The Long Goodbye
by Del Harvey
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Directed by maverick filmmaker Robert Altman, The Long Goodbye recieved disappointing attention upon initial release. Updated for the 70’s, the film features top star Elliott Gould as a shambling, world-weary Philip Marlowe, whose only semblance of a case is determining what has happened to his good friend Terry Lenox (former baseball star Jim Bouton). In Altman’s version, Marlowe seems resigned to being the reactionary, a direction which did not go down well with most critics at the time, especially since they were used to the “take-charge” attitudes of previous actors like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, and Robert Mitchum. Actually, Gould’s portrayal could not have been more perfect for the era. And Altman’s daring at updating an icon which was so firmly entrenched in 1940’s Los Angeles could not have been better crafted.
The 70’s are looked back upon with a fondness reserved for light-hearted, whimsical times. While there was certainly a “smiley-face” attribute to the era, there was also a great deal of social turmoil. Anti-war demonstrations, sexual awakening, revolutionary ideas, and the resultant delusion of an entire generation. During this period Elliott Gould’s work personified and paralleled the social constructs of the times (Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, M*A*S*H, Little Murders). In many ways his rumpled, sleepy-eyed portrayal could not have been more appropriate. In a recent interview with Film Monthly, Mr. Gould stated that it was director Robert Altman’s insistence that Marlowe was the only character in the film with a conscience. In this single, clear realization lies the simplest and most effective of character motivation factors. How can a man of conscience not act when so much foul and corruption is happening all around him? And that is the essence of Gould’s Marlowe in this updated version of Chandler’s classic detective story.
Altman had been enjoying the notoriety won from his growing fame as a “maverick” filmmaker. His work continues to reveal the flavor of the independent while offering new levels in terms of character and story, elevating his work to something I have best heard described as “visual literature.” His relationship with Gould would continue with M*A*S*H and California Split. Always the auteur, Altman is exceptional at his craft.
The script was originally written by Leigh Brackett, who had scripted such film classics as The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. Altman would change the script drastically in order to update the story and characters to best suit the much different 70’s.
The original music was by John Williams, composer of Star Wars, Jaws, and many other feature films. The Long Goodbye is unique in that it features the title song, almost the only song heard in the film, played in a broad variety of styles in the background. The one song that is different is the child’s tune played on the harmonica by Elliott Gould at the end of the film, right after shooting someone.
Cinematography was by Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Deer Hunter, and many others). He captures the at once bright and hazy Los Angeles of the 70’s accurately.
Elliott Gould’s Marlowe has seen everything the world has to offer, and not much of it is pretty. It’s as though his Marlowe lived all that time from the 40’s to the 70’s, a witness to humankind’s failings, and he is worn out from simply having lived so long. He no longer finds truth a mystery, and longs for just a little justice.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He served time at The Directors Guild of America, The Walt Disney Co., and Lucasfilm. And he loved every minute.
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