Via Correspondence: The Long Goodbye (1973)
The Series: Isaac lives in New Brunswick. Jason lives in Toronto. Every so often, they watch a movie separately and then share their thoughts in a back-and-forth conversation here. It's the written equivalent of a movie discussion podcast.
The Movie: The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman's classic variation on Raymond Chandler's novel, is not the director's most well-known film. It stars Elliott Gould as private detective Philip Marlowe who gets tangled up in a murder that may or may not have been committed by a friend of his he drove to Tijuana. He tracks down a missing author (Sterling Hayden) on behalf of his wife (Nina Van Pallandt). Meanwhile, he's followed by mobsters who think he has money belonging to the mob boss. They all reveal to be interconnected the further Marlowe plows through.
Why This Movie? Until this movie, neither of us had actually seen the movie prior to the article. We decided to break this cycle, and will do so on occasion, and have one of us select a movie we knew the other hadn't seen. In this case, I (Jason) had seen The Long Goodbye multiple times. It's a beloved film for me and I wanted to light the fire under Isaac to give one of my favourites a whirl. The danger here is that he may not like it and our friendship would be over.
Jason: Tastes change over time. When I was younger, and for many years, I said Goodfellas was my favourite movie. The Big Lebowski later took that mantle. It's entirely possible that on a given night, if asked that question, I might now answer with The Long Goodbye. It's the rare movie that seems to evolve with multiple viewings. Every time I see it, I'm watching something new. The first viewing, and I hope you had a similar reaction, is a relaxed whirlwind of many different faces and personalities littering the screen. There's a mystery in the plot, and with so many angles it's easy to get swept up and be rapt with engagement.
But, I'd say the mystery really is secondary. Once it's all revealed, the real pleasures of this film come out. It works as plot delivery on a surface level - something Altman treated as secondary in his films - but the layers of atmosphere and setting are incredibly immersive. I'll stick to the opening for now. Marlowe wakes up, he's disheveled in bed but fully clothed. Who knows what led him to this. His cat is hungry and he has no cat food, certainly not the cat's preferred brand, and so begins his late-night jaunt to solve his first mystery. The interactions with the cat are amusing and real. His apartment is lived-in, the textures are abundant. Look closely in the bedroom and you see match-strikes staining the walls. This opening sequence perfectly introduces Marlowe and his mood and behaviour. He's a snarky, laid back man about to be in over his head. But, from that opening shot maybe it's not something he's unfamiliar with.
Okay, enough of that. I could talk about the opening sequence to The Long Goodbye alone for days. And now, cautiously, I throw it to you Isaac. What were your initial impressions of the film? I would never expect you to like it as much as I do (I consider it among my favourites, after all) but I am curious about your reaction. Don't sugarcoat it. Tell it to me straight.
Isaac: I know you've been anxiously awaiting my response to this movie. You've been trying to get me to watch it for a while now, and once we agreed to watch it for this column it still took me a while to get to it because I was trying to make my way through all of the Batman and Superman movies before the new one came out. But now I've finally watched it and the fate of our friendship will once and for all be decided.
And my honest, real deal, sugarless opinion is this: I really dug it.
As you know, I'm a fan of story. Character is equally important, but I need a good story to keep things afloat. I don't care for movies that focus on character development but never give the characters anything interesting to do. I don't want the story to feel like an afterthought. A recent-ish movie that comes to mind is American Hustle. I might enjoy some of the character moments but I'm largely disinterested with that kind of film. But then there are films that are all character, with the story somewhere in the background, that enthrall me because even though the story is secondary, it's a dynamite story. The Long Goodbye is that kind of movie.
Superficially, it's a lot of fun. I love the look of the thing, and although I've never thought of Elliot Gould as cool, he exudes it in spades. The barfly jazz soundtrack and the late-night L.A setting drew me in. I got a kick out of all the different ways they slipped in the theme song. Every time a character sang a tune or turned on the radio, it was a different version of the song. The film has a very pronounced style to it and it feels lazy and haphazard yet meticulous. There is something almost dreamlike about the lazy pace of it, but it's never so slow as to be boring. The scenes are so loose they almost don't feel like movie scenes, more like we're eavesdropping on these events and these people's private conversations.
I enjoyed everything about the movie, but it was Gould that really stood out to me. His performance is cool but it's also genuine. One thing that really surprised me was what a good person Phillip Marlowe is. He lives in the gutter and rubs elbows with sleaze, but he has a good heart, a true moral compass, even if it is coated in inches of cigarette tar. I haven't read any of the Marlowe books, but I've seen some of the old black and white Marlowe movies and I didn't remember him being such a softy. He loves animals, he's respectful to women, he has a strong sense of justice; he's not the anti-hero I was expecting. I could say this about most of the cast, but Gould especially delivered his dialogue so easy and naturally that it felt real. I never doubted that he was Phillip Marlowe.
