Philip Marlowe has been asleep. Whether it’s been a literal and continuous Big Sleep that has lasted since we last saw the man in 1946 is unclear. But there are clues scattered about which suggest that it is. First off, genius screenwriter Leigh Brackett is back with another adaptation of a Raymond Chandler opus just as she was all those years earlier when she was Howard Hawks’s scribbler of choice. But regardless of the initial and obvious familiarity, things are markedly different than the last time we saw Marlowe. For the hope and exuberance of postwar 1946 has given way to the cultural malaise of 1973, a time where the fabric of the country was disintegrating under the twin stresses of Vietnam and Watergate and everything we thought we understood about America was turned upside down and was perpetually under audit.

Robert Altman’s masterful The Long Goodbye was the first in a wave of neo-noir films that flooded the American cinemas in the 1970’s. Along with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, and Robert Benton’s The Late Show (produced by Altman and both cast and crewed by many of his regulars), these films took the antique formula of the dogged private eye and turned it on its ear by examining the current culture through the newly-minted, cynical lenses of the Boomer Generation or making a contemporary allegory out of an old-fashioned period piece. In all of the cases, there was a strong, moralistic tone regarding right and wrong that would crack as the film unspooled and the hero found that he no longer recognized the world he was in, a theme that cut deeply with the intended audience.

This is strongest and most evident in The Long Goodbye, which, not coincidentally, was the first of the bunch. In it, private eye Philip Marlowe is juxtaposed immediately with a cinematic fantasy. As “Hooray For Hollywood” scratches its way over the soundtrack and we survey the lodgings of one of pop culture’s most indelible and toughest detectives, we immediately sense that something has gone directly to seed. Instead of clean-lined Humphrey Bogart, we get fuzzy, wrinkled, and unshaven Elliott Gould. And instead of having to jump into his car in the middle of the night to solve a hot mystery under the darkness of the Los Angeles night, Marlowe’s cat simply wakes him up because he’s hungry and wants some food.

While the trip to the grocery store for the cat food supplies the film with its most potent allegory about trust, it also serves to crosscut an escape from the Malibu Colony by one Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), lifelong buddy of Marlowe currently bruised and battle-scarred after a tussle with his wife, Sylvia. As he drives to Marlowe’s pad to request an emergency, middle of the night escort to Tijuana, Terry surveys the physical damage to his person; deep scratch on the face with a swollen and bruised hand. When Sylvia Lennox shows up beaten to death fifteen minutes into the film and Terry confesses to her murder in his own suicide note, Marlowe goes on a personal crusade to clear his friend’s name. In doing so, he mixes with an alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden), the writer’s icy blonde wife (Nina van Palllandt), an equal opportunity mafioso (Mark Rydell), and a quack doctor (Henry Giibson).

Clad in a cheap black suit that never comes off his corpus and prowling about in his 1948 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet with a bottomless supply of non-filtered Lucky Strikes, Marlowe stumbles through blanched, early 70’s L.A. in a total haze. Still smart enough to sniff out phony amateurs and bumbling hoods, Marlowe never seems to understand the gravity of his current situation or the physical stakes involved. And in direct opposition to Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep where Philip Marlowe seemed to glide through a studio-built Los Angeles with horny women throwing themselves at him without any effort on the part of Humphrey Bogart, Gould’s Marlowe can’t even negotiate a fruitful conversation with Mrs. Tewksbury, real estate agent to the rich and famous. “It’s ok with me,” a catchphrase he’ll employ throughout the film to signify his acceptance of any given situation without any shred of understanding, seems to fly out of his mouth with more frequency the closer the film gets to its conclusion.

