Altman admitted never finishing the novel and saw no need to remain faithful to it. For that reason, the movie wasn’t well received by Chandler fans. Most didn’t appreciate the ending, something Altman made part of his agreement with the producers. Brackett’s plotting is dense, as anyone who’s tried to decipher her adaptation (with Faulkner and Jules Furthman) of The Big Sleep can attest. Her Long Goodbye ending, so beloved by Altman, includes an act of violence that seems out of character for Marlowe. Is it only a dream?
* * *
Set in and around Los Angeles, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye begins in the fall of 1949 with a chance meeting between private detective Philip Marlowe and a self-destructive lush named Terry Lennox.
The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.
There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile. It didn’t quite. Nothing can.1
The “girl” is Terry’s wife, Sylvia. Saying she’s “terribly late” for an appointment, she entrusts Terry to Marlowe and drives off in the Rolls up Sunset Boulevard. Marlowe and Terry eventually become friends. When sober, Terry is bright, but it’s still a lopsided friendship. The parking lot attendant notes the “plastic job” on Terry’s scarred face. He’s scarred physically and emotionally, probably by the war. When Sylvia leaves, Terry hits the bottle even harder. He opens up to Marlowe as much as a man of that era could. Sylvia is wealthy enough to appear in the society pages, and they live well on her income. Some would find that a good deal, a life of golf, tennis, and hangovers, but it adds to Terry’s troubles. Months later, Marlowe reads in a gossip column they’ve reconciled. In Robert Altman’s 1973 film, the names remain but not the pathos of the damaged veteran.
Star for an Uptight Age
Diverging radically from Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe, Altman cast Elliott Gould, the Sept 7, 1970 Time magazine’s “Star for an Uptight Age.” At the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival screening of The Long Goodbye, Gould told Ben Mankiewicz, “[Executive Producer] Elliott Kastner and [Producer] Jerry Bick were trying to get Robert Altman. He wasn’t interested until somebody said, ‘What about Elliott Gould as Marlowe?’ and he says, ‘Okay, now I’m ready to have this conversation.’”2
Gould’s agent had sent him the adaptation by Leigh Brackett (Rio Bravo , The Empire Strikes Back [1980)]). “I read the script and it was a pastiche, more like an old-fashioned genre picture,” said Gould. Howard Hawks turned it down. Director Brian G. Hutton had what Brackett called “a brilliant idea that just didn’t work.” Hutton dropped out and made Night Watch (1973) with Elizabeth Taylor, instead.
Peter Bogdanovich was attached but couldn’t see Gould, who “always wanted to play this guy,” in the part. When Altman came aboard, the director assured him, saying, “You are this guy.” “And that was the beginning of the picture,” said Gould. “Me playing this guy and Bob giving him to me and letting me invent with Bob was pretty amazing.”
In a profile of Brackett and The Long Goodbye, Cinephilia and Beyond describes how she began her career writing for science fiction pulp magazines in 1939. Her Chandleresque mystery novel No Good from a Corpse came to the attention of Hawks, who was looking for someone to adapt Chandler’s The Big Sleep. He told his assistant to “call this guy Brackett.” That led to her writing the screenplay with William Faulkner. The future Nobel Prize winner rarely left his office and insisted they adapt alternate chapters of the book.3
A Nostalgic Feeling
Though a very different Marlowe from Bogart, Gould does play a period character, of sorts. Altman envisioned the detective falling asleep in 1950 and awakening in the early 1970s. Marlowe’s postwar values are intact even as the afterglow of psychedelia swirls around him. Gould doesn’t wear a fedora, though he did shave off his Sergeant Pepper mustache and assumes a rumpled look that would fit in any era. After seeing the movie in a Charlottesville revival house as a teen, actor and author Duke Haney donned “a hand-me-down suit for a week in homage” to “Gould’s disheveled performance.”4 The “Rod Serling as undertaker” look lacked the “hip” factor in the early seventies but became “cool” again later in the decade with dark-suited, “skinny tie” new wave bands.
As the film begins, Marlowe has fallen asleep in bed, fully clothed. His pampered cat wakes him up. This sends Marlowe out of the house for “Coury brand cat food,” past half-naked females practicing modern dance on their deck. “I call them the New Rockettes,” he quips. “They just don’t have tap shoes, yet.” He kindly agrees to buy them a box or two of brownie mix, presumably for the Alice B. Toklas recipe (I Love You, Alice B. Toklas ). At the market as a Muzak version of the theme plays, a young black man working there asks, “What I need a cat for? I got a girl.” Marlowe mutters under his breath on the absurdity of each situation, even when he’s being brutalized.
