Elliott Gould was a hot Hollywood commodity in the early 1970’s. The former Mr. Barbra Streisand broke through in the 1969 sex farce BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, earning an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. He was marketed as a counter-culture rebel, quickly appearing in MOVE, GETTING STRAIGHT, LITTLE MURDERS, and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. But his flame dimmed just as fast, and his erratic onset behavior and rumored drug abuse caused him to become unemployable. When Altman decided to make the neo-noir THE LONG GOODBYE, he insisted on casting Gould as Philip Marlowe. The film put Gould back on the map, and though critics of the era weren’t crazy about it, THE LONG GOODBYE stands up well as an artifact of its era and a loving homage to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero.
Philip Marlowe is clearly an anachronism is 70’s LA, with his ever-present cigarette, cheap suit, beat-up ’48 Lincoln, and love for old jazz tunes. He’s a loner with only a cantankerous cat for company. Friend Terry Lennox pays him a visit, asking Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana after a fight with his wife. Marlowe accommodates his buddy, and is greeted upon his return by the cops, who tell him Lennox brutally beat his wife to death. Marlowe’s arrested when he refuses to cooperate, and sits in jail for three days. The cops let him go when it’s discovered Lennox committed suicide in Mexico. Marlowe doesn’t believe the murder rap against his buddy, and smells a rat, but the cops close their case.
The private eye is summoned to ritzy Malibu Colony, coincidently where Lennox lived, by beautiful Eileen Wade. She hires Marlowe to find her husband Roger, a successful author with a heavy drinking problem. He tracks Wade to a rehab facility run by Dr. Verringer, a quirky little quack who only accepts the very rich. Marlowe brings the errant husband home, and when he’s finished the job, he runs into trouble in the form of Marty Augustine, a psycho gangster who claims Lennox robbed him of $350k, and demands Marlowe get the money back.
Chandler’s dense plot gets the Altman treatment, with the director’s trademark overlapping dialogue and long-range tracking shots mixing well with the story. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett was familiar with the turf, having wrote THE BIG SLEEP with Bogie and Bacall twenty-seven years earlier. Ms. Brackett was a prolific science fiction author, but comfortable in the crime genre, too. She also contributed to the screenplays for RIO BRAVO and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (or whatever they call it these days). The late Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography gives us a sunny, pastel-hued California in stark contrast to the shady goings-on.
The cast is eclectic, to say the least. Roger Wade is played by Sterling Hayden, a long way from his days as a Hollywood leading man. He’s bearded and bat-shit crazy as the dissipated Wade. Maybe he wasn’t acting at all, as it’s been rumored Hayden was drinking and smoking weed throughout the film’s shoot. Nina Van Pallandt (Eileen) was better known as the mistress of Clifford Irving, who perpetrated a literary hoax when he published a book claiming to be the autobiography of billionaire (and former owner of noir factory RKO) Howard Hughes. Mark Rydell (Augustine) was the director of films like THE REIVERS, THE COWBOYS, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, and ON GOLDEN POND. Jim Bouton (Lennox) was a former pitcher for the New York Yankees who made a splash with a tell-all book of his own, BALL FOUR. Henry Gibson (Verringer) was a comedian from TV’s ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, who became an Altman regular. Others include Warren Berlinger, Rutanya Alda, Jack Riley, David Carradine (in an amusing cameo), and future action star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (in a small role as a hood).
Gould worked again with Altman in CALIFORNIA SPLIT and NASHVILLE. Though he never reclaimed the lofty heights of his early 70’s success, he managed to reintroduce himself to audiences as Ross and Monica’s dad on the sitcom FRIENDS, and later in the OCEAN’S 11 remake and it’s sequels. His Marlowe’s a far cry from Humphrey Bogart, but THE LONG GOODBYE isn’t exactly your traditional film noir. Taking the character and updating him to self-centered 70’s LA may have seemed like blasphemy to Chandlerphiles at the time, but that’s precisely the point. The times they had a-changed, and it’s a much sadder place today without men like Philip Marlowe in it.