marlowe if he can drive him to Tijuana following a falling-out with his wife. On Marlowe's return the police take him in for questioning in connection with Lennox's suspected murder of his wife. Marlowe is released when Lennox's body is found in Mexico, the suicide appearing to confirm his guilt.
Marlowe is hired by wealthy socialite Eileen Wade (a first film role by former singing star Nina van Pallandt) to find her husband Roger, a famous novelist suffering from writer's block who has disappeared during an alcoholic binge. Marlowe finds Wade (Sterling Hayden, Dr Strangelove) in a local sanatorium almost immediately, and forms an attachment with the couple ascertaining that they knew Terry Lennox and his wife. Marlowe has a run-in with bookie Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who claims Lennox was holding $350k for him.
Augustine brutally smashes his own girlfriend's face with a coke bottle as an illustration of what Marlowe might expect if he crosses him. Marlowe follows Augustine who visits the Wades. Staying overnight at the Wades sumptuous beachside residence (Altman's home at the time) Marlowe and Eileen are unable to save Wade from drowning himself. Marlowe insists to the police that Wade and Lennox's wife were having an affair, and that Wade killed Mrs Lennox in a drunken fit. Marlowe receives a delayed $5000 dollar bill from Lennox in Mexico, which leads Augustine to believe Marlowe knows the whereabouts of his cash. Marlowe is saved from further violence when Eileen Wade drops off the cash, and he pursues her car on foot but the chase comes to an end when he is knocked down by another vehicle. Recovering in hospital with a mysteriously bandaged man who gives him the gift of a harmonica, Marlowe discharges himself and travels to Tijuana for the climax, convinced he has solved the mystery.
The denouement to The Long Goodbye upset many purists who felt it was out of character with Philip Marlowe as established by his creator. In an excruciating edition of the Parkinson show of the time, featuring Gould, and Donald Sutherland, in which the pair had obviously absorbed narcotic stimulation, Gould attempted a near-metaphysical explanation of Marlowe's actions which caused the professional Yorkshireman to declare that he wasn't sure he understood and he didn't think Gould did either.
In Marlowe's hospital scene it is reasonable to assume that the heavily bandaged man is Terry Lennox, after undergoing cosmetic surgery. In the novel this is the case, with the remodelled Lennox attempting to pass himself off as a Mexican, to furnish Marlowe with a solution, but in the film there is no evidence that Lennox undergoes such surgery. The current Governor of the State of California appears as one of Marty Augustine's henchmen, happily he was not given any lines but true to form, Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines) takes every opportunity to flex.
Sterling Hayden took the role of Roger Wade on the death of Altman's friend, former Bonanza star Dan Blocker. Altman was delighted with Hayden's towering performance and, as always, it is difficult not to perceive in the actor's portrayal of tormented souls some channelling of his much-publicised self-contempt at his cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s. In any event, Hayden was later quoted as saying that his work on the picture was the first thing he did that he could bear to watch.