Long goodbye is a 1973 neo-noir film based on Robert Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name. The script was written by Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote the screenplay for Chandler’s film Big dream. Directed by Robert Altman, Elliot Gould stars as Philip Marlowe, an unusual private detective. In short, Phillip Marlowe takes on various cases in the film. From getting money owed to the mob to finding the whereabouts of a wealthy novelist, Roger Wade, with a history of alcoholism. One case in particular is the death of his friend, wife Terry Lennox, who is never seen on camera. Phillip Marlowe is convinced that Terry is alive, and there is a plot in which he is being used as a pawn. Eventually, he finds his friend Terry, who confesses that he killed his wife, that his wife is having an affair with Roger, and that he owes money to the mafia. In a surprise ending, Phillip Marlowe kills Terry Lennox, the only murder seen in the film after being passive throughout the film.
It is also defined as a satirical mystery crime thriller. Despite being a cult classic, in 2021 the Library of Congress added it to the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film was not a success after its release. Robert Altman reportedly left a question and answer session at the Tarrytown Conference Center in Tarrytown, New York. The film was not well received by audiences, who were reportedly “vaguely hostile” leaving Robert Altman apparently “depressed”. It’s not hard to see why the film wasn’t a success. It was a far cry from the violent neo-noir action films like Dirty Harrypsychological art thriller like Inflateor Blaxploitation movies like Shaft. The lead, Elliot Gould, is not exactly the stereotypical lead in a noir film. He is not imposing, incredibly rude or charismatic in the film. In a way, Elliot Gould is a spoof of Humphrey Bogart. A tall and scruffy loner with a Mad magazine sense of satirical humor even despite some of the brutalities he faces in the film, such as murder, a brutal Coke bottle attack scene, and suicide. Phillip Marlowe, in this depiction Goodbyehe rarely faces much direct danger in directly or indirectly giving Elliot Gould more moral importance than the other characters who all seem to face some sort of adversity despite being a failed loner.
The moving camera, constantly panning or zooming, together with the natural scenario, gives the film an incredible sense of life outside the story. We seem to be voyeurs following Phillip Marlowe as he wanders from case to case, seemingly through little or no work of his own. We are made to feel like Hollywood tourists or guests peeking into the busy life of the rich and famous. One scene that comes to mind is when aging and washed-up writer Roger Wade, played by Sterling Hayden, and his wife Eileen Wade, played by Nina Van Pallandt, argue at their beachside estate while Phillip Marlowe waits. The camera transposes a shot of Marlowe staring at the waves as the couple argue and seemingly all these disparate scenes merge into one. The transitions in the film are often accompanied by a theme that runs throughout the film in different genres/styles, giving the film that constant feeling of fluidity and Phillip Marlowe wandering from one scene to another.
Of note regarding Leigh Brackett’s version of the screenplay. Leigh Brackett was primarily a science fiction writer who holds the title of “Queen of Space Opera”. She also worked on an early draft The Empire Strikes Back. She was chosen to work on the script because her association with work on Raymond Chandler Big dream. It was difficult for Brackett to translate Chandler’s long novel into a screenplay. She says that if she had written it as a novel, it would have been a five-hour film. She also notes that she had to take creative liberties to keep the dated 1940s novel relevant. She goes on to explain that in the film, detective stories have become cliché and would make the film “funny” even if that wasn’t the intention. Brackett chose to leave out various aspects of the film, such as the appearance of Sylvia Lennox and the murder of Roger Wade. In addition to the cuts made by adapting the novel into a screenplay, director Robert Altman took additional measures to shorten or restructure the screenplay. The scene where Roger Wade commits suicide by shooting himself was replaced by him going into the water and drowning. In some ways, the script is far different from the actual film due to its novelistic structure. Robert Altman took a lot of liberties in reconfiguring scenes and dialogue to work on screen.
Personally, I think both Leigh Brackett and Robert Altman did a great job updating this novel. Unlike many films of the era, they did not indulge in creating a modern version Long goodbye with hippies, militant activists or bikers, something Clint Eastwood’s films fall victim to. Instead, they examined the role of Phillip Marlowe, a conservative detective, in a liberal, postmodern world. A man stuck in the 1940s trying to solve crimes in a world without black and white good and evil. One scene in particular sums up the film well. At the end where Terry Lennox berates Phillip Marlowe as a “loser” for finding him in Mexico. Lennox goes on to tell Marlowe that “nobody cares”, which is apparently true since the police have given up on him, Roger Wade is dead, and the mob is getting their money. Phillip Marlowe seems to be the only one interested in preserving morality. I enjoyed the movie more than the script because I think Vilmos Zsigmond did a great job giving the movie a very ambient and natural feel that is nothing like the black and white detective movies of only twenty or so years ago. My only fault with the film is that it can be vague, especially in terms of Phillip and Terry’s relationship with the mob. After watching the movie five times, I could never figure out how the mob comes up with the money to save Phillip’s life. He seems too submissive. I never believed a mobster hitting his wife with a Coke bottle vs. Phillip Marlowe. I read that this was added to add suspense, but the indulgence that often gets Phillip Marlowe out of trouble doesn’t always translate well. Apart from these small story and plot elements, Long goodbye is one of my favorite movies of all time, redefining what it takes to tell a thrilling and suspenseful action movie without the car bodies and stereotypes.
Written by Rogers Campbell