Robert Altman’s Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) isn’t a hard-bitten cynic but rather, a seemingly scattered, chain-smoking hippie in a suit (his mantra? “it’s okay with me”), as bemused by the conservative cops who roughly bring him in for questioning (“Someday all the pigs are gonna’ be in here and all the people are gonna’ be out there. You can bet on that. You’re not in here. It’s just your body”) as the perpetually stoned yoga nudists who are his neighbors (“They’re not even there. It’s okay with me”). The truth is that much is decidedly not okay with Marlowe, in particular, his being used by old friend Terry Lennox (former NY Yankee pitcher and baseball whistleblower Jim Bouton) after the mysterious death of Lennox’s wife. As Marlowe floats through a Los Angeles that feels desolate and burnt out, he moves closer and closer to the truth, navigating the authorities, hangers-on and brutes while standing by his friend.
Mark Rydell, who later became a decent director (Cinderella Liberty, On Golden Pond), stands out as a particularly chilling gangster who peppers his threats with loopy new age nonsense and boasts about his physical fitness regimen and the fact he lives near Nixon.
Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett aggressively revamp the source material, but Marlowe is still Chandler’s in many ways. He needles the cops (“Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s all this about?’ and he says, ‘Shut up! I ask the questions’?”), can shake from his seeming fog to register a keen read on the situation, and when he arrives at the end of the journey, he is all Chandler’s Marlowe, with his own unyielding code.
Critic David Ehrenstein once told me that The Long Goodbye “was” Los Angeles and while the film doesn’t figure prominently in Los Angeles Plays Itself, it’s hard to argue it doesn’t have Hollywood in its marrow. Movie memorabilia can be found in Marlowe’s otherwise bare bones apartment (which was just recently available for rent), presumably from a prior occupant. The security guard at a gated ocean community specializes in impressions, from Barbra Stanwyck to Jimmy Stewart to Walter Brennan. The score is some version of the torch song “The Long Goodbye”, be it Muzak in a supermarket or a cocktail lounge piano number, the same ditty re-packaged as only Hollywood can. Son of Old Hollywood Robert Carradine shows up as a jailhouse prophet and Altman exhibits prescience in his casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mute thug. LA itself seems an otherworldy ghost town, where everything seem to be trying to pass as a facsimile of the real thing. As Ehrenstein noted, “Back then the city was a sprawling, sleepy, empty place — Altman’s The Long Goodbye capturing its ultra-casual look and feel perfectly. ‘But there’s nothing there,” my east coast friends would say”).
This is a seminal picture, and a prime example of reinventing a genre.