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