The Long Goodbye (1973) Robert Altman


Back in 1973, when I first saw The Long Goodbye, at the Trans-Lux East on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, I did not like it. My mind set at that point in time was pure Bogart. I left the theater thinking Altman really missed the boat. I never watched the film again, that is, until just a few weeks ago. It took all these years to come to the realization that it wasn’t Robert Altman who missed the boat…but yours truly.

longgoodbyeIt wasn’t Altman’s style that bothered me. Having seen some of his earlier films (M.A.S.H., McCabe and Mrs. Miller among others) I was familiar with his overlapping dialogue, cartoonish personalities, rambling storyline and his proclivity for generally breaking the rules of genres. M.A.S.H. was revolutionary at the time and remains one of the great anti-war films of all time. McCabe and Mrs. Miller broke through the conventional thought of what a western should be. John Wayne must have cringed. So what was it that bugged me about The Long Goodbye? I’m not sure. I had only read Chandler’s The Big Sleep by the time I saw the film, so I was not some Chandler purist “insulted” by what Altman was doing to his classic detective anti-hero. On film, it was Bogart who was my reference point, having not yet seen Dick Powell’s depiction.

The Long Goodbye does meander along, taking its time before you know where it’s going. That may have been part, if not all, of my problem. Admittedly, Altman is an acquired taste. Some love his films, others just hate them. I like most of his work, he’s always interesting no matter what.

That all said, this recent viewing was a completely difference experience. I found it multi layered: a satirical, witty send up, and as you would expect, a breakdown of genre conventions. Still the film keeps many of Chandler’s archetypal characters (wives stuck in loveless relationships, low-rent hoods, and cops too bored to do the job right) but he does it with a twist.

And then there is Philip Marlowe.

goodbye3Altman’s Marlowe is not the hard boiled knight in 1940’s armor living by his own moral code. In fact, this Marlowe seems to lack a moral center. Altman, along with screenwriter Leigh Brackett, turned our anti-hero into a man who is out of his time. He is the complete outsider; from the law, the hoods, even to his neighbors like the semi-nude, yoga, meditating young women who live next door.

LONG-GOODBYEGouldNeighborsThough it seems at first to have little, if anything, to do with what follows, the opening sequence sets up the pace, style and theme (betrayal by a friend and the consequences that follow) for the entire film. We first see Marlowe in bed, still in his clothes. Its three o’clock in the morning and his cat wakes him up. The cat wants to eat. Out of food, Marlowe goes out to a local all-night grocery store, only to find out they are out of his feline’s favorite brand. He attempts to trick the cat by emptying a newly purchased different brand into an empty can of the cat’s favorite he pulled out of the garbage. As any cat owner knows, this is not going to work. The cat takes off and soon runs away never to be seen again.


We arrive at the center of the story when Marlowe’s friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) ask Marlowe to get him out of town and drive to Mexico. This sets off a series of incidents which leaves Marlowe in trouble with the law, local hoods and just about everyone else he runs into before finding out the truth and his own final resolution.

The film is vintage Altman, if not vintage Chandler. Once you accept that, you are in for a real revisionist ride. Gould is the perfect 70’s hipster-like Marlowe. His dress is sloppy, he mumbles, wise-cracks his way through dangerous situations, constantly smoking a cigarette, and is afraid of dogs. You ask yourself is he dumb or just way too cool. The one trait Marlowe still holds on to from his original incarnation is his loyalty to his friends. And yet, it is this loyalty that gets him in trouble.

There are also a nice array of supporting performances in the mix including Mark Rydell, as the leader of a gang of hoods, Henry Gibson as a phony new-age doctor and especially, Sterling Hayden as a Hemingway like author with Nina Van Pallandt as his long time suffering wife. They all have their own personal agendas and Marlowe, in his clumsy fashion, must make his way through a convoluted maze to discover the truth. Also, look for small walk-ons from David Carradine, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Gottlieb.

Screenwriter Leigh Brackett also had a hand in co-writing the Howard Hawks/Humphrey Bogart version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep. She wrote sharp wise guy dialogue and worked with Hawks in a few films including Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo. The cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who previously worked with Altman on Images and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, adds to the film’s ambiance and sun baked California look. Finally, there is an underrated soundtrack by John Williams.

