The Long Goodbye – 1973
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, and Mark Rydell
So, I’m familiar with Philip Marlowe, or should I say Humphrey Bogart’s version of Philip Marlowe. Needless to say, I thought he was great, a real tough guy without being over the top, or just angry. He was smart, knew how to handle himself and new his way around the thug-ish underworld of double crosses and shady dealings. I didn’t know what to expect from the Robert Altman realization starring Elliott Gould, and set in the early 1970s.
What I ended up getting was not what I went in hoping for, but not necessarily in a bad way. Some things that Elliot Gould brought to the character were more natural and less stylistic. For instance, Elliott as Marlowe found himself mad, but unlike Bogart, he lacked the skill to use it to his advantage. There were no crooks he could slap around, or sharp dialogue he could hurl at his adversary, he was simply left to feel frustrated and angry. Where Bogart was all about that steely calm that seemed to keep him in charge, there were numerous times that Gould seemed motivated by his frustration, rather than by what was the smartest course of action. This, of course, isn’t meant to say that he didn’t fully understand his predicament, or deal with it with his own best interests in mind. This lent to his credibility as a real, functioning, breathing personality.
This more believable behavior DID allow him to more comfortably slip into the “real world”. Figures from classic Hollywood movies always seemed to be separate from this reality. They exist in neat packaged little worlds that serve to house the film’s story and characters, and nothing else. Four walls a roof and a floor, nothing else. Nothing that doesn’t serve the forward momentum of the plot. Films from the seventies, however, seem to inhabit a much larger world. A world that is populated by multitudes of people, all living out their own “real” lives even if our story doesn’t overlap them. These films seem to be conscious of the world around them. Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe, exists in this world.
Aside from being in color, with set pieces that are less stagy, the main difference is that this Marlowe isn’t able to confidently predict or avoid danger. He has to stumble through, be aggravated, and endangered by it just like any of us would. He doesn’t have all the answers, and he doesn’t pretend to. In fact, unless it was mentioned numerous times throughout the movie, there is no way you know know that he was a private eye. This Marlowe seemed to have almost no intuition about the case from a detective’s point of view, he eventually stumbled onto the facts, but without the streetwise knowledge, it took him forever to put it all together. The one and only shared element of both versions of this character, was the fact that he always knew when to speak and when to keep his mouth shut. He’s as tight lipped and smart with the police as he is with the bloodthirsty gangster (played fantastically by Mark Rydell) who just wants his money. The best moment of this movie came from Marlowe’s first encounter with Rydell’s gangster when, after calling his young lady-friend closer, he proceeds to show Marlowe what he’s capable of. In terms of shock value and unexpectedness, this is worth the price of admission alone.
I’ve learned that I have a sort of growing fondness for Robert Altman movies (excluding his version of Popeye with Robin Williams and the role that Shelley Duvall was meant to play). The Long Goodbye, like Short Cuts before it, and M*A*S*H before it (my viewings of, not their releases), didn’t attract me at first, but then grew on me as I thought about it afterwards. There is something about his work, and I suspect the man as well, that has resonance. It has more to say than just what is on it’s surface, and it is best enjoyed after the absorption of the material has taken place. I’m lucky, in that I haven’t seen that much of his work, because now I can go back and check it out. Unfortunately, along with everyone else, I am unlucky that he died and I won’t get to experience these same feelings of growth on something that someone else hasn’t already felt and talked about to no end.
“Worth It just to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in yellow boxer briefs.” – Ashley