What makes The Long Goodbye unique is that, like the other genre-blasting offerings by Altman, this is a detective film without much of a mystery at its center. Marlowe seems more intent on convincing himself of Lennox’s innocence than he really cares about clearing Lennox’s name and, like so many other Altman heroes, there is more than a touch of self-deception at play with Philip Marlowe. Lost in a landscape where ideals have become malleable, trust is transactional, and macaroni costs more than a quarter, Marlowe desperately builds a case out of the wildest of red herrings so he can continue to float along through life with his core values intact. Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes is gutted by the larger graft that has seared him very personally and Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby is frustrated at his inability to see three moves ahead of him but Philip Marlowe believes in a kind of idealistic clarity better suited for a time long since vanished, if it even ever really existed at all.

It isn’t until about the the middle of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, itself ostensibly a whodunit about a call girl killer, that the film’s mystery is lifted and the audience knows the identity of the murderer well before the titular cop figures it out. In The Long Goodbye, the detail of Terry Lennox’s bruised hand being concealed by the driving gloves is something told to the audience but not Marlowe and it is a reveal that occurs before the opening credits end. In essence, Altman wants us to know that Marlowe will spend the rest of the film being played for a sucker and expending a ton of shoe leather just to get his heart broken. In a world that’s gone all wrong, Marlowe is all right. Unfortunately for him, he’s all wrong in a world where, by his own constant admission, it’s all ok with him.



“I felt that the film was almost an essay, an education, to the audience, to say, ‘Stop looking at everything exactly the same way.’” – Robert Altman

When The Long Goodbye was released in 1973, United Artists promptly bungled its ad campaign. Robert Altman’s film radically reworked Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name and the studio had no idea how to market the offbeat movie. It polarized critics and promptly disappeared from theaters. People weren’t ready for its offbeat vibe and the way it satirized Los Angeles culture. However, it was Elliott Gould’s unusual take on private investigator Philip Marlowe that drew the lion’s share of people’s criticism. His loose, easy-going style flew in the face of the traditional interpretation made famous by Humphrey Bogart and was tantamount to heresy among cinephiles but in retrospect paved the way for a film like the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), which also confounded the mainstream with its own eccentric take on West Coast culture.

While trying in vain to feed his cat late one night, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Gould) receives a visit from his friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana, Mexico. When he returns home, the police are waiting for him and claim that Lennox brutally murdered his wife. Marlowe does not believe that his good friend is a murderer and refuses to tell the police anything. After three days in jail, he’s released when the police inform him that Lennox committed suicide in Mexico. It’s an open and shut case but something doesn’t quite sit right with Marlowe. He is subsequently hired by the wealthy Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her alcoholic husband, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a famous author with an Ernest Hemingway complex. Marlowe learns that the Wades knew the Lennoxes and that there is more to Terry’s suicide and his wife’s murder than initially reported.

The Long Goodbye
is bookended by the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” and the song quickly fades out as if to signal that this film will not be a classic noir take on Chandler. Marlowe wakes up after an undetermined period of time. How long has he been asleep? He mutters to himself while trying to feed his cat, a very fickle pet that will only eat a specific brand of food, and when he tries to fool the feline with another brand hidden in an old can, the cat bolts. So what is the purpose of the first ten minutes of the film dedicated to Marlowe feeding his cat? First off, it establishes that this is going to be a very different take on Chandler’s book and that Marlowe’s friend, Terry Lennox, is as fickle as his cat – he only hangs around Marlowe when he needs him but when he’s no longer of use, he splits. This opening scene came from a story a friend of Altman’s told him about his cat only eating one type of cat food.

The Long Goodbye
is much more than a murder mystery. Taking Chandler’s novel set in the 1940s and updating it to the 1970s, Altman is also interested in satirizing the superficiality of L.A. culture. Marlowe is surrounded by an odd cast of denizens that populate the city: his neighbors are a group of women who spend their time getting high and doing yoga with very little clothes on, the security guard for the Wade’s gated community does impersonations of famous actors like Barbara Stanwyk and Jimmy Stewart, and Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) is a nasty gangster who is proud of his Jewish heritage. Throughout it all, Marlowe repeats his own personal mantra of sorts, “It’s okay with me,” which personifies his easy-going nature.