The meandering that Gould saw in the script survived to the screen. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera follows Marlowe as he navigates the city. The observational style has an immediacy that feels much different from a studio-era movie with conventional camera setups. Altman wanted to maximize Southern California’s natural light even with its inherent limitations. What also gives the film its distinctive look is the use of post-flashing. In his High-Def Digest online review, Joshua Zyber writes:
In an attempt to evoke a hazy, nostalgic feeling, [Altman and Zsigmond] used a technique known as post-flashing to expose excess light onto the film frame. That gave the picture muted colors and soft, washed-out contrasts. Experiments like this were very common in the 1970s, when filmmakers sought to make their movies less pretty as a reaction against the classical Hollywood style.5
The score by John Williams also contributes to the “nostalgic feeling.” A disparate group of performers sing or play the elegiac theme song, by Williams and Johnny Mercer, in different contexts throughout the movie. After he’s released, Marlowe walks into a cocktail lounge. The pianist (Jack Riley) is working through a new tune, “The Long Goodbye.” At the bar, Marlowe dials a potential client. When he visits her, even the doorbell chimes out the first few notes.
Jim Bouton and Mark Rydell
Baseball’s Jim Bouton is surprisingly good as Terry Lennox. The falling-down drunk of the novel is now a shaggy-haired jock. We’re introduced to him in the opening credit sequence leaving the Malibu Colony in a Jaguar sedan. There’s a recurring bit with the Colony station guard (Ken Sansom) who does movie star impressions. The power dynamic in the novel of Marlowe constantly propping up Terry is abandoned. Instead, they’re equals, but the screen version of Terry also needs a favor when he gets in a jam. As in the book, the favor involves a ride down to Tijuana. Chandler writes:
The gun wasn’t pointed at me, he was just holding it. It was a medium-caliber automatic, foreign made, certainly not a Colt or a Savage. With the white tired face and the scars and the turned-up collar and the pulled-down hat and the gun he could have stepped right out of an old-fashioned kick-em-in-the-teeth gangster movie.
“You’re driving me to Tijuana to get a plane at ten fifteen,” he said. “I have a passport and visa and I’m all set except for transportation. For certain reasons I can’t take a train or a bus or a plane from L.A. Would five hundred bucks be a reasonable taxi fare?”6
It’s the first time in the novel Terry has shown aggressive tendencies. Marlowe at first tries to downplay the moment. The shock of seeing the gun eventually sinks in, and he tiptoes around his formerly helpless friend before their drive south. In the movie, Terry shows up with his chiseled face bruised, makes some small talk, and says, clutching a packed bag, “There’s a lot of people looking for me as a result of my lovely wife.” The drive to the Mexican border, in Marlowe’s vintage convertible, is compressed from the book into a brief sequence. When Marlowe gets back to town, the police are snooping around his apartment and bring him downtown on trumped-up charges with the threat of naming him an accessory in the murder of Sylvia Lennox. The LAPD’s dislike of private eyes, familiar from Chinatown (1974), extends from the plainclothes boys who make the arrest up the chain of command. Filmed at LA’s Lincoln Heights jail, the camera tracks Marlowe as he’s fingerprinted, interrogated, and shares a cell with Socrates Dave (David Carradine – pictured), who’s talking nonstop in a top bunk. In the novel, Marlowe draws a distinction between jail and prison, concluding, “A good jail is one of the quietest places in the world.” By 1973, the jails were overcrowded and as violent as prison.
Just as characters recur in odd places in a dream, the grocery clerk from the opening scene (Rodney Moss) also shows up in handcuffs, for hitting a cop. “How’s your girl?” asks Marlowe. The kid replies, “She got busted at a protest rally. I busted the pig who busted her.” He inquires about Marlowe’s cat. It’s a brief aside that pays off on their earlier exchange and hints at the political climate.
The cops release Marlowe when Terry is reported dead. He doesn’t believe his friend would have killed himself. A gangster named Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), called Mendy Menendez in the novel, wants Marlowe to square one of Terry’s debts. In an early, uncredited role, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a hulking goon with a baby face. Marty is a psychopath who viciously assaults his own delicate-looking girlfriend (Jo Ann Brody) to show Marlowe he means business. In a decade filled with gratuitous movie violence, it’s one of the 1970s’ most shocking moments. The Academy Award-nominated director of On Golden Pond (1981), Rydell is riveting.
