When I began the “By Request” series earlier this year, I didn’t yet have any requests from readers. Some people, though, had expressed an interest in the movies that almost made my Facebook Fave Fifty list, so I added a “request” category I called “51-79” to reflect where those 29 films would fit if my Facebook list had gone to #79 instead of #50. The Long Goodbye was one of the very last cuts from my list: it’s #52.
I consider myself an Altman fan, yet none of his films made my Fave Fifty. And I find it interesting that The Long Goodbye is apparently my favorite Robert Altman film, because the first time I saw it, I was so angry at the film’s conclusion that I stomped out of the theater and fumed for quite awhile.
To understand this, it helps to know a few things. One is that I spent a chapter of my dissertation on Raymond Chandler. Another is that I tended to buy into Chandler’s bruised romanticism. Finally, it’s safe to say that Robert Altman (and screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who Altman credits on a DVD extra as coming up with the ending) was not with me in my admiration.
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate what Altman was up to in The Long Goodbye. And there is Elliott Gould’s great portrayal of Marlowe. And there are all the oddball casting choices that ended up working just fine. A list of some of those actors will bring memories to those who remember the 70s, while others will scratch their heads: Nina van Pallandt, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, Jim Bouton, Jack Riley, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Here is some of what I wrote about the movie for my dissertation (this was 1997):
In the early 1970s, Robert Altman directed a film version of The Long Goodbye that has inspired more outright hatred from Chandler aficionados than any other manifestation of Marlowe. Altman's film begins with a rumpled Philip Marlowe, played by then-popular Elliott Gould, being woken by his pet cat at 3:00 in the morning. Altman instructed Gould to play Marlowe as if he were Rip Van Winkle, and beginning with this opening scene, Marlowe most definitely appears to have been asleep for the twenty years since The Long Goodbye was written. He drives a vintage auto and dresses in a suit and tie (both of them bad ones) while everyone else drives and dresses in 70s Southern California Hip.
Altman/Gould's Marlowe is always a step or two behind everyone else. Like Chandler's version, this Marlowe lives by a code, and like Chandler's Marlowe (at least the one who appears in The Long Goodbye), that code is out of step with the times. But Altman doesn't want Marlowe to retain even the shattered remnants of romanticism with which Chandler's novel ends. "I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him," said Altman, "a loser. But a real loser, not the false winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way." Altman, an inspired if erratic film maker, succeeds in his goal of making Chandler's great hero something other than a false winner, but in his own way, Altman allows Marlowe a victory that Chandler, who married Marlowe off in a fragment written just before he died, could never carry off.
In Altman's Long Goodbye, Terry Lennox turns out to be the actual murderer of his wife Sylvia. Although his betrayal of Marlowe is similar to that in the novel (using his friend to save his ass), the additional crime of murder makes Terry out to be far more venal than Chandler's Terry. And the movie Terry, in tune with the 1970s in ways Marlowe can barely imagine, is also more open, even casual, about his exploitation of Marlowe; when confronted about his actions at the end of the film, Terry freely confesses his abuse of their relationship, saying "That's what friends are for, right?"
This carefree description of friendship exposes Marlowe as a hopeless romantic: the friend for whom he has suffered has not been worth the trouble, the codes Marlowe lives by are ignored by everyone but himself. As Lennox tells him, nobody cares, to which Marlowe/Gould replies, "Nobody cares but me." And then he shoots Terry Lennox in the gut.
That Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe would never resort to such an action is beside the point, or rather, it is exactly and entirely the point. Altman, who does not want to believe in Chandler's romanticizing of the genre, will not allow his Marlowe to be a "false winner," someone who walks away, shattered but with a thread of romantic hope. With those gunshots, Altman frees Philip Marlowe from his past, from his codes, from his romanticism. He allows Marlowe to be a true winner, a winner over the oppressions of romanticism. Rip Van Winkle finally wakes up.
I didn’t give ratings in those days, but I imagine I would have given The Long Goodbye 1/10 the first time I saw it. By the time I made my Facebook list, it was up to 8/10. And watching it again, I’m raising the grade again. #520 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 9/10.