Jason: Phew! Now that the worrying is out of the way, we can celebrate this thing. I've watched The Long Goodbye about four or five times, and one thing I never really considered is Marlowe as a softy. He's clearly the protagonist, but I never really thought of him as anything but just a cool, laid back, smart guy. You're right, though. He's definitely the most moral character in the film. Even when he arguably compromises these morals, it's possibly justifiable. It is a nice switch from the bulk of hard boiled detectives of 40s and 50s films, but if I recall correctly, this is closer to the Marlowe of the books than the Humphrey Bogart Marlowe from The Big Sleep. He was more of a smart aleck than gritty tough guy, and Gould fits that perfectly.
This seems to be a thing from 70s PI movies, which The Long Goodbye arguably started. This came a year before Chinatown, which is in a similar vein, though a fair bit more polished. But, both Marlowe and Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes are of similar make. Gittes may wear finely pressed suits, but he's grimy underneath. Gould's Marlowe just doesn't put up much of an effort to hide his. I love Chinatown as well - just watched it for the first time in over a decade - but the overall vibe of The Long Goodbye hits me in the sweet spot.
We seem to be in agreement in the little details that make up this movie. It feels purposely haphazard, like you said, and yet feels so damn authentic in spite of, or maybe because of, it. It's also incredibly funny. There are a ton of sequences I could mention, but the one I like most - besides the opening with the cat - involves Marlowe's interactions with Harry, Marty Augustine's henchman who is tagged with following Marlowe.
I love how casually Marlowe treats Harry. He hands him the address where he's heading and gives him surveillance tips. Combine this with the security guy who does impersonations of old movie stars. It's a great sequence because, while it has little impact on the main narrative, it helps make the movie feel more lived in. Yes, it meanders, but it's to the film's benefit and not its detraction. I agree, it's the perfect balance between character and story without the necessity of the plot smothering the life out of it. It's a delicate balance, but The Long Goodbye also never sacrifices its forward momentum.
Despite the humour, there is a definitive darkness that rears its head often. The gangster, Marty Augustine, is a violent psychopath. Terry Lennox, Marlowe's friend he helps get to Mexico, is on the run for possibly brutally murdering his wife. That Altman and his team could weave the tones of this movie through both its drama and its humour is really impressive and it never fully skews in one direction or the other. Chinatown has humour, but it's far more of a drama. The Big Lebowski has the occasional dramatic moment, but that is a screwball comedy dressed with neo-noir P.I. trappings. The Long Goodbye works as both, equally.
I could talk favourite moments or lines all day long - "I don't want to take my clothes off, I have too many scars" - but I want to throw it back to you. What moments stood out most for you? It is very much a collection of great individual scenes, and like most P.I. movies, there are many tertiary characters flitting in and out of the film, but it all somehow ties together in the end.
Isaac: There were a lot of great moments, and although the whole is satisfying, you're right that it's the little moments that make this film. I liked the ones you brought up. The film is full of hilarious little interactions. Marlowe has such an interesting dynamic with everyone he talks to. The character's reactions to him are ever changing, but Marlowe seems to treat everyone the same way, with a strange mixture of compassion and detached amusement.
Even though he's more famous for that detached cool, I really feel like compassion is the driving force of Marlowe's character. He has a good heart even though he's a wrong-side-of-the-tracks kind of guy. Even the most immoral act he commits in the film (at the end) comes from a place of emotion. The real reason he's following the murder case at all isn't because of the money or his interest in Eileen Wade. Ultimately, it's because he knows something is fishy, it involves his friend, and getting to the bottom of it is the right thing to do. Even when Marlowe gets shitfaced drunk, and his true self should be amplified, he's a cauldron of anger over the injustices being committed around him. I declare this version of Phillip Marlowe to be the biggest softy I've seen in the film noir genre.
He's also the only guy in the film who isn't a drooling, ogling creep around the free spirited women who live in the apartment across from his. He speaks to them in the same casual, half interested manner he does with anyone. Even when they're standing on the balcony working on their pantsless yoga.
I also enjoyed the way there was a bit of real world horror thrown in with the levity. It helped make the stakes feel sky high even though the pace was so laid back. The violence is often brutal. We're not talking Tarantino levels or anything, but when death is dealt with, it's portrayed realistically. Even the crime scene photos Marlowe is shown during an interrogation are disturbing. This is a world where violence hurts. It has consequences. It's messy.
