Robert Altman does his version of the most intriguing genre of film making: Noir. The genre introduced in the 40s and made famous in the 50s, belongs, like its birth, in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Thus Altman here, in the 70s, brings us a Film Noir that mimics the Noirs of those era and at the same time show the love of a director for them, also. This is what The Long Goodbye is comprised of. A deep seating love for the genre it belongs to, while at the same time making the audience realize that we’re NOT in that time.
Adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name and written for the screen by Leigh Brackett (who was one of the writers for The Big Sleep, another one of adaptation of Chandler’s works), The Long Goodbye starts Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe, that well known detective to the readers of crime fiction. But the fact of the matter is that Altman’s and Gould’s Marlowe is a man lost in the world. He is living in the 50s, a time he is accustomed to. He has vivid differences from all the people around him. He is a chain smoker and a loner in a place where his next door neighbors are nude yogis. He is a man who often borders on amorality, but he has a code.
The plot of the movie unfolds much like the plot of film noirs does. It serves so as there is something on the screen to happen, more so for the pleasure of the audience. What really this noir is about Marlowe’s loner in a sea of people. The film opens with a very simple scene. Marlowe wakes up due to his cat’s scratching and he finds out that he is out of cat food. He drives to the all night grocery to find that the favorite brand of his cat is not there. Frustrated, he returns home and tries to trick his cat. But the cat is smart. She realizes that her favorite food is not there and she leaves, leaving Marlowe alone. This is such a simple scene but it establishes the tone of Altman’s movie perfectly. A man alone and lonely, not belonging anywhere in the place he lives. After that he is visited by an old friend, Terry (Jim Bouton) who asks him to drive to Tijuana. Like any good friend, he does. Next morning police comes to his place, telling him that Terry’s wife was found murdered and Terry is the suspect. This sets in motion the basic narrative of the film. But like any noir, this is not a simple case of whodunit. Rather, twists and turns are there like sweets in a candy shop. After three days in the custody of police, he is released and told that Terry has confessed and committed suicide. After that Marlowe becomes entangled in the affairs of an eccentric writer (Sterling Hayden), his beautiful wife (Nina Van Pallandt) and a gangster by the name of Augustine (Mark Rydell) all of which seems to link back to Terry, some way or the other. Now, Marlowe sets about to unfold the mystery behind his friend’s death.
In Altman’s noir he uses wit as a weapon. Quirky and mumbling, his Marlowe has little respect for the authorities or the gangsters or anyone else. He cracks jokes like crackers on the Fourth of July. “What’s this?” demands an officer, “A baby’s shoe,” replies Marlowe. The cigarette doesn’t leave his mouth for a moment and he is incessantly mumbling about one thing or another. “Thats okay with me,” he says often. Altman has shown us here his own version of what a film noir is. The character, Marlowe, he shows us is an anachronism itself.
All in all, the movie is a beautiful tribute to one of the most hard to describe genre of film making. It has beautiful night shots, which are the jewels of any good noir movie. The mist is there, the thrill is there, the private eye is there and the femme fatale is there. Must see.