Altman revamps film-noir one year after his revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But instead of turning everything we know about genre presentation upside down, as in McCabe, The Long Goodbye takes film noir and uses contrast to examine displacement. Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (whose credits include 1946’s The Big Sleep), take all the tropes and show how they warp when you drop them into 1970’s California. The threat of women in the 1940’s dissipates; the femme fatale doesn’t romance Phillip Marlowe and a pack of free women casually linger nude across from his apartment, eating pot brownies and doing yoga. It’s one of countless examples.
There’s no voiceover of a tough-edged detective waxing poetic. Instead, Marlowe mumbles and grumbles to himself, sounding like a man riffing lover-speak on an R&B track. But he’s not riffing lover-speak; he’s talking to his cat or inanely commenting on a throwaway moment to nobody in particular.
Altman’s wandering camera style mirrors this new world. At the end of the film a character tells Marlowe he’s the only one that cares. And he’s right. Not even the camera can stay focused.
Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe makes this film more than anything else. It’s one of the boldest and ingenious pieces of atypical casting. His Marlowe is a loser. Naively loyal. Able to put only a few pieces together. Sauntering through his assignments. Always chain-smoking in health conscious Cal. His suit-and-tie are outdated but even this holdover from the past is rumpled and unkempt. The first ten minutes show him getting food for his cat at three in the morning, only to try fooling the cat that it’s his favorite brand and failing. The cat runs off. Betrayed even by his cat. First and foremost, Philip is a smart-ass. Gould gives him comedic timing for the ages, never missing a beat to throw a piece of dialogue back in someone’s face.
I get why it wasn’t well-received upon release. Altman relishes defying expectations in a way that may be understandably off-putting to some, and for noir and Raymond Chandler purists this must have been vaguely insulting. Most neo-noirs update, rework and shift for the times to be sure, but this is a whole different ball-game.
The last scene is just about one of the best I’ve ever seen because it is the ultimate example of Altman gleefully thwarting expectations. We expect moral consequences, for severe actions to weigh heavily on characters. But Altman’s aesthetic lends to another crucial hollowing out of noir tropes; here, Crime is Casual. Crime is never casual in film noir because noir is usually so plot-driven. Since Altman and Brackett don’t care too much about the plot, crime feels equivalent to a shrug. And at the very moment you expect it to matter, it matters that much less than it ever did. “Hooray for Hollywood”.
– Being surprised that I was actually tense during a few scenes.
– The Ernest Hemingwayesque performance by Sterling Hayden which predates Nick Nolte by a mile.
– The always off-putting Henry Gibson is scarily unflappable as a shady psychiatrist.
– Phillip is honored to be followed by Harry.
– The stunning shot that slowly focuses in on the ocean outside the window as someone walks into it.
– “The Long Goodbye” being the only music in the film, arranged in various styles throughout. A perversely amusing touch.