The scene that portrays this duality with the most punch, the scene that floored me the most, disturbed me the most, and stuck with me the most after the fact is the scene where Marlowe's smart-aleck attitude gets him in serious trouble. Marty Augustine - a dangerous, deranged gangster who Marlowe taunts in spite of all that - wants the money that Marlowe's friend Lennox owes him. He's sure Marlowe has it or knows where it is, so he has his henchmen (including a fresh-faced Arnold Schwarzenegger) shakedown Marlowe's apartment. They are interrupted by Augustine's mistress. She's thirsty and wants a Coke. He ushers her in the apartment, sits her down near Marlowe. One of Augustine's henchmen brings him the only bottle of Coke Marlowe has, it's 2/3rds empty and flat. Augustine drinks it and then compliments his mistress's magazine model face. He tells her how much he loves her, how much more special she is than the rest of his mistresses. She's not the only one, he sleeps with all kinds of women, but she's the only one he actually loves. And then, swinging with all of his strength, he breaks the Coke bottle across her face. She screams in agony, hits the floor, and covers the wound with her hands, but we can already see the blood beginning to pool underneath. It's shown in such detail we can almost feel her pain. Up until this moment in the film we haven't seen anything remotely this shocking. When it happens, we're as stunned as Marlowe. Smacked by that realization that things are a little more serious than we thought. Even though we're observing a fun, breezy world there are sinister elements at work as well and they mean business.
Then, once his mistress is removed from the apartment, Augustine physically forces Marlowe to sit down. He leans in, pointing his finger at Marlowe's chest like the barrel of a gun, and says:
"That's someone I love. You, I don't even like."
My jaw was on the floor. It's horrifying. It's shocking. And it's played in this casual, almost uncinematic way. It's a fucking great moment.
Jason: That's a great scene. I think you nailed why this has quickly become one of the first movies I mention when someone asks me what my favourite movie is. It has an incredible amount of memorable, individual moments, but they're also strung together in a satisfying way. So many movies that try to mix and match tone, don't do so deftly. The Long Goodbye does it perfectly.
It's also a sign of a great movie when new things pop up. I know you have mentioned Marlowe's status as the only moral creature in a den of iniquity, but I never really considered that, somehow. There is so much to like and so much to see.
It's funny, we've barely even touched on Roger Wade, who is clearly an Ernest Hemingway stand-in. But here's a man who adds yet another layer to the film. He's the tortured artist who may be the cause of all his own pain. Sterling Hayden plays him in a way where he comes off simultaneously frightening, endearing, fun and despicable. It's a really strong performance. So is Nina van Pallandt's as Eileen Wade. She's a little more closed off, but that makes more sense as the film goes along. It's a lot subtler, and it balances Hayden's boisterous blowhard.
And I don't want to be the guy who purports the notion that "they sure don't make em like this anymore," because I'm not sure they ever did, but if this movie was made in today's Hollywood climate it wouldn't be nearly as successful. You'd probably have the glossiest tough guy with zero personality playing Marlowe. There'd probably be an explosion thrown in. There'd be added backstory explaining every single thing, ad nauseam. This is such a singular film that has many elements from other stories and styles, but is so distinct in its vision.
The Long Goodbye is successful because the story is fantastic, but also because it doesn't hold the audience's hand. Like Marlowe, we're dropped into this strange tale and just left to figure it out. There are no cue cards spelling it all out. It's not all that difficult to follow, mind you, but I appreciate that it doesn't go hog wild with exposition. Characters flit in and out of Marlowe's story and that's okay. It's like that moment early on when he's in the jailhouse and he sees the convenience store clerk from the beginning being hauled in. Little moments that don't need extra explanation but serve as filling the whole thing out.
Isaac: That's a big part of what makes it so compelling. This is a world that feels lived in. Like there are a million different stories going on beyond the slice that was caught on film. It made me think of the Coen Brothers in that respect. You get the sense that, even when the cameras aren't rolling, this world and these characters keep on living. Every character has a story that is hinted at but not revealed through reams of uninteresting back story. Rather than making things confusing, the lack of over explaining makes it feel alive.
I also enjoyed Pseudo Hemmingway. I could never quite tell what he thought of Marlowe. Their interactions are friendly but intense. It seemed Marlowe had a hard time figuring out where he stood with the man as well. And Marlowe's a guy whose business is nailing down the intentions of those around him, sorting through the truths and the lies. The central mystery isn't complicated but it is intriguing and it's often hard to figure out who is lying and who is on the level.
I've never watched an Altman film before. I've seen bits and pieces of Mash and Popeye over the years but never sat through one in its entirety. Knowing what I did about him (he treats the story as secondary, he lets his actors talk over each other, is committed to realism over all else) I figured I wouldn't care much for his stuff. I love classic film noir but, honestly, I wasn't expecting to like this nearly as much as I did. It's a pretty perfect homage to the classics and a pretty perfect update on them as well. There's nothing bad I can say about it. And, as you mentioned, it's nice to see a capable hero who's isn't musclebound, mean looking, or broody. We can tell that things have gone wrong in Marlowe's life, that he's been given more than his share of raw deals in the past, but his resilience comes from his optimism, his strength of character, and of course, his cool laid back attitude and razor sharp wit.
Next up, Isaac ties Jason to a bed and forces him to watch Stephen King's Misery. And if Jason doesn't like it, out comes the sledgehammer.