Sterling Hayden and Nina van Pallandt
Another mystery in both book and film involves the disappearance of Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), an alcoholic writer. A leading man from the studio era, Hayden was a late replacement but adds gravitas. The novel has Roger’s home in Idle Valley, an unspoiled part of what’s likely the San Fernando Valley. In the film, Roger lives in Malibu and is married to a beautiful blonde named Eileen (Nina van Pallandt). Coincidentally, they’re neighbors of Terry Lennox. Eileen puts Marlowe on the case. “He feels he’s finished as a writer. He sits down and stares at the paper and nothing happens. I don’t know what to do. He really needs help,” she says.
Marlowe responds, “If you think your husband’s suicidal, he needs some Freudian analysis or primal scream or (I need a cigarette myself), but I’m not qualified for anything like that.”
Instead of a studio-pleasing choice like Faye Dunaway or Dyan Cannon, Altman cast van Pallandt (American Gigolo ). As Mankiewicz noted in the TCM Classic Film Festival interview, “She was famous at the time for being Clifford Irving’s mistress, and he was currently in jail for faking the Howard Hughes biography. There was a bevy of beautiful women to put in that part, but [Altman] saw something different in her.” Altman had seen her on talk shows and thought the tabloid vixen would be perfect. His instincts were correct. Eileen is both California girl and aristocrat. With her British inflection, Baroness van Pallandt was uniquely suited for the part, a throwback to the “classy dame.”
Marlowe finds Roger in a private sanitarium run by a quack named Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson). He’s a composite of two doctors in the book. It’s amusing to watch the 5’ 3” Gibson, an Altman regular, dominating the 6’ 5” Hayden. A frequent guest on The Tom Snyder Show, Hayden was candid about his struggles with alcohol and his capitulation to the Hollywood blacklist. All of that conflict shows up in the character. Roger appears resigned one moment and ready to explode the next. Aided by Marlowe, Roger returns home. Marlowe becomes part of the Wades’ inner circle. There’s a remarkable exchange over drinks at the beach house between Marlowe and the philosophical Roger. Verringer’s “cure” didn’t take, however, and Roger struggles. As Roger walks into the surf distraught, Marlowe tries to save him. Changing Roger’s method of apparent suicide from the novel’s bullet in the head to drowning fits with the Malibu location and sets up the spectacular rescue attempt.
Continuing his interview with Mankiewicz, Gould recalled his first meeting with Sterling Hayden that happened in the beach house, exclaiming, “I loved Sterling Hayden!” Then, remembering the scene where he tries to save Roger, he continued:
I almost drowned. I literally almost drowned. When we run down to the ocean, we stopped and waited for high tide and my character had to run in to make it look like he was going to try to save the writer. I take my tie off. I got into the ocean at high tide. I couldn’t quite touch the bottom. I lost control and I looked out, there were lights and people on the beach and they looked like little bees and I thought, “Elliott don’t go down. You can’t go down, there’s no one there to bring you back up.” I was able to get myself out and it was very frightening.
Adaptations and Film Noir
Altman admitted never finishing the novel and saw no need to remain faithful to it. For that reason, the movie wasn’t well received by Chandler fans. Most didn’t appreciate the ending, something Altman made part of his agreement with the producers. Brackett’s plotting is dense, as anyone who’s tried to decipher her adaptation (with Faulkner and Jules Furthman) of The Big Sleep can attest. Her Long Goodbye ending, so beloved by Altman, includes an act of violence that seems out of character for Marlowe. Is it only a dream? The novel’s slow fade-out isn’t as flashy but leaves one just as satisfied.
The novel had been adapted before, on live television, for an episode of Climax! (1954). Dick Powell reprised Marlowe, the role he first played in Murder, My Sweet (1944). Tom Drake as Terry Lennox and Teresa Wright as Eileen Wade co-starred. That version, depicted on the cover of TV Guide, would be worth seeking out not only for the cast but to see how much of the book made it past the censors onto the small screen.
In Altman’s film, Gould’s Marlowe has a weariness, a sadness and longing in his eyes. We see it when he looks at van Pallandt’s Eileen, struggling to maintain his professional distance. He isn’t the Marlowe in the novel. That Marlowe, who often reveals his erudition and sensitivity, can also be a brute and a racist bully. As Ben Mankiewicz put it: “The guy you played is not the guy you played. It’s odd to me that you wanted to play Marlowe because what you did with Marlowe is unlike anyone who played him before or after.”
