Thursday, 16 July 2015
THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)
What would happen if Philip Marlowe went to sleep for twenty years and awoke in the early 70s? This was the position that acclaimed director Robert Altman took in making his version of Raymond Chandler's THE LONG GOODBYE. He called the character Rip Van Marlowe: 'Trying to invoke the morals of a previous time' without specifically suggesting any fanciful sci-fi time-travel idea. Elliot Gould's rumpled charm is perfectly cast as the classic film-noir private detective on the trail of his friend Terry Lennox. The actor was very much a key 1970s icon playing the leisurely anti-authoritarian appeal to a tee. (A genial catchphrase of his in the film is 'It's okay with me').
Gould's attachment to the project was what turned Altman's initial lack of interest around. They had already made a great partnership in M*A*S*H three years before. As it turned out, his enthusiasm not only enabled the picture to be made, but earned Gould's gratitude for almost saving his career. The actor had recently gone from being a hot superstar to a lukewarm liability following an ill-judged walk away from a prospective film that he thought would be a failure.
The other stipulation the director made was to preserve writer Leigh Bracket's downbeat ending, wherein Marlowe shocks us by shooting dead the betraying friend who set him on the case. Altman insisted this be written into his contract and he got his way. He was right to do so as this is a compelling shock twist true to the message of integrity in the movie. Like many early '70s crime films, THE LONG GOODBYE doesn't cop out with a sanitised moral conclusion.
We are left in no doubt that this is the Los Angeles of the modern era that Marlowe wakes up in. There are free-wheeling girl neighbours into pot and their new age yoga and health-food lifestyle. An atmospheric drawling theme tune by John Williams and Johnny Mercer is a letimotif that haunts Marlowe on his journey as a doorbell tune and a Mexican band amongst others.There is a laid-back cool vibe in the air, yet an undercurrent of menace. Drug -dealing criminals are doing violent business in the city. One of them, Marty Augustine, wants to know where a large sum of money went that Lennox was meant to deliver for him. There is an uncredited early cameo here from a vacant looking Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of Augustine's heavies. He is given little to do except flex his muscles and stand about in his underpants looking decidedly unthreatening. (Understandably Altman said he never speaks of the role these days).
Nina Van Pallendt (singer of Nina and Frederik fame) acquits herself well as the long-suffering wife of Sterling Hayden, who here essays another in his gallery of vividly intimidating figures as an explosively erratic alcoholic. As the plot unfurls, we realise that the unpleasant Augustine, the married couple and the mysteriously-vanished Lennox are all connected - until Marlowe tracks down his lying pal and justice is served without regret.
THE LONG GOODBYE benefitted from a belatedly shrewd marketing campaign. Initially it was released with a faithfully 1940's looking poster, but Altman pulled this as he spotted it was misrepresenting the film's off-beat appeal. He instead had the brainwave of going to Jack Davis of Mad magazine. The artist drew an eye-catching poster in his comic style filled with all the characters complete with irreverent speech bubbles satirising themselves and the plot. When the film opened in New York it soon became a smash-hit, but was too late to make up for the previous campaign opening in all the other major US cities. However. as time has past it's deservedly found new life as a cult classic of the 1970s and a firm favourite of both Altman and Gould.