As I've said in other reviews, many of Robert Altman's films begin by thrusting us into the middle of a complex story and letting us figure out characters and plots and motivations (and even names) as best we can. The Long Goodbye is the opposite of that. From the beginning, it's clear that this will be a story focused primarily on one man. We first see Philip Marlowe asleep, alone, lying on his bed in his clothes (a whole essay could be written about movie characters who sleep in their clothes), being awakened by his cat. The cat is hungry, but it will only eat one specific brand and flavor of cat food.
Marlowe mumbles and grumbles and lights a cigarette by striking a kitchen match on the wall. From the state of the wall, this is obviously not the first time, and throughout the movie Marlowe will light his matches on any available surface. He doesn't have his cat's preferred brand of cat food, and so, talking to himself all the time, he goes out to buy some, even though it's the middle of the night.
As he leaves the building, he talks with the spaced-out girls who live across the way from him, promising to buy them some brownie mix. He knows why they want brownie mix at three in the morning (two boxes), but as he says, "It's okay with me," which is his mantra throughout the film. One of the girls tells him that he's the nicest neighbor they've ever had, and he mutters to himself as he leaves, "I've got to be the nicest neighbor, I'm a private eye. It's okay with me."
So, in a brief (less than four minutes) and desultory scene, we've learned quite a bit. Altman, when he wants to, can convey a lot of information very economically, without that awkward feeling that comes from raw exposition being forced on the audience just to get it out of the way.
The point is made quite a bit, especially early in the movie, how out of step Marlowe is with the times. The movie is set in the 1970s, but Marlowe seems (in some ways) to be living in the 1940s. He wears an old-fashioned black suit, a white shirt and a skinny tie, he smokes unfiltered cigarettes and he drives a 1940s car. This point is frequently overemphasized in reviews and essays, however, as if he has stepped right out of The Big Sleep or Murder My Sweet.
If that was what Altman wanted to do, he would have cast Robert Mitchum. The studio tried to get him to use Mitchum, but Altman resisted. He wanted Elliott Gould, and there was a very good reason. Gould may have the suit, the cigarettes and the car, but he doesn't wear a fedora, or a trench coat, his hair is too long and curly, and his demeanor is anything but grim. In short, he is Elliott Gould, an actor very much of the 1970s, not Bogart or Powell or Mitchum, and that's the point.
Robert Altman has said that he took Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and stripped away all the phony hero attributes, making Marlowe the loser that a guy like that would be in the real world, without the all-powerful author looking out for him. Marlowe does a favor for a friend, driving his old buddy Terry Lennox down to Tijuana in the middle of the night, but there's no reward, not in money or in honor or in gratitude. He acts like he knows what's going on, but everybody else, including the cops, always knows more than he does. He gets the crap beaten out of him and it never does him any good (and he never gets to even the score later on). He never gets the girl (any girl).
Marlowe's sense of honor is contrasted with other characters time and again. They are all either brutal or dishonest, and he is never either. Marlowe is lied to by Dr. Verringer (who denies he even is Dr. Verringer), by his friend Terry Lennox, and by his client Eileen Wade.
Roger Wade, the famous writer that Marlowe has been hired to find, is a sympathetic character, and mostly (though not entirely) honest, but he's also a bully. He uses his size and his thundering voice to intimidate his wife and his friends. He tries to use them to bully the diminutive Dr. Verringer, but when Verringer won't back down (and even slaps him), he gives in meekly, since he doesn't have anything else left but bluster.
The most alarming scene is with Marty Augustine, the hoodlum who thinks Marlowe worked with Terry Lennox to steal his money. Augustine softly praises his girlfriend's beauty in front of Marlowe, only to slash her face a second later with a broken bottle, turning to Marlowe with the grim reminder that, "That's someone I love, and you I don't even like."
