Monday February 05, 2024
Movie Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)
I recall watching Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” based on the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel, about 20 years ago, and coming away confused and dissatisfied. Now I get why. The movie is confusing. It’s untraditional. It mixes Chandler’s penchant for complicated plots and hidden motives with Altman’s love of overlapping dialogue and improv, with an early ’70s So Cal loopiness. Add that up and, well, confusing.
This time, though, I liked it.
I mean, who knew Jim Bouton was the Orson Welles of the 1970s?
Go home, Martins
It’s totally an Altman film. It’s Altman doing genre and fucking with the conventions.
Take the yoga-loving, half-naked female neighbors. All the men who come through, the cops and the hoods, stare, gawking, while our man Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) barely notices. He walks by muttering under his breath about his cat. He couldn’t be less interested. Is that why the girls are interested in him? Why they call out to him? It’s the opposite of most detective fiction. There’s beautiful women everywhere and he beds nobody. In the uptight 1940s, with the Production Code staring down furiously, Bogart couldn’t enter a bookstore or take a cab without coming away with a little. But Gould in the free-love 1970s? With naked women everywhere? Not a drop. He doesn’t even seem thirsty.
But he smokes like a chimney. They kept that in. There seems no shot where Marlowe doesn’t have a cigarette going.
The opening is fun, but a little lame if you know cats. The late-night convenience store doesn’t have his cat’s favorite food so he gets another kind, puts it in the tin of the favorite kind, then dishes it out like it’s that one. Why in God’s name does he think this will work? Cats don’t care about tins. Cats care about smell. And it’s the wrong smell. And there goes the cat.
And in comes Marlowe’s friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). We’d seen him leaving his gated community, scratches on his face, bruises on his knuckles, and now he’s asking Marlow to drive him to Tijuana. Marlowe does. When he returns, cops are waiting. Seems Lennox’s wife, Sylvia, is dead, Terry is the prime suspect, and Marlowe just helped him get away. Accessory after the fact.
When he gets out out of the slammer, certain of Terry’s innocence, he’s got a gig waiting. Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt, a super-tanned Dane) is worried about the disappearance of her husband, an alcoholic, Hemingway-esque writer named Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden). Marlowe finds him in a detox center run by the creepy Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson) and springs him. Then they drink and argue, and Hayden chews the scenery. Apparently a lot of this was improv. It shows.
What does any of this have to do with Terry Lennox? Turns out the Wades knew the Lennoxes: neighbors and friends. Oh, then mob boss Marty Augustine (actor-director Mark Rydell) and his men descend on Marlowe because Terry owes them $350,000 and they figure Marlowe has it or can get it. There’s a lot of Altmanesque craziness here. Augustine busts his girl’s face with a Coke bottle to show he means business; later, to come clean, he has himself and his men, including a non-verbal Arnold Schwarzenegger, strip to their skivvies. Meanwhile, at a party at the Wades, Dr. Verringer shows up demanding money from Roger, and that night Roger walks into the ocean. Do we see him again? Does he die? Either way, Eileen confesses to Marlowe that Roger was having an affair with Sylvia Lennox. So maybe Roger killed Sylvia and that’s why he was acting so erratic? And Verringer knew?
At some point, Marlowe finds out Terry’s dead—he killed himself in Mexico. But then Marlowe gets a $5,000 bill in the mail from Terry, along with a goodbye letter; and then the $350k is magically delivered, freeing Marlowe from Augustine. I assume all that gives him pause. Because down in Mexico, using the $5k as a bribe, Marlowe discovers Terry isn’t dead. He faked the suicide. More, he was schtupping Eileen Wade. More more, he killed his wife. He’s the guy. Marlowe comes upon him laying in a hammock, and Terry admits it. He’s blasé about it. He didn’t mean to, he says, but he did it.
So Marlowe kills him in cold blood.
Here’s the thing: Before Marlowe arrives to confront him, we see Marlowe walking on a dirt road under a canopy of trees, and I said to my wife, “Looks like ‘The Third Man.’” And then we get the confession and the killing of the killer. Which, yes, is exactly like “The Third Man.” Throughout that movie, Holly Martins is looking for Harry Lime’s killer, and, alley oop, it turns out to be him. Same here, mostly. Throughout, Marlowe is looking to prove Terry innocent; instead he proves him guilty, then acts as judge, jury, executioner.
Altman underlines the parallel again. We return to the canopy of trees, Marlowe is walking away and Eileen is driving in. She stops but Marlowe keeps walking toward the camera. It’s “Third Man” with genders reversed. I’d call it homage if it didn’t seem like such a rip off.
Anyway, that’s why Jim Bouton is the Orson Welles of the 1970s.
The canopy of trees, and the long walk, after killing the friend whose murder you were trying to solve.
The meaning of yoga
That ending doesn’t quite work, does it? First, it’s too “Third Man” but not nearly good enough. Second, it’s the only time when Marlowe seems awake. He’s focused and in control, but his actions are over-the-top. In cold blood? Really? It’s out of character. It's completely unlike the sleepy, mumbling dude we’ve spent two hours with.
So was the ending imposed upon Altman by the studio? Nope. It was in the original Leigh Brackett script, and Altman liked it so much, or wanted to do the “Third Man” homage so much, he put in a contract clause that the ending couldn’t be changed without his approval.
It’s not, however, the Raymond Chandler ending. In the novel, yes, Terry killed Sylvia and faked his suicide, but he and Marlowe don’t meet in Mexico:
Then on a certain Friday morning I found a stranger waiting for me in my office. He was a well-dressed Mexican or Suramericano of some sort. He sat by the open window smoking a brown cigarette that smelled strong. He was tall and very slender and very elegant, with a neat dark mustache and dark hair, rather longer than we wear it, and a fawn-colored suit of some loosely woven material. He wore those green sunglasses.
It's Terry, with plastic surgery, in his new identity as Señor Maioranos. At some point in the conversation Marlowe figures it out, they wrangle out the rest in the shrugging, elliptical Chandler manner, and say their goodbyes. I guess that’s where the title comes from. “So long, amigo,” Marlowe tells him. “I won’t say goodbye. I said it to you when it meant something.”
Chandler's ending makes more sense—for the title, for Marlowe, for everything.
But the movie is still fun. Apparently Bouton was a last-minute replacement for Stacy Keach (Bouton compared it to asking some fan to go play third base for the Yankees). Hayden was also a replacement—for “Bonanza”’s Dan Blocker, who died before filming began. There’s only two songs in the entire movie: “Hooray for Hollywood,” which opens and closes it; and “The Long Goodbye” by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, of which we get about five renditions—including one by Jack Riley, Elliott Carlin of “The Bob Newhart Show,” who has a cameo playing piano at a bar. That made me smile.
So did the moment when the half-naked female neighbor explains what yoga is. Someone should make a reference book about when current everyday items/concepts had to be explained in movies. Yoga in this, the CIA in “Charade.” Others?