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The Long Goodbye

Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye was his penultimate novel featuring detective Philip Marlowe and, some say, his greatest work. Thus, noir purists understandably were outraged when maverick director Robert Altman decided to "re-invent" Marlowe in the form of Elliott Gould and set Chandler's 1952 L.A. story in pot-fogged, hippy-dippy 1973. But although the Marlowe of Altman's The Long Goodbye is more laid-back and reactive than the take-charge private dicks previously played by Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell and Robert Montgomery, Altman's experiment perfectly captures the sardonic absurdity with which Chandler viewed the denizens of Southern California. And even with the changes that the '60s had brought to America, a thug was still a thug, a dame was still a dame, and Gould's Marlowe was still a bemused and embittered observer of his fellow man's follies, just trying to get the truth in a world full of cheats, liars and charlatans. Almost 30 years after its theatrical release — and 50 years after the publication of the novel — The Long Goodbye is one of Altman's most coherent films, managing to be both topical and timeless. In presenting Marlowe as a man out of time (Altman says that his idea was that Marlowe had "been asleep for 20 years, woke up and ... wandered through the landscape of the film") Altman manages to honor the classic Hollywood private-eye picture while still casting a jaundiced eye on modern-day Los Angeles. A legitimate cult classic, it may be Altman's most underrated and misunderstood film. The screenplay of The Long Goodbye (by Leigh Brackett, who co-scripted 1946's The Big Sleep) has Marlowe awakened at 3 a.m. by his cat, demanding to be fed. When the all-night market doesn't have the only brand of food that his cat will eat, Marlowe tries to pull a switch on his feline companion and give him different food — but the cat is offended by the deception and takes off, launching a story that concerns relationships, lies, and betrayal. Marlowe's friend Terry Lennox (ex-baseball star Jim Bouton) shows up on his doorstep asking for a ride to Tijuana, and Marlowe asks no questions; when the cops arrive, telling Marlowe that Lennox's wife is dead, Marlowe tells them nothing. A man with integrity and a conscience in a world where these qualities seem to no longer exist, Marlowe refuses to believe his friend is a murderer, and his search for the truth ultimately involves him with the requisite hot blond (Nina Van Pallandt), her alcoholic novelist husband (Sterling Hayden), the husband's quack physician (Henry Gibson), and a psycho gangster (Mark Rydell). As befits Chandler, Marlowe takes punches from cops and criminals alike as he unravels the fabric of lies woven by everyone he encounters — all the while shaking his head at L.A.'s assorted floozies, boozers, hustlers and hoods.

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At the time that Altman was putting together The Long Goodbye, the 35-year-old Gould had gone from being a red-hot "counterculture" talent (based on his early Broadway success and the films Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and M*A*S*H) to suffering a major career slump; he hadn't worked for almost two years due to a reputation for being difficult. Disheveled and bleary-eyed, clad in a rumpled black suit, white shirt and tie, Gould portrays Marlowe not so much as an embittered cynic but as a man literally from another time — he has no need for '70s fashions, he chain-smokes, and he even drives a 1948 Lincoln (Gould's own car, in fact). The topless, weed-smoking, yoga-practicing girls in the apartment opposite don't interest him, and his oft-repeated mantra — used whenever he's particularly baffled by the absurdity of modern life — is, "Hey, it's okay with me." And the film is populated with enough of the sort of eccentrics beloved by both Chandler and Altman that the line is uttered often. One of the special charms of The Long Goodbye is the repeated use of the eponymous theme song, written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer. It's almost the only piece of music heard throughout the film, adapted to everything from mariachi to Muzak; it's played by a piano player in the bar Marlowe frequents, on car radios, by a Mexican funeral procession ... it's even the notes rung by a doorbell Marlowe pushes. Keep an eye out for a couple of notable uncredited performances, too — David Carradine as Marlowe's blabbermouth cell-mate and a young bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the bad guys' goons. MGM offers an amazingly clean and crisp DVD transfer of The Long Goodbye — for those of us who've been subjected to grainy, grubby, pan-and-scan video versions of the film for the past 30 years, this disc is like a Christmas present. Originally released in Panavision, the anamorphic presentation (2.35:1) preserves the film's original aspect ratio. The monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (in English or French) is as good as can be expected — Altman's tendency to overlap dialogue and his lax attitude towards cleanliness in his soundtracks is less pronounced here than in some of his other films, but it still makes for occasionally muddy audio. The music sounds quite good, though. The DVD also offers a couple of extras, which are beauties. The 25-minute "Rip Van Marlowe" featurette shouldn't be watched by anyone who hasn't seen the film before, as it begins almost immediately with a plot spoiler. But once you've seen the film, this informative and entertaining feature offers new interviews with Altman and Gould, plus stills from a deleted scene. The 14-minute "Vilmos Zsigmond Flashes The Long Goodbye" is a film geek's dream, with Zsigmond pontificating on the technical intricacies of the film's cinematography. Also on board is a reprint of a 1973 American Cinematographer article on Zsigmond's flashing technique (the method he used to push the film to get the specific look of the movie), some radio spots, and the theatrical trailer. (The '70s were a bad time for theatrical trailers, and the one for The Long Goodbye was no exception.)
—Dawn Taylor

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