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Bucket List Movie #479: The Long Goodbye (1973)

Updated on January 22, 2015
Robert Altman.
Robert Altman. | Source

Another day, another Bucket List Movie directed by the great Robert Altman! I was going to make it a theme this month, but I couldn't think of a clever name for it, and I doubt anyone cares.

Today's BLM is 1973's The Long Goodbye, based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name featuring that American Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe.

Now, I for one thought that Humphrey Bogart was the only one who played Marlowe, in the classic noir The Big Sleep. After all, who better to fill a trench coat and fedora, crack wise, and handle mugs and shady dames better than Bogie?

I've learned to never trust my memory because, as it turns out, a shocking roster of actors have also tackled the role of the hard-boiled detective, such as George Sanders (no, really), Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, and even Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet, which helped him shed his wholesome tenor image once and for all. Everyone has their favorite Superman, Batman, or Lady Macbeth, and Marlowe is no different.

Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe.
Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe. | Source

In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe, played by gruff everyman Elliot Gould, takes on his toughest case yet: the early 1970s. Yes, Marlowe has been shuffled to (what was back then) contemporary times, and has not aged a day. That's the beauty of fiction: time is more malleable than pizza dough.

Altman all but wears a sandwich board declaring, "This is not your typical Marlowe story". It doesn't open with Marlowe in his office, his narration waxing philosophical on city life, and helping out a leggy ingenue. Instead, it opens with Marlowe, dressed in the dark blue suit he'll wear for the rest of the movie, trying to feed his cat (played by none other than 9 Lives spokesman, finicky Morris the Cat). Marlowe goes to the store, isn't able to find the right cat food, he purchases a replacement, tries to pull one over on his feline buddy, but said feline buddy will not be hoodwinked so easily. This situation, by the way, takes up about 10 or 15 minutes of the opening. I wasn't kidding in my previous review when I said Altman wasn't afraid of meandering scenes.

Again, this is not Bogie or Powell's Marlowe-verse, it's Gould's. Here, Marlowe's neighbors are a gaggle of nubile female hippies with an aversion to modesty. There are four-letter words and uncensored topics that are flying around helter-skelter thanks to the end of the Hays code. For some reason, much like in To Sir, With Love, the title song is as omnipresent as the Devil. You start to wonder if Marlowe inhabits a universe where a totalitarian regime has abolished every song in existence besides "The Long Goodbye" and "Hooray for Hollywood".

Like The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye has a rather convoluted story that, if you let your attention stray for even a moment, you'll be completely lost. Marlow's feckless friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) has committed suicide, just weeks after his wife is murdered. Marlowe suspects something else is up, and, boy, he ain't wrong. In his search for the truth, Marlowe encounters a crazed writer who's trying as hard as possible to be Ernest Hemingway, a sociopathic mob boss and his goons, a shifty asylum doctor, a woman who may know more than she lets on (isn't that always the way?), and a pre-stardom cameo by Arnold Shwarzenegger, who strips down to his yellow tighty-whities. Bogie's Marlowe never had to deal with all this… all the underwear back then was in black and white (rimshot)!

Thrill as intrepid gumshoe Philip Marlowe scans the shelves of a convenience store!
Thrill as intrepid gumshoe Philip Marlowe scans the shelves of a convenience store! | Source

Much like The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye's simple situation snowballs down a steep mountain of thugs and obstacles before crashing into a mountain, but our hero walks away, nonplussed and ready for whatever case comes his way.

The Long Goodbye didn't engage me as much as I would have liked. The fault isn't Elliot Gould's, who does play Marlowe with a certain panache, but maybe I preferred the more polished films from the 40s, with the snarkier dialogue and less dry tone. It's not that I don't appreciate what Altman is doing, because he updates the story a lot better than anyone else would have. I naturally bristle when stories are updated, such as Disney's idiotic decision to move Cheaper by the Dozen from the 1910s to the 2000s, but Altman at least attempts to keep the spirit of Raymond Chandler's books alive. Marlowe's mannerisms have been scaled down for a more real world approach; for instance, Marlowe's tendency to narrate now just comes off as talking to himself, framing him as quirky and odd, which I found amusing. I thought the naked female neighbors were just a silly distraction, and brought to mind Frank Miller comics (not a good thing).

It's just a personal preference, but I didn't think the update was all that titillating, nor did I think it was satirical, exciting, or an improvement on the original time period. It could be that I find the 40s more interesting than the 70s. I can't always explain why a movie entertains me or why it doesn't, sometimes it just is what it is. Let me stress that I don't hate The Long Goodbye, it's just not my cup of tea… or brand of cat food.

The future governor of California stands among them.
The future governor of California stands among them. | Source


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