THE LONG GOODBYE, judging by reviews, mostly those done in retrospect, seems to occupy a high perch among fans of Robert Altman and Elliott Gould (in later interviews they were quite happy with their work and pleased with the re-evaluation), but it was not well-received when it came out in 1973, limping at 99th place for the year, with a gross of $2,900,000 not enough to paper the $1,700,000 expended. *
Working off a screenplay by the redoubtable Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo), Altman & Co. take Raymond Chandler’s sixth ‘Philip Marlowe’ novel, a 320-page plot-spinner from 1953, flay it to suit their own designs and update the action to the hippy-dipped Nixon Era. Altman’s twist on Brackett’s adaptation was to gamble on a “Rip Van Marlowe” approach, having Gould’s rumpled character look, dress and act out of step with the hedonistic, values-optional L.A. of the 70s. Driving a 1948 Cabriolet Lincoln Continental Convertible, lighting up or dragging on a coffin nail in every scene (you cough just watching), the Bob & Elliott version of Marlowe ambles through the 112 minutes, a detached outside observer of everything around him. Yet he’s bone-dogged on the case he’s tackled, which has a personal involvement for him beyond a paycheck.
When a missing friend is said to have committed suicide after murdering his wife, ultra-laid-back gumshoe Philip Marlowe ties in his pal’s situation with a rich, sexy client from Malibu, who’s hired him to find her husband, a boozing, self-destructive writer. A vicious gangster enters the picture, demanding Marlowe find money owed him by the dead guy. Lies reveal truths. Clue strings tangle. Some may be sober but no one is clean. It’s a Knave New World for the smart-mouth, chain-smoking private dick.
Altman’s choice to have cinematographer Vilmos Szigmond keep the camera in constant fluid motion invites an essentially voyeuristic perspective to the movements and conversations (mercifully it’s not jiggly, such as a later generation would drive to the loony bin) and lights it to recall the patina of old postcards. John Williams’ scoring is another unusual move, having “The Long Goodbye”, the theme tune he composed and Johnny Mercer wrote, play in various background guises throughout the film.
Offbeat casting choices both add and detract. The Malibu trophy hostess ‘Eileen Wade’ is Nina van Pallandt, 41-year old Danish cabaret singer, Baroness and former mistress of Howard Hughes hoaxer Clifford Irving. Her whacked-out husband ‘Roger’ is Sterling Hayden, 56, hammered himself while filming, on pot, liquor, hash—and life, rip-roaring with improv…
WADE: “What’ll you have?” MARLOWE: “What are you drinking?” WADE: “What I’m drinking is called Aquavit.” MARLOWE: “I’m drinking what you’re drinking. ” WADE: “Well God bless you. I like to hear that. People these days go, ‘Oh, I want a little of this. Oh, and a little of that and a twist of lemon.’ Balls!” **
Unpredictable hood ‘Marty Augustine’ is director Mark Rydell (The Reivers, The Cowboys, On Golden Pond), who has one of the 70s more shocking violence moments: to convince Marlowe he’s serious about threats, he suddenly breaks a bottle across the face of his pretty girlfriend. She’s played by Jo Ann Brody, a waitress Altman, Gould and Rydell were charmed by at dinner.
Marlowe’s presumed-dead buddy was done by Jim Bouton, former Yankees pitcher and author of the bestseller “Ball Four”. Laugh-In’s deadpan comic poet Henry Gibson plays a vaguely sinister quack doctor (seeing the 5’3″ Gibson slap the bearlike Hayden, 14 inches taller, is good for a chuckle). Others on board included David Arkin, Warren Berlinger, David Carradine (unbilled cameo) and a pumped-up, mustachioed Arnold Schwarzenegger (25, unaccredited, his second film appearance).
Besides the off-kilter cross-section of humans, the movie provides the feature debut of the remarkable, original Morris the Cat (of “finicky” commercials fame) and has three Doberman’s used to “enact” Ms. van Pallandt’s loyal guard dog. Scenes with Gould and Hayden sparring around a large and quite obviously upset Doberman Pinscher look pretty damn nervy. So does the nighttime seaside segment, with Gould, Hayden and van Pallandt eschewing stunt doubles (bravely or just stoned out of their gourds) in some fairly wild waves.
Then…finally, there’s Elliott Gould. Leigh Brackett on Gould: “I thought he did a beautiful job. However, the thing about Elliott is that he isn’t tough. His face is gentle, his eyes are kind and he doesn’t have that touch of cruelty that you associate with these characters.”
I wish I could share the late Ms. Brackett’s sentiments, but I have never, over the course of half a century now, been able to fathom the appeal of or detect particular talent in the guy. I think he was the worst major “find” of that era (at least Raquel Welch was something to look at: you could always plug your ears). His Marlowe is not only no Chandler or Bogart, no Mitchum or Powell or Garner, but it’s one of the laziest, sloppiest, most smugly self-indulgent lead performances of the entire 1970s.
Tidbit for those who idealize Altman as “maverick” and “outsider”: feel free to have brie by the sea on me with the reveal that the location used to place-mark L.A. phonies in their out-to-lunch lifestyles—the fictive Malibu digs of the shallow posers played by van Pallandt and Hayden—was the actual Malibu home of…Robert Altman. One born every minute…
* 1973, a BIG year for crime: The Sting, Magnum Force, The Stone Killer, Walking Tall, Badlands, Charley Varrick, Dillinger, Electra-Glide in Blue, Cops and Robbers, The Day Of The Jackal, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, The Laughing Policeman, Serpico, The Last Of Sheila, The Seven-Ups, Mean Streets, Shamus. With the exception of the last, I’d rather watch any of the rest of that wild bunch than sit still for Elliott Gould mumbling ad-libs through his cigarettes. What was it about that year that so goaded the law & disorder genre? In addition to the incomplete perp walk above, there were also an unmagnificent seven of blaxploitation crime pictures (Coffy, Hell Up In Harlem, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, Superfly T.N.T., Black Caesar, Five On The Black Hand Side and Cleopatra Jones). Even the fading western genre’s few gestures were crime-centered: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Train Robbers, Cahill U.S. Marshal, Kid Blue, High Plains Drifter. Of course, Nixon was President, and his Watergate flooded the news, so….
** The snarling Doberman’s are one thing, but Hayden is a force of nature to reckon with. He said “That was first thing I ever did that I could actually stand to watch on screen–the first time I wasn’t acutely mortified. It’ll be the only role I’m not ashamed of…Roger Wade is so close to myself. A man who drinks because he’s afraid of fear and failure, afraid he may be a coward.” Wow. Hayden’s life was anything but that of a skulker, and the hulking giant—adventurous mariner, genuine war hero and superb author—did what so many of us do: sold himself short. He was memorable in The Asphalt Jungle, Dr. Strangelove, The Godfather, 1900 and King Of The Gypsies. In this project, he replaced Altman’s friend Dan Blocker, who died suddenly at 43, before the film started. Big Dan would have been good—he’d proven his threat factor as the one shining element in another private eye flick, Sinatra’s 2nd ‘Tony Rome’ twaddle, Lady In Cement, but as the wasted wild man Wade here, Hayden is Sterling silver.
Elliott? No Gould.