If this is all too much outré and you like your noir P.I.’s more conventional, a nice alternative to this film is another 70’s Chandler adaptation, Dick Richard’s Farewell, My Lovely with Robert Mitchum.


17 comments on “The Long Goodbye (1973) Robert Altman

  1. le0pard13 says:

    An underrated film, for sure. I didn’t care for Altman’s take of the PI movie either when I first took it in. Definitely grew on me. Fine look at this, John.


  2. plwinkler says:

    Phil Kaufman didn’t direct Farewell, My Lovely. Dick Richards directed it.


  3. The Lady Eve says:

    The “meanderingness” of this one always tends to lose me, John, but I’ll give it another try. Leave it to Altman to revise a genre! Though he did play it pretty straight with “Gosford Park,” one of my favorites of his.


    • John Greco says:

      GOSFORD PARK is a very good film and true he did play in straight. I am actually going to watch THE LONG GOODBYE again in the near future, before I go out and declare it one of Altman’s best, which I am holding back on.


  4. I’ve never wanted to revisit this one, but perhaps it’s something the 2014-me will see more in than the 1970s-me.


    • John Greco says:

      Patricia, that’s what happened to me. I just did not get what Altman was doing back then. If you take the plunge, let me know hat you think.


  5. doug n says:

    Outstanding review. I had a similar reaction toy yours of “The Long Goodbye: when I first saw it. Seeing it as a Altman movie rather than a Chandler homage makes all the difference. I do hope someday a more faithful adaptation of the book is made by a talented filmmaker.


    • John Greco says:

      Thank you, Doug. It seems a lot of folks had similar reactions at the time and have revised their opinion after viewing it again years later. Like you, I would like to see a more faithful, straight adaption of Chandler’s book. Thanks for stopping by.


  6. Rick says:

    I haven’t seen it since it was released theatrically. I’m willing to give it second try. I’m fan of some Altman films (NASHVILLE) and not of others (McCABE AND MRS. MILLER). My biggest challenge was accepting Gould as Marlowe (having read the books and seen Dick Powell). I much prefer Mitchum’s FAREWELL MY LOVELY. I do think Altman’s use of inexperienced actors in key roles was intriguing with former baseball player Jim Bouton and Nina van Pallandt, who was once the girlfriend of Clifford Irving.


    • John Greco says:

      Altman is a required taste. While I like NASHVILLE, MCCABE, MASH, THEVIES LIKE US among others there are some like BREWSTER MCCLOUD, IMAGES and THREE WOMEN I cannot warm up to. As for Elliott Gould, well the entire film is kind of a fish out of water take on the PI film. lf the film were straight, GOULD would be an unlikely choice. Mitchum in both FAREWELL, MY LOVELY and THE BIG SLEEP (1978) plays is straight and he makes for a terrific Marlowe. I like his tired wearily look. For me, Bogart is tops though.


  7. Okay John…I took the plunge. And boy, oh boy was it cold. Freezing actually. Couldn’t take it so I had to get out…Seriously, that’s pretty much how it went. When I started watching it a couple of weeks ago I knew I was treading on unfamiliar territory, but hey, that’s Altman. So last night I made it as far as Marlow outside the “sanitarium’s” window “spying” on Sterling Hayden and Henry Gibson. That’s where I bailed. It’s just over my head. And though I kept telling myself to stick with it, that there’s going to be a big payoff, I’m just not that disciplined.
    I’ll save it for a rainy day…like, say, if I get the flu or something, God forbid.
    Haven’t seen Mitchum’s renditions yet, so I’m going to check those out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Well, you are not alone in your feelings. This is one of those films you either love or hate. Altman loved to turns thing upside down, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.


      • Yeah, I know. I may give it another try at some point. Like you said, you may not like Altman, but he is always interesting. He may, on occasion, play it straight, but he never plays it safe.
        Working on my next post. “The Secret in their Eyes”. The original, foreign film. Have you seen it? The 2015 remake was terrible.


      • John Greco says:

        I am not familiar with the original at all. I know of the 2015 film, read the reviews and have yet to see it. Looking forward to your review.

        Liked by 1 person

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