The Long Goodbye
Director: Robert Altman
It’s not an easy task to review a movie which is commonly described (at least on the Blu Ray packaging) as ‘misunderstood’. It’s almost a get out of jail free card for filmmakers and directors who may not have had the reaction they wanted.
In this case, it’s an understandable position to take.
In the canon of pulp fiction, Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye is rightly held in high esteem. Chandler took his famous detective, Philip Marlowe, out of the standard (but comfortable) realms of everyday detective thrillers, and attempted a dive into the realms of higher literature. Instead of being hired at the outset by a client to investigate a blackmailer or locate a missing wife, the story starts out with Marlowe detailing his loose friendship with an alcohol ex-soldier, Terry Lennox, and his subsequent attempt to assist him get out of a potential murder charge. His reason for doing so is not out of the promise of a quick buck (a key premise of the book, and film, is his rejection of a $5,000 bill he receives in payment for his help) but rather appears to be what could only be descried as loyalty to a friend. Although Lennox later turns up dead and with an alleged confession note by his side, Marlowe’s sense of loyalty to Lennox, combined with (or perhaps arising from) his own certainty of his friend’s innocence, carries its way through the rest of the story, in which Marlowe is assigned to help a struggling, alcoholic writer (one who is widely believed to have been a character Chandler devised to represent himself) to keep himself alive long enough to deliver his next book, helping his lovely yet long-suffering wife out in the process. The two cases become intertwined when it is revealed that Wade’s wife was formerly married to Terry Lennox, back when he was a solider living in England during World War Two, and it was in fact she who murdered Lennox’s wife.
It is a book which is heavy on theme and character development, as opposed to the tales of blackmail, pornography and murder which were features of Chandler’s previous works, most notably The Big Sleep, Chandler’s literary debut. Unlike The Big Sleep however, the story is less easily transposed into cinema. The Long Goodbye was a reflection of Chandler’s personal life at the time. His wife, Cissy, was dying of cancer, and he had recently returned, disillusioned, from a moderately successful career as a writer in Hollywood (which, in its early stages, resulted in perhaps the definitive noir movie of all time, Double Indemnity, which Chandler co-adapted with director Billy Wilder from a James M. Cain novella). It was a far more serious book, the longest Chandler ever wrote, and yet was almost modest in its actual scope, whilst managing to touch upon some strong themes and feelings.
Adapting The Long Goodbye was never going to be an easy feat. It is perhaps telling that it took nearly twenty years for a cinematic adaption to be released, compared with the short time span in which Chandler’s earlier novels had been adapted.
Any film adaption of a Chandler novel will, ultimately, be assessed on the merits of the actor playing Marlowe. As with many people of my generation, my immediate knowledge of Elliot Gould comes from knowing him as Ross and Monica’s father in Friends. However, any concerns that this may raise are quickly dispelled early on in watching The Long Goodbye. His take on Marlow is not the heavy drinking and self-assured version played by Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell, the archetypal Marlowe’s who preceded him in the 1940’s, nor is it the older and world-weary adaption which Robert Mitchum later gave in the 1970’s adaptions of Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep.
Escaping the trappings of the 1940s, The Long Goodbye upgrades the era to the 1970s. Gould has the immediate advantage of playing a Marlowe who exists in a world unlike that which we were used to. It works surprisingly well. As an overall character, Marlowe himself is the same as we know him, wise-cracking and heavy smoking (though his habit for drinking gimlets, acquired in the novel by Marlowe from Lennox himself, is conspicuously absent from the film), but the world around him has changed. Altman made a deliberate choice in this regard, wanting to contrast a character with all the attitudes we came to expect from 1940’s and 1950’s cinema with the changing standards which the late 1960’s and early 1970’s brought. Here, Marlowe is living in an apartment opposite from a group of young, slim (and very desirable) pot-head females, who spend most of their time on screen walking around topless and practising their yoga. In contract, Marlowe’s flat is bare-boned and chaotic. Like a relic of 1940. In leaving his apartment, he’s stepping out of the comfort zone we expect of the character, and walking straight into the 1970s with all its eccentricities. On the way to the store, we willingly obliges the aforementioned ladies by picking up some chocolate brownie mix. He’s even now domesticated to the extent of having a cat.
Marlowe’s relationship with his cat makes for an interesting metaphor in comparing Marlowe’s relationship with Terry Lennox (and indeed, with Roger and Eileen Wade). Marlowe is called upon when he is needed, not when he is wanted. Marlowe’s loyalty to all the characters (cat included) is unquestionable throughout the movie. In this regard, the key essence of the book is left intact.
So far, so good.
However, no review of the film would be complete without comparing ‘that’ ending with the book. In the movie, Lennox (who in fact faked his own death and confession note with the help of the Mexican authorities) admits freely to Marlowe that he murdered his wife due to her relationship with Roger Wade, and that he simply used Marlowe to help get away after the event. In the novel, however, it was in fact Eileen Wade (Lennox’s original wife) who murdered his wife, largely out of jealousy, as well as the depression caused by the soul-sucking life she lived with Roger Wade. Lennox, knowing the truth, ran from the law so as to keep Eileen and Roger out of the matter, as well as trying to come to terms with the life he had built for himself. Later on Eileen, after shooting Wade while Marlowe was standing outside their own house, kills herself whilst leaving a note of her own, confessing to both previous murders. The police attempt to bury it, only for Marlowe to come clean to the press about the whole affair. In the novel, it is Marlowe’s sense of loyalty and honour to his friend which comes out on top. In the film, we find that his loyalty was, from the outset, misplaced. Whilst justice is done and Marlowe punishes the true killer, it would have been more satisfying for greater detail to have been paid to the relationship with Terry, Eileen, Roger and Silvia. But at the same time, Altman wanted to (understandably) focus on Marlowe and Lennox, as that is the crux of the story. Whether some of that relationship is diminished by the revelation that Lennox did kill his wife, Marlowe’s devotion to him is firm until the end, when the truth is ultimately revealed. At that point, Marlowe himself changes, his approach and his beliefs, which underpinned the whole film, are challenged and, ultimately, forced to change. Much like Marlowe is forced to change his position on Lennox, we too, are forced to change our position on Marlowe, and therefore on the film itself. Perhaps it is this reason why the film is, as the marketing people of United Artists have advised, ‘misunderstood’. As an audience, we have to change our take of the two key characters around who the film is based. Arguably, being misunderstood is exactly the result of the story being told. In managing to bring that effect through, the film does a fine job.
Is it the definitive Philip Marlow adaption? Probably not. The Big Sleep is rightfully considered a definitive film noir, and Bogart’s take on the character of Marlowe is as faithful to the written character as one could ever hope for, and keeps the overall plot of the book in place (beyond the changes imposed by the Hayes Code of the time), but Robert Altman and Elliot Gould took the chance on adapting the Marlowe story which was perhaps the least adaptable for screen. It has raised questions and conflicted opinion for over four decades. For a film which is based on the premise of our own unquestioned belief in that of another, it has performed admirably.