The Long Goodbye (1973)


(director: Robert Altman; screenwriters: from the book by Raymond Chandler/Leigh Brackett; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond; editor: Lou Lombardo; music: John Williams; cast: Elliott Gould (Philip Marlowe), Nina Van Pallandt (Eileen Wade), Sterling Hayden (Roger Wade), Henry Gibson (Dr. Veeringer), Mark Rydell (Marty Augustine), Jim Bouton (Terry Lennox), Arnold Schwarzenneger (Augustine’s Hood), Jo Ann Brody (Jo Ann Eggenweiler); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Jerry Bick; United Artists; 1973)
“More a film about friendship and betrayal than murder.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Maverick director Robert Altman (“Brewster McCloud”) uniquely updates Raymond Chandler’s 1953 pulp-fiction novel and brings his 1940s antihero protagonist, Los Angeles private eye, Philip Marlowe, into the mod world of the 1970s through Elliott Gould’s humorous characterization of him as an easy going, wisecracking, big slob with a soft-heart for cats and who is someone willing to go against his tough-guy philosophy and be neighborly with a group of females tuning out the world by practicing an off-beat yoga. The only thing Marlowe can’t accept is the selfishness of the “me only generation”, as he clings through thick and thin to his old-fashioned values of loyalty and lasting friendship.

Though the last goodbye is said by way of a bullet, this is nevertheless more a film about friendship and betrayal than murder. This biting Marlowe version is ably scripted by the gifted Leigh Brackett, though it might certainly not please all purists; but, aside from putting a modern face on the private eye, it remains very faithful to the author’s printed words in tone and spirit.

The film opens as Marlowe is awakened at night to feed his hungry cat, but the fussy cat refuses the chow because it’s not his usual brand; this causes Marlowe to leave his dumpy apartment, high up in the hills of Los Angeles, to go shopping at the local grocery for the cat’s brand. Returning, he finds his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton, former Yankee pitcher) by his door telling him he’s in big trouble and pleads for him to drive him over the border to Tijuana before the gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) catches up with him.

Upon his return to Los Angeles Marlowe is questioned by the police over the murder of Terry’s wife Sylvia, and when they consider him a wiseguy for not cooperating hold him in jail for a few days on trumped up charges. They release him when they receive word from the Mexican authorities that Terry committed suicide and signed a suicide note confessing to his wife’s murder. Marlowe can’t believe his pal is a murderer and soon plans to start investigating the truth. In the meantime, he accepts a new case from Terry’s attractive Malibu neighbor Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), whose alcoholic writer hubby, the eccentric Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), has been missing for a week.

Marlowe locates Roger being held in some suspicious sanitarium run by the creepy Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson). The nutty Roger is rescued by Marlowe, who has wrapped up that case with relative ease. He also receives a goodbye note from Terry and a $5,000 bill enclosed with a thank you. In a short time, he’s visited by the psychopathic Augustine and his posse (Arnold Schwarzenneger has a bit part as one of the thugs). The vicious gangster informs him that Terry went with him to Mexico with a suitcase filled with $350,000 of his money that has vanished. He threatens physical harm if the money isn’t returned. When Augustine leaves, the detective trails him and discovers the gangster visiting Eileen, who lies about the nature of their meeting. But Eileen tells him Roger was having an affair with Sylvia, and after a beach party for the locals Roger commits suicide by drowning. Marlowe thinks it might be because he’s guilty of murdering Sylvia, but to make sure he travels to Mexico to collaborate the death of his friend. Upon his return to Los Angeles, he’s again threatened by the sadistic Augustine but the money suddenly reappears. Marlowe then finds his manipulative friend Terry alive and sitting alone by the pool of Eileen’s house, which becomes too much for him to bear as he learns that even the Mexican authorities were bribed in Terry’s callous scheme.

Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s dreary color tones gives this film a stunning film noir look. The flawless acting and the intelligent presentation, make this absurd unrealistic film work in some impossible way as one of the better and more memorable ones of the 1970s.