The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman in 1973, is a revisionist and often darkly comic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s rather more hardboiled 1953 novel of the same name. The film was written by Leigh Brackett – one of the writers on the screenplay of exemplary film noir The Big Sleep in 1946.
In the fundamental central conceit of his picture, Altman envisaged his lead character as ‘Rip Van Marlowe’, waking up after a deep, 20-year sleep to a world (California – the early 70s, representing Hollywood values) that he simply doesn’t recognise. Out went the more restrained codes and practices of an earlier age, in came profanity, selfishness and confusing pot-addled New age-ism (personified in the group of scantily clad lady-hippies that live across the way from Marlowe). Consequently, Marlowe is a not only a walking anachronism clad in an outmoded JC Penney suit, but constantly a few steps off the pace when it comes to deciphering the plot. A likeable wise-ass, he is lied to, manipulated and, for a private detective, detects very little. Instead of a girl, Marlowe has a cat – a disloyal cat, too. When Marlowe can’t provide his pet with his favourite brand of cat food, it simply disappears; a smart comment on the self-absorbed era that Rip van Marlowe has found himself, and a foreshadow of the betrayal that awaits him in the story.
In presenting a hero who didn’t always have the right thing to say (Marlowe’s catchphrase is “It’s okay with me”, which can be roughly translated as “I don’t know what’s going on”), Altman stuck two fingers up at generic convention. Rather predictably, The Long Goodbye was also poorly received at the box office at the time of release. A misleading and unsuitable marketing campaign accentuated the traditional noir elements of the film (imagine WALL-E having a Transformers-esque poster campaign) and contributed to its initial failure. Furthermore, Gould’s ultra-laconic, mumbling performance was the antithesis of a hardboiled hero in the mould of Humphrey Bogart.
Much of the beauty of The Long Goodbye lies in the idiosyncratic detail and sharply observed minor characters, who comment upon the action and provide context in their own way. Take, for example, the security guard at the Malibu Colony, who badly (yet doggedly) impersonates figures from Hollywood’s past including Cary Grant and Walter Brennan in a defintie echo of the role that Gould’s Marlowe is playing. Any discussion of The Long Goodbye would be incomplete without a cursory mention of the bizarre, pec-flexing cameo appearance from a young Arnold Schwarzenneger. According to the director, Schwarzenegger refuses to talk about the film, or simply doesn’t remember it.
In presenting a detective story in which the chief investigative force is out of step with their time and not really sure what they’re up to, Altman created what I like to call a sub-genre called ‘shamble-noir’. Recent Park Circus re-release Cutter’s Way (1981), perhaps the very last significant picture of the vaunted ‘New Hollywood’ era, is such a film. In Cutter’s Way, the irascible, severely disabled Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard) and washed-up beach bum pal Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) embark on a doomed, whimsical hunt for the killer of a young woman, despite possessing nothing in the way of facts or evidence. These characters, with their sad interior lives, exist on the fringes of society and hurtle toward a tragic conclusion, never convincing as detectives, rather acting as architects of their own downfall.
Writer and head of film programme at the BFI Geoff Andrew has suggested that Cutter’s Way influenced the Coen Brothers’ madcap comedy The Big Lebowski, a film which itself functions as an update of The Long Goodbye. Certain noir archetypes ostensibly remain in place in Lebowski – a complex plot of cross and double cross, allusions to the femme fatale, gangsters (albeit gangsters moonlighting in a sub-Kraftwerk Krautrock outfit named Autobahn), and shady big business, but the general vibe is a relaxed one, with the narrative interrupted by frequent trips to the bowling alley and a host of wacky, discursive minor characters.
Jeff Bridges’ dishevelled, hapless Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski makes Gould’s Marlowe look like Robcop by comparison as he blunders from one dead end to the next, often in the company of his crazed friend Walter (John Goodman), like Cutter, a Vietnam veteran. The Dude, in the vein of Gould’s Marlowe, is an unlikely private dick, totally adrift in a world he is simply not suited to; The Big Lebowski is set in tumultuous Gulf War-era America, while The Dude is a relic of the 1970s hippy era. Our lovably shambolic anti-hero even has his own Marlowe-esque catchphrase: “The Dude abides”.
ln conclusion, The Long Goodbye is a refreshing, influential take on noir mythology, and a fantastic example of a film which, with distance, has gained deserved critical re-evaluation and cult classic status. Marlowe may have lost his cat, but he created ‘shamble-noir’ in the process.