The heart of the film is Elliot Gould. His Marlowe is a laid-back guy in a rumpled suit that wanders through the film muttering jokes to himself and chain smoking constantly. Gould’s character is man out of time, a throwback to another era, which provides a sharp contrast to the trendy, health-obsessed ’70s culture that surrounds him. Altman nicknamed Gould’s character Rip Van Marlowe, as if he had been wandering around L.A. in the early ‘70s but “trying to invoke the morals of a previous era.” The actor delivers a wonderful assortment of smart-ass comments to anyone who gives him trouble but also knows when to play it straight during key dramatic moments. He’s also not afraid to improvise in a given scene like when the police interrogate him and he smears the fingerprinting ink under his eyes like a football player and then applies it to the rest of his face a la Al Jolson, riffing off the police officer that is giving him a hard time. Gould delivers a multi-layered performance that ranks right up there with his other classic Altman films, M.A.S.H. (1970) and California Split (1974). There was clearly a creative synergy between the two men that resulted in both of their best work to date.

Producers Jerry Bick and Elliott Kastner commissioned a screenplay from Leigh Brackett, who had written the script for the Humphrey Bogart version of The Big Sleep (1946). The producers offered the script to both Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich. Both directors passed on it but Bogdanovich recommended Altman, whom he admired. Bick and Kastner sent Brackett’s script to Altman while he was shooting Images (1972) in Ireland. Brian Hutton was supposed to direct but was offered another film and Altman took over. Initially, he didn’t want to do it until he was told that Gould would be cast as Marlowe.

In adapting the book, Brackett had problems with its plot which she felt was “riddled with clichés” and was faced with the choice of doing it as a period piece or updating it. Altman and Brackett spent a lot of time talking over the plot. He wanted Marlowe to be a loser. Her first draft was too long and she shortened it but the ending was inconclusive. She had Marlowe shooting Terry Lennox because it was the way Hutton wanted it. Altman liked the ending because it was so out of character for Marlowe. He agreed to direct but only if the ending was not changed.

Altman conceived of the film as a satire and it was his decision to cast Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt. The director only knew Van Pallandt from The Johnny Carson Show and from the Clifford Irving scandal. He felt that she resembled a character from Chandler’s novel and the studio allowed him to do a screen test. He also made all kinds of changes to the script, like Wade’s suicide and Marty Augustine smashing the Coke bottle into his girlfriend’s face. Altman did not read Chandler’s book and instead gave copies of Raymond Chandler Speaking to the cast and crew and advised them to study the author’s literary essays. Altman originally wanted Dan Blocker for the role of Roger Wade but he died just before shooting began and the director was persuaded to meet with Sterling Hayden.

When Bogdanovich was briefly attached to the project, he wanted Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin to portray Marlowe. United Artists president David Picker may have picked Gould to play Marlowe as a ploy to get Altman to direct the film. Bogdanovich did not see Gould in the role because he was “too new” and left the project. Brian Hutton also wanted Gould to play the private detective. At the time, the actor was box office poison in Hollywood after his rumored troubles on the set of A Glimpse of Tiger where he argued with co-star Kim Darby, exchanged blows with director Anthony Harvey, and abused drugs as well as being unreliable and absent. Warner Bros. stopped the production early on and Gould claimed that he was blamed for its failure. The studio collected on an insurance policy that attested the actor was crazy. For The Long Goodbye, United Artists gave Gould the requisite physical before approving his contract and demanded a psychological exam to determine that the actor was mentally stable. Gould read the first draft of Brackett’s script described it as a “pastiche” and very convoluted. Altman called Gould to discuss the film and the actor told him that he always wanted to play Marlowe. Altman asked Gould to read the novel as well as Chandler on Chandler. Gould discovered that he was exactly the same age, height, and weight as Marlowe.

