Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is different from a lot of other films, even other great films. It’s a brave interpretation and modernization of the classic hard-boiled detective trope, and it’s executed beautifully.
If I can be completely honest here, I’ve only recently seen The Long Goodbye for the first time. Robert Altman’s wonderful take on a classic Raymond Chandler novel had such an immediate impact on me (and one that has lasted over several watches since) that I have no hesitation in including it in this collection.
Chandler’s novel of the same title was centered around his iconic private investigator character, Philip Marlowe, played most famously by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Chandler and his creation are responsible in no small part to the archetypal hard-boiled detective/PI character we all have in our heads.
What’s more, Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is arguably his last great work, so Altman’s decision to modernize the character was a risky one at best. When it was released, many argued it was a risk that didn’t pay off1. Rather than the sharp, tough anti-hero we are so used to these days, Altman cast Elliott Gould as a laid back, indifferent anti-hero we rarely see, even today2. I mean, could you imagine Bogart’s Marlowe spending the first 10 minutes of The Big Sleep feeding his cat?
Now, we know better. The Long Goodbye has an enigmatic quality that’s difficult to describe. The best way to get some kind of grasp on what makes it so good is simply to say that it’s pure Altman. Nothing is ever approached head-on; rather, Altman expertly straddles the line between the necessary gravity of a serious situation and the not-so-obvious absurdity that’s always bubbling just underneath life’s surface.
There’s a wonderful scene where Marlowe is being roughed up by gangster named Marty Augustine and his hoods3. Augustine, after a soliloquy about stripping naked in front of the girlfriend he beat up in order to reveal to her the truth of his apology, decides Marlowe should take his clothes off. The intensity ratchets up when Augustine pulls a knife and threatens to have one of his men cut off Marlowe’s penis and it ends with everyone in the process of stripping to their underwear — everyone except Marlowe4.
It’s the kind of thing that seems utterly ridiculous and maybe out of place, until you think back and remember all the times in your life reality felt more absurd than fiction.5
So often in film, the protagonist is the bringer of change, the character that moves the action along. Altman and Gould’s Marlowe is a passenger, the way some might argue all of us are. The story happens to Marlowe.
Another great feature of the film is John Williams’s title song. Williams’s The Long Goodbye is the only song heard throughout the movie. Each time it’s heard— ambiently on the radio, in the supermarket, in a bar, being hummed by a character — it’s a different version being sung by a different artist. Like most of the decisions in the movie, it’s one that could easily fall flat and ruin the whole production, but it doesn’t, it comes off brilliantly.
Enigmatic at first, this movie stays with you, even if you can’t be sure why. The Long Goodbye is different from a lot of other films, even other great films. If you don’t want to take my word for it, it’s OK with me.
More from the Favourite Movies Series
The film tested extremely poorly and the studio pulled it from release, re-tweaking its marketing angle (from one thing it was not: a hard-boiled action flick, to another: a wacky, zany comedy) and re-releasing it to slightly better, but still poor reviews.↩
Including a young, enormously jacked-up Arnie!↩
You’ll have to trust me, it makes sense in context, sort of.↩
“You couldn’t make this stuff up!”↩