Classic Noir: The Long Goodbye (1973)
I read the novel so long ago (back in my L. A. days so looooong ago) I could only remember the basics of the story. There were probably more of them in the original script by the legend Leigh Brackett, but Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking always left room for improvisation and Elliott Gould—unlikely to be most director’s ideal choice to play Phillip Marlowe—works well here.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen this film that likewise memory proves unreliable. So much has changed in the mean time, too. I’ve been soaking in noir and neo-noir for so long now it’s altered my view on the genre, mostly to be much more accommodating. I dug out my vintage paperback to read later and sat down on a sunny Saturday afternoon to visit 1973 Los Angeles with Elliot Gould and co and Vilmos Zsigmond’s singular cinematography.
The ginger cat is the one thing everybody remembers. I should write a book about ginger cats in noir. You can’t cheat a cat. Chandler loved cats. The scene feels genuine to any cat lover: having fallen asleep in his clothes, Marlowe is awakened by the moggy landing on his belly. Ouch. He has no choice but to drag himself out at 3am in his 1948 Lincoln convertible to the 24 hour food store. The car is a nice touch, signaling Marlowe a throwback to another time, Chandler’s idea of the P.I. as a kind of knight with a code.
Then there’s the candle dippers next door. The topless women would feel more gratuitous if they didn’t have a totally believable and completely natural hippy languor. Asking Marlowe to pick up boxes of brownie mix and doing elaborate yoga poses on the balcony at night. The iconic High Tower provides an unforgettable location for Marlowe’s home, outdone only by the Malibu Colony. Apparently the Ward’s house was the one Altman was living in at the time.
Nina van Pallandt embodies the concerned wife with just enough difference from the mostly Californian cast to make her thinking seem mysterious but believable. Sterling Hayden is a legend and manages to uphold that without chewing scenery which would be easy to do in the role of the writer who can no longer write, who is drunk and angry with the world, not necessarily in that order. Allegedly inspired by Chandler’s own struggles as his wife was dying. Ward’s death is changed from the novel and pays off much better, especially in how it affects Marlowe, who develops a fondness for the difficult man. The drinking scene with Hayden and Gould was largely improvised and has an authentic feel.
Henry Gibson, best known at the time as a gentle poet on Laugh-In, is super creepy and menacing in a really unsettling way as the dry-out doctor trying to extort money from Wade.
Jim Bouton, better known for baseball and even more so for his tell-all memoir Ball Four about that career, makes his film debut as the pal asking Marlowe for a lift to Mexico with some suspicious injuries including a clawed face.
What feels most 70s about this movie is the cops. Well, not that they’ve changed much in L.A. according to my friends who still live there. That gritty, don’t care about anything attitude and the clothes—those awful seventies clothes that modern films never quite get right—they provide a good target for Marlowe’s dogged resistance. The ink interrogation scene is another improvised scene.
I had to look it up, but yeah, there’s a portrait of Leonard Cohen in the Ward’s house because Altman was a fan. Speaking of fans, I love the gatekeeper at the Colony and his impressions of the stars.
A cool thing: except for ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ that opens and closes the film, all the other music is variations of the theme tune by Johnny Mercer and John Williams—even the dirge played in the scenes in Mexico. It’s a great thematic device that gives the picture aural coherence.
The changed ending is often credited to Altman, but it was part of Brackett’s original script which was shopped around for some years before finally coming together with this unexpected group of talents. It works. The final scene is almost an inverse of The Third Man’s iconic ending, with a harmonica in place of the jaunty zither.
Well worth a revisit if it’s been a while for you, too. If you’ve not seen it, a treat awaits. Bonus: here’s a great interview with Gould by Kim Morgan.