From the 1930s through the 1950s, Raymond Chandler was the definitive voice of the American crime genre. His work in literature would go on to influence the golden age of crime films, shaping film noir. The Marlowe Files is a monthly series looking at Chandler’s novels and film adaptations starring his famous detective Philip Marlowe. This month, we look at the last Marlowe film to be released in theaters: THE LONG GOODBYE (1973).

Film noir-n. a style or genre of cinematic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.

And so we come to Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE.

THE LONG GOODBYE was the first Philip Marlowe book I ever read and the first Marlowe film I ever saw. Looking back, it’s ironic that this was my introduction to the famous detective because so much of THE LONG GOODBYE depends on the viewer’s understanding of film noir and detective fiction. It’s like giving someone who has never read superhero comics WATCHMEN as their first comic. The deconstruction should not precede the construction of the character or genre.

That being said, it’s hard to diminish the quality of THE LONG GOODBYE purely as a piece of entertainment. Altman understands the fundamental aspects of film noir as it was and as we imagine it. While MARLOWE attempted a burlesque version of Chandler’s detective, and the Mitchum films went for realism, THE LONG GOODBYE manages to present Chandler’s work so perfectly that it becomes a genre distilled to its essence.

Good as Gould

The Long Goodbye

What’s the plot of THE LONG GOODBYE? In its simplest form, Marlowe drives his friend Terry Lennox to Mexico. Shortly afterward, Terry kills himself after killing his wife. Before Marlowe can look for Terry, Eileen Wade hires Marlowe to find her missing husband, Roger. Marlowe finds himself in the position of being the world’s worst marriage counselor between Roger and Eileen. As their marriage crumbles, Marlowe discovers more details about Terry’s disappearance and his connections to the Wades. Ultimately, THE LONG GOODBYE is less about the plot and more about the pure expression of mood and genre as homage to what came before.

Elliot Gould’s performance as Marlowe is one of the most fascinating portrayals of the character. Plenty of actors in the role have nailed the world-weary, cynical detective. However, Gould manages to crank all of these traits up to 11. Without a case to solve, he seems to drift from place to place following no one’s orders but his cat’s. “It’s okay with me,” he repeats to an indifferent world, a precursor to “the Dude abides” from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, which certainly owes a debt to Altman’s film.

Gould takes on a challenging role in this piece. He is equal parts relatable and unknowable. His Marlowe is emotionally mercurial, and yet he still holds on to a shred of chivalry. When he sees the abuse that Eileen Wade suffers at the hands of her husband, he knows he cannot give up on her case. He tries to protect her, blinding him to the truth that she is in league with the still very much alive Terry Lennox.

Building a Deconstruction

Before we get there, the film opens to the stirring strings of “Hooray for Hollywood.” An ironic pronouncement of glee contrasted with this seedier version of New York and a classic Hollywood tale. Marlowe awakens, not next to a dame, but his cat. His first case as the film opens? Shlep to the supermarket to get cat food. 

Here, Marlowe is portrayed as the literal shaggy dog in the center of this shaggy dog tale. The film is ultimately a build to a final punchline: Marlowe tracks Terry down in Mexico and kills him for his betrayal.

The movie’s theme song repeats throughout the film. Each time its genre has changed slightly. It first appears as a half-remembered tune that Marlowe mutters to himself. Eventually, the full John Williams version comes blaring to life. With Jack Sheldon crooning away at the pulpy, mysterious lyrics, it can’t be compared to any song from a noir, but it feels like a film noir. This is THE LONG GOODBYE in microcosm: it is simultaneously just like and totally different from any film noir before or after it. 

The music reinforces the noir genre dripping off of the film. It’s a constant reminder of the artifice of film and the emphasis of style. 

Noirs in the Past

By reinforcing the artifice of film, Altman is able to explore THE LONG GOODBYE’s relationship with past noirs. In The Anxiety of Influence, critic Harold Bloom discussed the relationship between contemporary art and the art of the past, specifically through the lens of poetry:

Poetry, despite its publicists, is not a struggle against repression but is itself a kind of repression. Poems rise not so much in response to a present time […] but in response to other poems.”

Bloom believed that all art is, in its way, a response to the art that came before. While Bloom is certainly correct, he is wrong to say that art doesn’t “rise” as a response to its time. It’s hard to imagine this version of THE LONG GOODBYE existing at any point other than 1973. It reflects an America where national cynicism was rising as a result of Vietnam and the erratic Nixon administration. THE LONG GOODBYE’s success comes from its amalgamation of homage to the past and commentary on its present.

What Altman does in THE LONG GOODBYE is identify the key components of Marlowe’s character, but also deconstruct one key fact about Marlowe. To put it bluntly, the guy sucks at his job. Nearly every Marlowe novel ends with one of two outcomes: Marlowe passively or accidentally allows the perpetrator to be killed, or the suspect commits suicide when their scheme unravels.

Very rarely does someone actually get due process in a Philip Marlowe novel. In this fashion, Marlowe becomes an agent of Karmic balance. Neither wholly good nor bad, but willing to enforce what he believes is fair. In other words, “it’s okay with me.”

Born a Loser

The Long Goodbye

“You’re a born loser,” Terry tells Marlowe during their final confrontation. This is Altman’s entire deconstruction in one line. Marlowe will always try but will always be a patsy, a pawn, a loser. You can’t even call his life Sisyphean because at least Sisyphus could make it up the hill.

Marlowe fires his gun and kills the closest thing Chandler has ever given him to a friend. In the novel, Marlowe simply unravels the mystery of Terry Lennox’s disappearance and seems to accept that he has been duped.

What then is the ultimate point of the film’s ending? Well, what ultimately is the point if the entire film? Marlowe goes from terrible event to terrible event encountering worse and worse people. His sense of honor becomes the exact thing that makes him easy to exploit.

This is what makes Altman’s ending a perfect deconstruction of the character. Marlowe gets his payback for the first time in the character’s existence. The sudden burst of violence punctures the carefree fun. But rather than catharsis, all you can feel is a sense of tragedy. The long goodbye finally ends with a bullet.

So Marlowe walks away with something akin to justice, “Hooray for Hollywood” reminding the audience of the upbeat optimism of Hollywood’s golden age. The song is an ironic rebuke of those clean-cut days of chipper Hollywood as the city where the streets are paved with gold.

The Long Goodbye

Marlowe’s act is more than the death of Terry Lennox; it’s the death of preconceptions about what mainstream film products should be. THE LONG GOODBYE was the death of Marlowe as we knew him but also marks how the New Hollywood movement could do more than tell daring new stories. It could also reinvent icons of Hollywood for contemporary times.

Altman decides to finally taint the clean morality of Marlowe in his film. He debases the noble detective by making him a capital punisher like Dirty Harry Callahan. However, his intent does not seem to be to destroy Marlowe, but rather to remind the audiences of the value of heroes like Marlowe who trudge through the mud but still can come out on the other side somewhat clean.

Ultimately, Altman’s Marlowe is a man who cares too much even when the world keeps reminding him that he shouldn’t. In the end, Altman maybe deconstructed Marlowe too much. The detective has yet to appear in a major motion picture released in theaters since THE LONG GOODBYE. The film lived up to its name, we just didn’t realize it was Marlowe we wished a long goodbye.

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Next Time: We explore the masculinity of Marlowe with Raymond Chandler’s The High Window and its film adaptation THE BRASHER DOUBLOON.

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