Long Goodbye, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/01/07 14:45:48
(Worth A Look)
Even in 1973, Elliot Gould must have seemed an odd choice to play a private eye most famously portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Sleep". But that's sort of the point - Robert Altman's Los Angeles may be a different place than the city that was home to so many excellent film noir tales thirty years earlier, but some things are still the same, even if people go about things a bit differently.There's something unsavory going on at the Malibu Colony, an expensive gated community: Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) makes a late exit, asking his old friend Philip Marlowe (Gould) to give him a ride to the border. He does, but when Marlowe gets back home, he learns that Lennox's wife has been murdered, and spends three days in jail for accessory after the fact. When the private investigator is released, he learns that Lennox is dead. But his business at the Malibu Colony isn't done - Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) hires him to help find her husband Roger (Sterling Hayden). This is easy enough, and it gives him an in to poke around the complex to find out who really killed Lennox's wife. Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) looks good for it - the gangster claims Lennox owes him money, and thinks Marlowe might know where it is.
Rather than film The Long Goodbye as a period piece, Altman opts to set it in then-present-day (1973) Los Angeles. Marlowe's neighbors are a bunch of blissed-out hippie girls who spend a lot of time topless, establishing exterior shots are more likely to show the freeway than a densely populated town, and everybody talks in movie references - Marlowe refers to calling Ronald Reagan, rather than just the governor, both to nail down the time frame and to point out how Hollywood has taken over.
Marlowe himself is different, though not so much as his initial introduction may make him appear to be. Philip Marlowe as played by Humphrey Bogart would probably never sink to the point of trying to fool his finicky cat into eating off-brand cat food by switching can labels, but Gould's rendition may be a more truthful rendition of the life of a P.I. - too many late nights to meet anybody respectable, and they'd just assume you worked nothing but sleazy divorce cases anyway. Gould may play Marlowe as an aging schlub, but he shouldn't be mistaken for someone who's weak or stupid - he's just world-weary. Gould gives the character a sort of mild sarcasm, often coming off as more pathetic then contemptuous, and doing it well enough that it's tough to tell whether that's what Marlowe wants people to think.
Gould's supported by a cast that's nearly as entertaining as he is. Nina van Pallandt is a willowy blonde who looks like she might blow away in a mild wind, though she occasionally displays the kind of quiet strength that makes her difficult to pigeonhole - she doesn't quite seem the damsel who deserves to be rescued even if she's not completely helpless, but there's hints that she has strength of character on top of strength of will. She's a not-obvious wild card. Sterling Hayden, meanwhile, is a treat to watch as Roger: Everything about him is larger than life, from his frame to his beard to his voice; Hayden makes Roger dominate a room until some of the character's other big attributes (like addictions and insecurity) are brought into play, and then it's all too clear how this bear of a man can be laid low.
Mark Rydell plays the most obvious potential villain in the piece, a gangster without the panache of crooks previous generations' Marlowes would have faced - a violent thug who surrounds himself with larger thugs, and doesn't even try to make himself appear to be something else. Jim Bouton isn't around for very long as Lennox, but he and Gould are convincing friends, and he gives off just enough of a questionable vibe that the audience figures Marlowe might be better off not taking what he says at face value. Henry Gibson adds creepy menace as a doctor running a rest home, whereas David Arkin is a great source of comic relief as the young hood tasked with following Marlowe: His attention wanders to the girls next door, and he doesn't quite seem to get that Marlowe's not supposed to know he's being followed.
That's one of the best sequences where The Long Goodbye approaches the wit of its famous predecessor, not that those moments are few and far between. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett also co-wrote the script for The Big Sleep, and hadn't lost the knack of sprinkling a murder mystery with fun lines. Altman's take on the material is unique, taking lines that might have been hard-boiled voiceover narration and having Gould deliver them as mumbled asides. He also has cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond create an inverted noir environment, with the sun washing away any shadows, making Nina van Pallandt seem almost insubstantial. One thing that seems a lot more clever in concept than execution, though, is the choice of using the title song (by John Williams and Johnny Mercer), in various versions, for every bit of incidental music and scoring.Altman subverted the film noir genre in every way he could here, and yet the movie he made is still a fine detective story.
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