This is the most shocking moment in the movie. Marlowe's "It's okay with me" facade slips, and even some of Augustine's goons are stunned. But Marlowe quickly recovers his poise, and it's obvious that his attitude and his clothes and so on are his armor against a very brutal world. When Roger Wade tells him to "take that Goddamn J.C. Penney tie off and let's have a good, old-fashioned man-to-man drinking party," Marlow agrees immediately to the drinks and the conversation, but he won't remove his tie.
It reminded me of Strange Days, where Max teases Lenny Nero about his fancy wardrobe, and Lenny said, "that's all that stands between me and the jungle." And later, when Mase says that, no matter what filth he moves through, Lenny never lets it touch him, that he just remains the same goofball romantic, he replies, "it's my sword and my shield, Masey."
But, ultimately, despite everything, Marlowe does triumph. He does solve the mystery, and in the end he does reassert his value system. By his standards, he wins, though he has to spend $5,000 to do it. The last shot of the movie recalls the end of The Third Man, where Anna rejects pulp writer Holly Martins for allowing Harry Lime (his friend and her lover) to be killed. Harry Lime deserved it, but that's not the point. The point is that Holly put honor above friendship, and that's why she rejects him. Holly, clueless as ever, thought it might be otherwise.
At the end of The Long Goodbye, Marlowe has chosen honor above friendship, but he's not worried about Eileen Wade's reaction as she drives past him on that long, straight road, since he knows he did the right thing. And again, his demeanor is far from the grim detective of the 1940s, as he cavorts down the road playing his tiny harmonica.
Altman's best endings often put a smart spin on traditional Hollywood formulas. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, John McCabe actually defeats all three hired killers, like a real Western hero, but then he succumbs to his injuries and dies in the snow, alone and unnoticed. At the end of Kansas City, quite a few of our assumptions are overturned pretty abruptly. Who is the dreamer and who is the realist, who has the power of life and death over who, and so on. (In addition, it probably won't ever be possible to take the phrase, "I can't live without you!" completely seriously again.)
I should mention that, perhaps more than any other Robert Altman movie, The Long Goodbye shows the director's ability to get first-rate performances from people who aren't even known as actors. In this movie, the ensemble consists of a good actor, a great actor, a former baseball player, a movie director, a regular from "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," and a woman best known as the mistress of a world-famous scam artist. And still, every performance is good, and most of them are great.
Also, this is one of the two best-looking movies Altman ever made (along with McCabe & Mrs. Miller), probably because those are the two times he worked with award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.* This is clear on video, but far more so on the big screen, of course.
Two scenes are particularly striking. The first is a conversation between Roger and Eileen Wade, after Marlowe has brought the writer home from Dr. Verringer's clinic. They are talking in Roger's studio and we see them first through the big glass doors, but we also see Marlowe's reflection in the glass, playing tag with the waves on the beach. And then, as the conversation between husband and wife intensifies, the camera moves into the room, and Marlowe is excluded (the only significant sequence in the movie which doesn't include him, as a matter of fact).
This scene is echoed later on in the film when Roger is passed out drunk after throwing all the party guests out of the house. Eileen persuades Marlowe to stay to eat dinner with her (this is the scene where, if this were a conventional detective movie, they'd end up in bed together). We see them eating, and between them is the window through which we can see the white smudge which is Roger Wade wandering out into the ocean. Then, we see Eileen and Marlowe from outside the window, their conversation no longer audible, and we see her reaction as she sees that her husband is drowning himself.
Both scenes are visually stunning, but the whole film is wonderful to look at.
* Vilmos Zsigmond has worked on way too many films to list here (the internet movie database lists 65) but it is worth mentioning that he was the cinematographer on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Deliverance, The Sugarland Express, The Last Waltz, The Deer Hunter and The Two Jakes.
Oh, and also on The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1963).
The Long Goodbye
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Leigh Brackett
Philip Marlowe : Elliott Gould
Eileen Wade : Nina van Pallandt
Roger Wade : Sterling Hayden
Marty Augustine : Mark Rydell
Dr. Verringer : Henry Gibson
Terry Lennox : Jim Bouton