Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Johnny California: THE LONG GOODBYE

 by JB

It is rare when a film can be both of a genre and a critique of that genre at the same time.

Thanks to the Criterion Channel, I had occasion last week to fill in a missing piece of my movie-brain and see a Robert Altman film that I had been MEANING to see for decades: his 1973 noir The Long Goodbye. Later, I discovered that I already owned the Kino-Lorber Blu-ray, but you know, the Blu-ray discs are in my office, and that’s a good FIFTEEN STEPS from the TV room. Thank God for streaming services!

The other day I learned that my son has been using my Criterion Channel log-in credentials for YEARS—perhaps he won the information from me in some sort of nefarious wager. (Okay, the truth is out there, Criterion. Come and arrest me! But before you do, please remember I am a Charter Subscriber.) I told the lad that, while I don’t stream often from the Criterion Channel, I consider my yearly fee to be something of a charitable contribution because I believe in the good work that they are doing and want them to stay afloat.

TANGENT: “The Long Goodbye” is also the nickname Patrick and I have given to the phenomenon that occurs whenever we try to get our wives to leave a party in fewer than 45 minutes. SO. MUCH. HUGGING.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is a private detective in contemporary LA. One night, he is visited by his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) who requests a ride to Tijuana, just over the Mexican border. Marlowe complies. Upon arriving back at his apartment, Marlowe is picked up by the local cops for questioning; Lennox’s wife has been murdered, and they suspect Lennox did it. Marlowe spends three days in jail.

Later, Lennox commits suicide, and the police consider both cases closed. Marlowe is hired by rich socialite Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her husband, author and alcoholic Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden). Marlowe quickly finds the eccentric Wade but runs afoul of local gangster Marty Augustine, who claims that Lennox owes him a lot of money. Marlowe continues to insist that his friend Lennox did not kill his wife nor commit suicide. Will Marlowe be proven right? Will Augustine collect his money? What does boozy Wade, long-suffering Eileen, or the Malibu Colony have to do with any of this?

Altman faced a formidable job in updating Raymond Chandler’s novel. His decision to set the film in the 1970s, not the 1940s, meant that the Marlowe character could easily have come off as a comic anachronism. I feel that Altman did three things that make the film work as a real detective story as well as a sly satire and critique of detective stories:

1) He cast Elliott Gould in the lead. Gould makes it work with a combination of laconic charm and effortless underplaying. Gould’s Marlowe counts on everyone in the film underestimating him so that he can go about his business and actually figure out the mystery. His constant refrain in the film is “It’s okay with me.” Gould leans into Chandler’s self-aware hero when he says lines straight from the novel like, “Is this where I'm supposed to say, ‘What's all this about?’ and you say, ‘Shut up! I ask the questions’?”
2) He hired Leigh Brackett to write the screenplay. Brackett had worked on the Chandler adaptation The Big Sleep twenty years earlier and was adept at the genre. Nerdier readers might remember that seven years later, Brackett co-wrote the screenplay of The Empire Strikes Back. Brackett dialed back a lot of the specifically 1940s stuff in the original novel and added the entire subplot involving Marty Augustine.

3) Altman insisted that the villains in the piece be authentic monsters. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, mobster Augustine tries to intimidate Marlowe by smashing a Coke bottle across his mistress’s face, saying, “Now that’s someone I love—you, I don’t even like.” Altman said, “it was supposed to remind the audience that [...] there is a real world out there, and it is a violent world.” This succeeds because, despite how the audience might react to Gould’s portrayal of Marlowe, we are being constantly reminded that the milieu in which he operates is no laughing matter. Supporting character Henry Gibson—most known by film-goers at the time for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In—turns in a performance that’s powerfully creepy.
Needless to say, I loved the film. Having recently moved here, I loved the film’s portrayal of LA as a sunny paradise that nevertheless does not give a shit about you... and provides danger at every turn. I’ve only been to Malibu a few times, but I loved the film’s whispered suggestion that there were unspeakable secrets hiding behind the high walls of every gorgeous beachfront mansion. I loved the look of the film. DP Vilmos Zsigmond “post-flashed” the film to give it a bleached, washed-out look, like a beach blanket that has been left in the sun too long. I loved Elliott Gould’s unconventional portrayal of a ’40s gumshoe, whose black suit and chain smoking announce him as the “other” in every situation he lands in. I love how we the audience, as well as several characters in the narrative, find out far too late that Gould is, in fact, the moral center of the film.

Of course, if for some reason, gentle reader, you do not wish to see this amazing film, “It’s okay with me.”


  1. Remember when every movie poster was done by a MAD Magazine artist? https://mdl.artvee.com/sftb/102038mpo.jpg

  2. Yes, this was part of the studio’s second campaign after the film’s first release fizzled. They then tried to sell it as a comedy— two people are murdered, one commits suicide, and a woman has a glass bottle broken across her face— hilarious!

  3. I love this movie so much. It might even be, if you twisted my arm, my favorite film of all time. It's a shambling masterpiece that's also shockingly violent at times. Great writeup, JB!