When it came to the scenes between Marlowe and Wade, Altman had Gould and Hayden ad-lib most of the dialogue. Hayden, with his long, scraggily beard and scattershot delivery of his dialogue, is great as the eccentric writer who constantly refers to Marlowe as “Marlboro” (“the Duke of Bullshit,” he adds at one point), in reference to his ever-present cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Hayden delivers a wonderfully unpredictable performance full of bluster and eccentric line readings. According to Altman, Hayden improvised a lot of his dialogue and was drunk and stoned on marijuana most of the time. In the scene where Marlowe tries to save Wade from drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean, Gould almost drowned when he went out too far. He was only able to do three takes. The director decided that the camera should never stop moving and put the camera on a dolly. However, the camera movements would counter the actions of the characters so that the audience would feel like a voyeur. To compensate for the harsh light of southern California, Altman gave the film a soft, pastel look reminiscent of old postcards from the 1940s.

Mark Rydell is something else as Marty Augustine. In the first scene we see him in he threatens Marlowe, then talks sweetly to his girlfriend, and then goes back to menacing Marlowe. At times, Augustine is downright charming and then he suddenly and shockingly smashes a Coke bottle across his girlfriend’s face just to make a point. With the shocking violence of this scene, Altman said, “It was supposed to get the attention of the audience and remind them that, in spite of Marlowe, there is a real world out there, and it is a violent world.” Augustine is clearly a psychopath and Rydell nails the character’s shifting moods with unsettling intensity. The Coke bottle scene is like a cold splash of water to the face and it causes not only the audience to sit up and notice but Marlowe as well, who, up to this point, has mostly been in his own little world. Now, Marlowe has a real, vested interest in what happened to his friend Lennox because he owed Augustine a lot of money and is now threatening Marlowe’s life.

The Long Goodbye
was previewed at the Tarrytown Conference Center in New York. The gala was hosted by Judith Crist, then the film critic for New York magazine. Altman flew in for the Q&A session. The film was not well-received by the audience except for Nina Van Pallandt’s performance, which got good notices. The mood at the Q&A was “vaguely hostile” and afterwards Altman was reportedly “depressed.” The Long Goodbye did not fare well in its limited release in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami. As a result, the New York City opening was canceled at the last minute after several advance screenings had already been held for the press. The Long Goodbye received mixed reaction from critics and performed poorly at the box office because of the unconventional story, plot, and character changes from the novel.

The film was abruptly withdrawn from release by United Artists with rumors that it would be re-edited. Altman went to Picker and told him, “No wonder the fucking picture is failing. It’s giving the wrong impression. You make it look like a thriller and it’s not, it’s a satire.” The studio analyzed the reviews for six months and concluded that the advertising campaign was too narrow. They created a new release strategy for The Long Goodbye with a novel ad campaign that featured a poster illustrated by legendary Mad magazine artist Jack Davis. Altman explained that he “had to prepare audiences for a movie that satirizes Hollywood and the entire Chandler genre.” United Artists spent $40,000, and the New York City première was profitably and critically successful. The Long Goodbye ended up on The New York Times’ year-end Ten Best list. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond won the National Society of Film Critics’ award for best cinematography in 1973. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done and the film still failed to perform well elsewhere.

The Long Goodbye
has endured and become one of Altman’s signature films. It also has some famous fans, chief among them the Coen brothers who cite it as their favorite of Altman’s and an influence on The Big Lebowski. Aside from being a cheeky satire on Hollywood almost as much as The Player (1992) was, a later Altman film that brought him back into the mainstream, it is a film about loyalty. By the end of the film, Marlowe has learned a valuable lesson – there are some friends you don’t stick your neck out for. He is loyal to a fault and realizes that Lennox wasn’t the friend that he thought he was. As the Altman quote states at the beginning of this article, Marlowe is forced to stop looking at everything exactly the same way, just as we are, and see his friend for who he truly is.