Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
It’s no secret that I really like a good film noir, and so it comes as no surprise that I enjoy neo-noir as well. Hell, I watched Blue Velvet yesterday and I made no bones about the fact that I like that film quite a bit. But it was a film I’d seen before multiple times, so I knew what was coming. One of the real joys of a good film noir is when I don’t know all the twists and turns of it, when what’s coming shows up as a surprise. The Long Goodbye is a film I had heard of, but had never seen before today—and today was the perfect day for it. For an American film fan, there’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July than by watching a film in the most American of styles.
And this is a noir, based on a book from the mid-1950s by author Raymond Chandler and featuring his great gumshoe Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould). Like most noirs, it starts out as something relatively straightforward, even simple, and adds complexity at every turn. Marlowe, who lives across from an apartment filled with young, mostly nude and nubile women, gets a visit from his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Terry says that he’s having trouble with his wife, and needs a ride down to Mexico. Having nothing better to do, Marlowe takes him.
And then things get hairy. It turns out that Terry Lennox’s wife has been murdered, and Terry himself has committed suicide in Mexico. The police are certain that Lennox killed his wife thanks to the suicide note, but Marlowe isn’t buying it. He spends a good three nights in jail to protect his friend until his friend turns up dead, and Marlowe is released. This brings him some press, which gets him embroiled in a few other plots.
The main one is his hire by a woman named Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her husband, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden). Roger Wade is a well-known author who (as per tradition) has a severe drinking problem and who frequently needs to dry out. This time, though, he’s left only a cryptic message and he’s not at his typical drying-out spot. Marlowe begins investigating and finds Roger Wade at a private hospital run by Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson), who seems pretty shady himself and more concerned with getting his fee than with treating his patients. Marlowe also encounters the criminal Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell).
Augustine is his own problem. His claim is that Lennox ran off to Mexico with $355,000 of his money and then killed himself without putting the money where it needed to go. He’s convinced that Marlowe knows where the money is, and emphasizes this point in a surprising and brutal way. So, while Marlowe needs to figure out what’s going on with Roger Wade, he also needs to find the missing money. Things heat up when he discovers a connection between the Wade’s, Terry Lennox, and Marty Augustine.
The Long Goodbye is a fascinating version of film noir because it is a noir only on the surface. It is absolutely convoluted enough for a typical noir, but the complexity of the story is made up of a series of blind alleys and red herrings. The actual crime at the center of the film is, bucking noir tradition, ridiculously simple. The various crimes and problems that crop up throughout the film are all related in that they have the same cast of characters, but each one is completely distinct. This is not so much a Venn diagram as a series of connected points. The straight path from the crime at the start to its resolution at the end would take only about a quarter of the film’s running time, but the side paths and additional problems are necessary for Marlowe to get there.
Elliott Gould is an inspired piece of casting. He looks completely out of place in the film, and since he is a character created 20 years before, he doesn’t belong in early 1970s California. While his neighbors go mostly nude, Marlowe is rarely seen without a tie. In a society of physical beauty, he’s always unshaven. He’s the only character in the entire film who smokes, and he does so constantly, lighting his matches on any available surface. Marlowe walks through the film as a dark blot, mumbling one-liners to himself and getting in the way of everyone else. On its face, Gould doesn’t seem like the type to play a hard-boiled detective, but he works it perfectly. Marlowe is one of those characters who is simply entertaining for who and what he is, and with the wrong emphasis, he’d be ridiculous. Instead, he’s incredibly fun to watch.
Nina Van Pallandt, on the other hand, is pretty in that early 1970s blonde beach baby way, sunburned, freckled, and mildly boyish. Sterling Hayden’s performance is an interesting one, as he plays Wade as the natural son of Ernest Hemingway.
Altman is also a very smart director and lets his camera do a lot of the work for him in this film. Instead of quick cuts and sudden movements, the camera is almost languid, holding position in interesting spots for a long time. We witness an argument between Eileen and Roger Wade from their patio. They are inside, but the camera shows them through the sliding door, allowing us to see Marlowe outside, waiting to be summoned in. Throughout, Altman allows the story to unfold in front of us rather than forcing us into it.
As a final note, one of Marty Augustine’s goons is played by an uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger. It doesn’t really look like him until you really look, and then you can’t stop seeing it.
The Long Goodbye is entirely entertaining even if it’s just a long goof. Ultimately, the conclusion we get is a bit unsatisfying, but the path we take to get there is entertaining indeed.
Why to watch The Long Goodbye: It’s film noir updated the way it should be.
Why not to watch: The story is straightforward. Where it’s not, it’s there just to mess with you.