'The Long Goodbye’ a 1970s take on a classic genre

by Baird Standish
Posted 3/28/24

Perhaps no other movie genre, save for the classic western, relies more on time and place than the detective movie. 

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'The Long Goodbye’ a 1970s take on a classic genre


Perhaps no other movie genre, save for the classic western, relies more on time and place than the detective movie.  Sherlock Holmes had his late Victorian era; Spade had his fog-bound San Francisco of the 1930s and 40s  (updated marginally from the novel's 1920s time period) and Philip Marlowe, the direct heir to Spade’s cynical gumshoe, had his Los Angeles of the 1940s and 50s.  In the novels of Raymond Chandler, a transplant from England who was born in Chicago, Los Angeles itself might be considered a character in its own right. The city is as important to these stories as Marlowe himself.  

Robert Altman, another transplanted Midwesterner and one of cinema’s great auteurs, adopted Los Angeles in the late 1950s and spent a decade making television shows there until his big break came with “M*A*S*H” in 1970. His films are idiosyncratic, character driven and have less to do with plot than human relations, social mores, and the worlds these characters inhabit.  

“The Long Goodbye” is one of only a few Chandler novels that had not been made into a movie by the time it fell into Altman’s hands. This film keeps the story’s location in Los Angeles but updates the story from 1954 to the early 1970s, a time of social upheaval and change. As an update, the film is not just a modern take on the detective genre but rather, through Marlowe’s investigations, a commentary on the cultural idiosyncrasies and mores of mid-1970s LA.  And what other city epitomizes the cultural extremes of the mid 1970s?  

The thing that this movie does so accurately and satirically is to highlight the culture of narcissism and navel-gazing (note the ladies who live next door) that pervade Marlowe’s world.  Marlowe comes across as a transplant from a bygone era, out of place in this world with his suit and tie, relatively short hair, 1948 Lincoln convertible Cabriolet and chain smoking straight camel cigarettes.

To highlight the lack of dialogue he has with this world he is forced to live in, he has replaced the knowing voiceover narrative trope heard in countless detective films and television shows with talking to himself under his breath as if he is trying to work out this foreign world as he stumbles through it. The world of yesterday is more predictable and more rational. The old detective can solve a case based on his astute understanding of motives and piecing together how the clock might work.  In this new world these skills are useless. 

In the original novel, characters act according to some plan or scheme, half-baked though they may be.  As these plans unravel, the book examines regrets over broken human relations and aspirations gone wrong.  In contrast, the characters in this film act according to no apparent plans or aspirations but rather follow their whims and immediate appetites with complete disregard for others. Marlowe, a decent and moral man, as film critic Roger Ebert concluded in his four-star review, pursues the path of helping those who truly don’t deserve his help and ultimately will not benefit from it.  

Here are a few other brilliant quirks and details to look out for:

  • The soundtrack, for the most part (with the exception of the closing “Hooray for Hollywood”) consists of the same sad tune played in different styles and by different performers, from mariachi funeral march to piano bar ballad.
  • Gangsters no longer look or act like gangsters.  They wear track suits and act like your next-door neighbor, concerned about their kids and tennis game, and will invite you over for drinks.  And yet, they are capable of acts of spontaneous, irrational and shocking cruelty (a foreshadowing of “The Sopranos?”).  
  • Leigh Brackett, the screenwriter for this film also penned the famous Philip Marlowe vehicle “The Big Sleep” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
  • In a foreshadowing of meta filmmaking, Marlowe, in one scene, refers directly to dialogue from the original novel, saying “Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s this all about?’”
  • Henry Gibson’s character, at a tad over 5 feet tall, verbally intimidates giant 6-foot-5-inch Sterling Hayden’s sad confused Hemingwayesque character, another throwback to the old world.  
  • Nina van Pallandt, a real life 1970s icon, plays the wife of Hayden’s Roger Wade. She was famously linked in real life to Clifford Irving who conceived the fake autobiography of Howard Hughes in the early 1970s. Van Pallandt’s character was married to a failed writer in the film and the actress was attached to a famous failed writer in real life.
  • And famous baseball pitcher Jim Bouton, playing the character Terry Lennox and Marlowe’s best friend, comically tries to remember the third DiMaggio brother. The famous one, Joe, married Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe.  How soon we forget.   
  • And look out for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cameo role as one of the gangster’s henchmen.