A playful de-romanticizing of the detective genre, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye undercuts film noir conventions from its casting of Elliott Gould on down. Anything exciting about those movies – the hard-boiled stars, the rat-a-tat dialogue – Altman defuses with wry humor. The result is a comedy that tiptoes towards spoof but never quite crosses that line.
Consider Gould’s Philip Marlowe (the notorious private eye of Raymond Chandler’s detective novels, including 1953’s The Long Goodbye). Tall and gangly in a rumpled black suit, with a growing mess of curls on his head, he’s like a hippie trying to pass for an accountant (the setting is 1970s Los Angeles). In place of the sharp narration that movie Marlowes usually provide (think Humphrey Bogart), this one mostly mutters to himself about finding the right brand of food for his cat.
So we don’t hold out much hope for him when he becomes enveloped in a labyrinthine plot, involving not only his friend (Jim Bouton), who has been accused of murder, but also his friend’s siren of a neighbor (Nina van Pallandt), who hires Marlowe to find her missing husband (Sterling Hayden), a Hemingwayesque writer who’s gone on a bender. If you’ve got all that, then I’ll also mention the volatile loan shark (Mark Rydell) who believes someone in this group owes him $350,000.
This Marlowe mostly mutters to himself about finding the right brand of food for his cat.
That leads to one of the more amusing moments in the movie, when Rydell’s Marty Augustine insists that he, Marlowe and his crowd of henchmen all strip for a meeting because he believes standing together naked will encourage honesty. I also liked the Zen healing center Marlowe investigates in which peace is kept by harsh shushing. And then there is the sad piano bar where Marlowe collects his phone messages. There’s not a soul around except for Marlowe as the pianist plunks at a few keys, trying to learn a new song. This is hardly Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not.
Speaking of music from that era, Johnny Mercer composed the title song for The Long Goodbye alongside John Williams. Altman includes variations on it throughout the movie, each reflecting the milieu of the scene at hand (a mariachi version pops up during a sequence in Mexico). The recurring theme provides a clever anchor for the film, especially considering the plot is constantly adrift.
The Long Goodbye is true to its predecessors in that it doesn’t allow its wit and humor to completely dispel the darkness inherent to the genre. There is real rage behind Hayden’s performance as the alcoholic author, as well as an ending that attempts (perhaps a bit too abruptly) to seek some form of justice. It’s also worth noting that three female characters in the film all suffer facial injuries at the hands of a man (we witness one instance of abuse in shocking detail). The Long Goodbye is cheeky and often cheerily meta, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a lark.