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The Long Goodbye
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The Long Goodbye

Given its place in Robert Altman's filmography, The Long Goodbye (1973) looks to be part of a grand plan. He had reimagined the war comedy for the seventies sensibility in M*A*S*H (1970) and reworked the western as a bitter satire of the frontier myth of individualism and entrepreneurial enterprise in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). The Long Goodbye deconstructs the myth of the American private eye as the urban knight on the corrupt city and turns the hardboiled romanticism of Raymond Chandler's novel inside out. It stars a rumpled, slovenly Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe, far from the ideal imagined by Raymond Chandler for his saint of the city--"Hey, it's okay by me" is the mumbled philosophy of this rumpled private investigator in the 1970s Los Angeles--but ideal for Altman's idiosyncratic adaptation. This take on Marlowe was, in Altman's words, "Rip Van Marlowe, as if he'd been asleep for twenty years, had woken up and was wandering through this landscape of the early 1970s but trying to invoke the morals of a previous era."

The project did not originate with Altman--producers Jerry Bick and Elliott Kastner optioned the novel and commissioned the screenplay from Leigh Brackett--and he wasn't the first director considered. Brackett had adapted Chandler's The Big Sleep for Howard Hawks almost thirty years before and Hawks was their first choice for this project, which they envisioned as a straight-up adaptation with Robert Mitchum in the lead. By the time it was offered to Altman, many of the major changes to the novel were already in Brackett's script, including the controversial ending, and Elliott Gould was attached to play Philip Marlowe. "Then I was interested," Altman told David Thompson. "I said, 'I'll do the picture but you cannot change the ending!'... If she hadn't written that ending, I guarantee I wouldn't have done it." He worked with Brackett on additional changes and, in his usual method, invited the actors to bring their own ideas to the characters and the dialogue. He handed out copies of "Raymond Chandler Speaking," a collection of letters and essays by the author, to his cast for insight into his approach. "I took the two characters, both Philip Marlowe and Roger Wade, and I took the character traits of Chandler and applied them to both, and I made one the voice and one the conscience."

Altman filled out the supporting cast with equally unconventional choices. Nina van Pallandt was a folk singer from Denmark who made her feature debut playing the tall, blonde femme fatale. Professional baseball veteran Jim Bouton was given the role of Terry Lennox, Marlowe's best friend who flees the U.S. after his wife is murdered. Henry Gibson was best known for his work in the comedy ensemble of Laugh-In when Altman asked him to play the part of a manipulative psychiatrist with a sinister side ("casting me had to be somehow intuitive on his part or for his own amusement," Gibson later mused), but he later became a familiar face in the Altman stock company. The role of gangster Marty Augustine was offered to Mark Rydell, a friend and fellow director who jumped at the chance to experience Altman's approach. And note Augustine's hulking bodyguard; it's Arnold Schwarzenegger (then a bodybuilder who billed himself as Arnold Strong on screen) in an uncredited appearance.

The part of Roger Wade, the macho, washed-up literary lion, was written for Dan Blocker, who died just before the start of production. Sterling Hayden, who starred in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) but preferred sailing to acting, was a last-minute replacement. In Altman's words, he "was just perfect," and he ably improvised much of his dialogue with Gould. "It'll be the only role I'm not ashamed of," Hayden proclaimed in an interview, remarking that "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." Hayden, himself an alcoholic, gives a heartbreaking performance as the boozy, blustery Hemingway-esque writer. Hayden was "pretty well whacked out all the time" on marijuana and hashish according to both Altman and members of the cast. "It keeps me from being a drunk," he explained to Rydell.

Before shooting began, Altman worked out the visual approach with Vilmos Zsigmond in detail, from color to camera lenses to camera movement. They "flashed" the exposed footage, a technique they first used on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, to give the film a faded, vintage quality ("that soft pastel look you see on old postcards from the 1940s"), and sent the camera prowling through every scene. "I decided that the camera should never stop moving," Altman explained to Thompson. "It was arbitrary.... It gave me that feeling that when the audience sees the film, they're kind of a voyeur. You're looking at something you shouldn't be looking at."

One of the most novel creative inspirations was the way that Altman and composer John Williams wove the theme song, which Williams wrote with Johnny Mercer, through the texture of the film. You can hear different versions (both vocal and instrumental) coming from radios and it was reworked for a Mexican mariachi band, supermarket Muzak, even a doorbell chime. Williams credited Altman with the idea: "I don't think anyone has tried it quite the same way before or since."

Fans of hard-boiled fiction and Raymond Chandler were aghast at Altman's interpretation (some might say desecration) of Marlowe. "He is not Chandler's Marlowe, or mine, and I can't find him interesting, sympathetic or amusing, and I can't be sure who will," wrote Charles Champlin in his Los Angeles Times review. The initial release was a flop, so United Artists delayed the New York opening to rework the ad campaign, hiring Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis to create a new poster with caricatures and comic book word balloons to communicate the sense of satire in the film. The New York opening was a success, both commercially and critically (New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, "It's so good that I don't know where to begin describing it") but the film lost money nationwide. Its reputation, however, has only grown in stature. It made the New York Times Ten Best list and won the award for Best Cinematography from the National Society of Film Critics. Roger Ebert, who wrote the film "attempts to do a very interesting thing. It tries to be all genre and no story, and it almost works" in his 1973 review, upgraded the film in his "Great Movie" series in 2006: "The Long Goodbye attacks film noir with three of his most cherished tools: Whimsy, spontaneity and narrative perversity."

By Sean Axmaker

Robert Altman: American Innovator, Judith M. Kass. Popular Library, 1978.
Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, Patrick McGilligan. St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Altman on Altman, edited by David Thompson. Faber and Faber, 2006.
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, Mitchell Zuckoff. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
"'... they take on their own life...: Robert Altman Interviewed," Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy. Movietone News No. 55, September 1977.
"The Long Goodbye," Vincent Canby. The New York Times, October 29, 1973.
"A Private Eye's Honor Blackened," Charles Champlin. Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1973.
"The Long Goodbye," Roger Ebert. Chicago Sun-Times, March 7, 1973.
"Great Movie: The Long Goodbye," Roger Ebert., April 23, 2006.