The Long Goodbye

First of all, look at these images.

The first three are different poster designs from the original release of the movie (the second one, which you may not be able to see well, is drawn by Jack Davis, is styled as a Mad Magazine parody splash-panel, and can be viewed larger here. ).  Presumably, MGM owns the rights to the first three images.  Yet they chose the utterly anonymous, point-of-viewless, unemphatic final image for their current DVD release.  (Note: for the DVD cover, they Photoshopped a gun into the character’s hand so we would know this is a detective movie).  The mind reels.

Many questions flit through my mind while watching this movie, some of which relate to the above posters.

Is this a parody?  The Jack Davis poster seems to want to sell it that way.  “Come see this movie, it’s a self-conscious take-off on old-timey detective stories!”  But the movie doesn’t feel like parody to me, or even a comedy.  It feels very much of its time and place, but it seems structured very much like a detective movie to me.

Is Elliot Gould parodying Phillip Marlowe, or merely updating him, translating him, as it were, for a new generation?  The only thing I can tell for sure is that he’s not imitating Humphrey Bogart, which would have been the exact wrong thing to do in any case.  But who is Phillip Marlowe in the novel (which I have not read)?  Does he wander around LA with a fuzzy, jazzy interior monologue running, acting like a dissolute smartass so that people won’t know how smart and moral he is?  (This performance really sticks with me, and matches the rhythms of LA so well that it’s hard not to hear him muttering his off-kilter, offhand observations as I drive around.)

I’ve read many people talk about how Gould’s Marlowe is an anachronism, how he’s this forties guy wandering around confused in a 70s LA, but he doesn’t feel anachronistic to me.  He’s in a strange position because he’s not an aging hippie and he’s not an uptight businessman, he’s somewhere in between.  Outwardly he judges no one (“It’s okay with me” is his comment on every fresh indignity he encounters) but inwardly he’s keeping notes, making connections and, when push comes to shove, judging quite harshly indeed.  Isn’t that Phillip Marlowe?

For that matter, did “Phillip Marlowe” ever really exist?  Or anyone like him?  The character that Chandler’s audience read, and Bogart played, did that make total sense to readers and audiences of the time, or was he a fantastic concoction even then, like James Bond in the 60s, Shaft in the 70s (or Columbo for that matter), Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the 00s?

In many ways, it seems like this movie is the missing link between The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski.  A lot of the same characters from Lebowski are here, and The Dude in many ways seems like the logical extension of Gould’s work.  I wonder if, given 30 years time or so, Lebowski will seem less like a parody and more like an unconventional-conventional detective story as well.

Casting notes: seeing Sterling Hayden in a beard playing the alcoholic, washed-up writer reminds me that he was originally cast as Quint in Jaws.  His performance here gives a tantalizing glimpse of what that might have been like.  And a young man named Arnold Schwarzeneggar plays a nameless thug working for Jackie Treehorn Marty Augustine.
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10 Responses to “The Long Goodbye”
  1. leborcham says:

    One of my favorite Altman movies, and the perfect example of an adaptation that CHANGES THE ENDING AND THUS THE VERY MEANING OF THE BOOK IT IS BASED ON AND YET…still works.

  2. rjwhite says:

    Boy, this film.

    The novel is one of the greatest I have ever read. I have seen the film twice and it annoys/frustrates me to no end.

    • Todd says:

      Would you care to elaborate?

      • rjwhite says:

        When I first saw it, in college, I hadn’t read the book, but something seemed- I don’t know- off about the whole thing. The ramblingness of it just got to me, for some reason and the ending really bugged me.

        Several years later, I read the book. Loved it- every single word. I decided to give the film another go and it just bothered me even more. Though, I thought Sterling Hayden was much better this time. But that ending- just wore at me even more on the second viewing.

        I don’t know- I think Lebowski is a much more faithful Chandler film and it’s not even based on one of his books. The feel just seems more right, somehow.

        Maybe you’ve hit something with that rhythms of LA angle and it just never resonated with me.

        Of course, this is making me come off like some sort of “I HATE CHANGE! ONLY WORD-FOR-WORD ADAPTATIONS FOR ME, THANKS” crank.

        • Todd says:

          Wikipedia says that Leigh Brackett, who adapted The Big Sleep for Howard Hawks back in the day, came up with the new ending for Long Goodbye herself, and Altman liked it so much he had it put in his contract that the studio couldn’t change it.