Gould responded, “To me, it’s like a jazz piece. It’s so different and even to this day, I’m gratified and pleased that it still holds up.” Altman gave Gould the freedom to create, letting him riff like a jazz musician within the confines of the script. Gould’s inventiveness is astonishing, the sarcastic blackface impression of Al Jolson after being fingerprinted is one of the off-the-cuff bits he came up with. Altman’s characteristic overlapping dialogue, as difficult to script as a jazz solo is to notate, adds to the feeling of improvisation. Making the case for the film as a progenitor of the noir revival, Danilo Castro writes:
Altman and Brackett threw out huge chunks of the Chandler novel, preferring to let the momentum of the actors propel the film, rather than the narrative. . . . Altman’s instincts as a director, his ability to coerce memorable improvisation from his cast, elevate the film beyond the simple trappings of a film noir. It’s the eccentricity, and not the explanation, that lasts. . . . Despite its lukewarm release, The Long Goodbye has gone on to inspire a legion of directors to approach film noir on their own terms. Its iconography is evident in the opening scene of The Big Lebowski and its rambling narrative served as the blueprint for Inherent Vice. Where these films created characters to adhere to their irregular style, however, Altman and Gould had the audacity to do it with the genre’s most famous detective. That they make it work is nothing short of a miracle.7
The Glare of the City
Speaking to Kim Morgan,8 Gould said he thinks of The Long Goodbye as “the first picture for me,” though his screen career began a decade earlier. In the interview, he spoke of Bogart as “perfection” and recalled listening to Raymond Chandler’s novels on tape preparing for the role. About his take on Marlowe, he told her “This guy, he’s a unique character. There’s no ego there.”
Morgan replied, “No, and it’s not a stereotypical type of masculinity either.” Besides Gould’s other idiosyncrasies, that non-stereotypical masculinity sets Gould’s Marlowe apart, from Bogart and Powell and the guy in the books.
Crime writer Megan Abbott argues that Chandler’s novels “speak to our current climate,” and in the alienated Marlowe, we can better “understand toxic white masculinity.”
If most noir novels foreground direct physical confrontations with the other – be it through sex or violence – Chandler’s exhibit a profound discomfort for body-to-body contact. Marlowe is nearly celibate, avoids carrying a gun. . . . His isolation from others is profound. Forever unattached and seemingly friendless, he feels increasingly out of place in a changing Los Angeles. By the later novels, he even relocates from downtown apartments to a rental home in the Hollywood Hills. . . . Alone, he broods, his loneliness curdling into resentment, even rage. His disaffection puts him on a continuum with Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver ) and other more dangerous self-imagined knights in urban wildernesses.9
Marlowe is implicated in Wade’s death, interrogated at the sheriff’s station and released. Chandler’s hard-bitten shamus claims to feel nothing, though it’s evident he’s feeling quite a lot.
When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of the traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. . . . Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. . . . I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.10
* * *
Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the DVD/Blu-ray.
- Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Vintage Books, 1992), 3. [↩]
- 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, The Long Goodbye post-screening interview of Elliott Gould by Ben Mankiewicz. [↩]
- “Leigh Brackett: A Terrific Writer Ahead of Her Time Just as She Was Ahead of Her Colleagues.” Cinephilia and Beyond.org. https://cinephiliabeyond.org/leigh-brackett-terrific-writer-ahead-time-just-ahead-colleagues/ [↩]
- Duke Haney, Death Valley Superstars (Los Angeles: Delancey Street Press, 2018), 16. [↩]
- Zyber, Joshua. “The Long Goodbye.” High-Def digest.com. https://bluray.highdefdigest.com/13003/thelonggoodbye.html [↩]
- Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, 26. [↩]
- Castro, Danilo, “The Long Goodbye (1973),” Classic Movie Hub Blog, http://www.classicmoviehub.com/blog/film-noir-review-the-long-goodbye-1973/ [↩]
- Morgan, Kim. “Elliott Gould: The Long Goodbye.” Thenewbev.com http://thenewbev.com/blog/2019/01/elliott-gould-the-long-goodbye/ [↩]
- Abbott, Megan. “The Big Seep: Reading Raymond Chandler in the age of #MeToo.” slate.com. https://slate.com/culture/2018/07/raymond-chandler-in-the-age-of-metoo.html [↩]
- Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, 273-274. [↩]