          Your avatar indicates that you have noir credentials, so I will take it for granted that Altman and Gould missed (or avoided) some salient aspect of the novel.

          • Anonymous says:


            I used to have that Jack Davis poster, it was what they used when we showed the film at the film house I used to work at back in college. The idea behind it was to lure in all the saps who thought Elliot Gould was a laugh riot in M*A*S*H. You’re right to consider the film a parody, since it was; it’s just not a comedy, though there’s plenty that’s darkly funny in it. I’m a huge Chandler fan, and, spiritually, at least, it’s far and away the most faithful adaptation, even while being the least faithful. There’s a scene where Gould wakes up in a hospital bed, and there’s a guy wrapped head to toe in bandages in the bed over. The doctor comes in, tells Marlowe he can’t leave, and Gould says, “I’m not Marlowe [pointing to the mummified man] HE’S Marlowe.” That’s the point in the film where Gould and Altman break entirely with the Chandler tradition, even while they sideways uphold it. That’s where they leave “Marlowe” behind. The Los Angeles of the film, however, is very much “the great wrong place” of Chandler’s novels; where the parody comes in is that Gould/Altman demonstrate how worthless the idea of “the last knight” (as Chandler describes the P.I. in his essay “The Fine Art Of Murder”) is in a place where EVERYONE, even the doe-eyed, apparently vacant and innocent girls next door, accepts the corruption and filth, even the off-color of the sky, as the natural state of things, and it isn’t until “Marlowe” abandons the path of the Last Knight, until he functionally abandons the IDEA of “Marlowe” and accepts the world for what it is, that he becomes effective in it.

            I know a lot of Chandler purists who hate the film with a passion, but it evokes the world Chandler wrote about better than any other adaptation of his novels, while it also draws the logical conclusion the avoidance of which was the most appealing conceit of Chandler’s work. It’s not so much that they missed any salient aspects of the novel, that just wasn’t ultimately the story they were telling, and I doubt a faithful adaptation would have told it nearly so well.

            Make sense?

            Steven Grant

            • Todd says:

              Re: Gould/Altman/Marlow

              I certainly get that Brackett, Altman and Gould sidestepped some literal aspects of the literary Marlowe in order to get at a larger truth about the novel, the city and the character.

              Does he wander around muttering in the book?

              • Anonymous says:

                Re: Gould/Altman/Marlow

                As I recall – it’s been awhile since I read one – the Philip Marlowe stories are all narrated in the first person, so he does provide a running commentary, of which Gould’s muttering is a debased version, yeah. So, sort of.

                I hadn’t thought about that in awhile. Last year for Moonstone I did a 48 page one shot of PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE, a short-lived ’40s radio show that was sort of Philip Marlowe on steroids. I originally had no interest in the character, who I’d never heard of, until I read one of the old radio scripts. Novak narrates ala Marlowe but the similes, metaphors and analogies were so insanely overwrought that I had to take a crack at it. The version I came up with was that it was modern day but that Novak was the same character he was in the ’40s radio show, so he’s an old man in my story, and he goes around narrating the story, talking to the air like he talked on the radio, scaring the hell out of pigeons and passersby. Which, I guess, is sort of an extension of the motif Altman and Gould developed in THE LONG GOODBYE, though I hadn’t thought about it before this…

                – SG

  3. toliverchap says:

    I think one reason that Gould’s Marlowe could be seen as a parody is because post WW II with the growth of suburbia this sort of detective character was given a bad rap and portrayed more as a bully and idiot like the detective Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). This outlaw hero status was not something that gelled with the 50’s society sensibilities. It definitely was something that worked in the more disillusioned nihilistic world that came about in the 1970’s where films with endings and characters like those in Chinatown and The Long Goodbye seem to make sense.

  4. craigjclark says:

    I still need to go back and watch this film. (I was on an Altman renting spree a few months before the DVD came out, so I never got to see it letterboxed.)

    I was in a Borders over the weekend and saw that Faber and Faber has put out an Altman on Altman book, which I’m sure goes into a certain amount of detail about this film, but I have the abridged version that was published in Projections No. 2 and here is some of what he says about it:

    “I never finished the book. I never understood it logically. If you really follow the plot, it isn’t valid — it doesn’t hold up — so I changed it. I got hold of a book called Raymond Chandler Speaking, which was a bunch of letters, essays and other pieces he’d written, and I gave that to all my collaborators, telling them, ‘This is the book that we are making.'”

    There’s more, but I’m not going to type out the whole thing.