Long Goodbye, The (1973)

Long Goodbye, The (1973)

“It’s okay with me.”

Private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) drives his old friend (Jim Bouton) to Tijuana in the middle of the night, only to unexpectedly find himself embroiled in a complex plot involving murder, missing money, and an alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden) with a concerned wife (Nina van Pallandt).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Elliott Gould Films
  • Literature Adaptation
  • Los Angeles
  • Murder Mystery
  • Robert Altman Films
  • Sterling Hayden Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “offbeat version of Raymond Chandler’s next-to-last Philip Marlowe novel is one of his finest films”. With a script by Leigh Brackett (who also co-wrote the screenplay for Howard Hawks’ 1946 version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep), the “story is updated from the dark forties to modern, sun-drenched, washed-out, neon-lit LA”, reimagining gumshoe Marlowe as a “Jew from the East” with “old-fashioned views on loyalty and morality who can’t find his niche in a seventies me-generation playground”.

While Marlowe purists are perhaps understandably bothered by these changes — as well as Brackett’s infamous rewritten ending — those willing to accept the movie on its own terms are guaranteed to appreciate the brilliance of Altman’s unique vision.

There’s much to admire about the film, which features uniformly excellent performances, creative cinematography (by Vilmos Zsigmond), and a distinctive sense of time and place. Gould brings an improvisational air to his incarnation of Marlowe, demonstrating his ability to roll with the punches and find humor in the most absurd situations (he famously ad-libbed during Marlowe’s initial interrogation scene with the cops, for instance, smearing fingerprint ink all over his face while rapping about Notre Dame football and miming Al Jolson).

Newcomer Nina van Pallandt — best known at the time for being the mistress of Clifford Irving, who penned a faux biography of Howard Hawks — is appropriately mysterious and haunted as an over-tanned Malibu housewife:

… whose husband (a shaggy, ominous Sterling Hayden) causes her ongoing distress.

Other minor roles are creatively cast as well — including director Mark Rydell as one of the most vicious thugs in 1970s cinema:

… and baseball star Jim Bouton as Marlowe’s border-hopping buddy.

Altman’s eternally roaming camera is used to great effect throughout the film, keeping the storyline continually moving without resorting to the hectic jump cuts and rapidfire editing so prevalent — and headache-inducing — in modern gangster flicks. He utilizes plenty of slow zooms and “shots in which people speak in the foreground while action takes place in the distance, sometimes through glass” — the latter unmistakably evoking Hitchcock; not a single scene is boringly directed. Meanwhile, Altman’s choice of locales are distinct and irrefutably authentic — from Marlowe’s funky Hollywood apartment “on Camrose just South of the Hollywood Bowl” (complete with yoga-loving hippies across the way), to the Wades’ Malibu Colony beach house:

… to the grocery store Marlowe visits during the film’s intriguing opening sequence (which effectively establishes him as a down-on-his-luck loner who can’t even please — or fool — his own cat).

The Long Goodbye has been called a satire or parody by many (including Peary), but this label isn’t entirely accurate. While there are definite undercurrents of humor throughout — particularly during Gould’s interactions with an utterly clueless thug who’s been tasked with following him — it’s deadly serious at other times. And while violence is rare in the film, it’s there, brutal and lurking; as Peary notes, “what we witness, we realize, is only the tip of the iceberg”. The film’s most infamous scene involves a thug (Rydell) inexplicably smashing a glass Coke bottle across his mistress’s face, simply to show Gould what he’s capable of. It may not be plausible, but it sure as hell is frightening.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe
  • Nina van Pallandt as Eileen Wade
  • Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade
  • Mark Rydell as psycho-thug-extraordinaire Marty Augustine
  • Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography
  • Fine use of distinctly L.A. locales
  • Leigh Brackett’s cleverly updated script of Raymond Chandler’s pulp novel
  • John Williams’ score — consisting of creative variations on “The Long Goodbye” (written by Johnny Mercer)

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite by a master director. Nominated by Peary as one of the best pictures of the year in his Alternate Oscars book, and discussed at length in his first Cult Movies book.


  • Cult Movie
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Long Goodbye, The (1973)

  1. A once-must, at least, as a cult favorite – but there are no doubt many who will (and do) appreciate it more than I do.

    I’ve seen this film several times over the years – and have just now seen it in blu-ray (it’s a very nice print indeed!).

    I used to think my main problem with this film was the fact that ‘TLG’ is my favorite Chandler novel – and I just couldn’t accept the kind of ‘vision’ that Altman makes of the book. (Though I’ve also read somewhere that screenwriter Brackett said the book is way too long and complicated for a 2-hour feature film, and that’s no doubt true as well.)

    So I went into this rewatch with the idea of putting the book out of my mind and looking at the film on its own terms. However…looked at that way, I still find the film unsatisfying ultimately. I think there are great scenes in it (and throughout, of course, DP Zsigmond’s work is just terrific) – but the film feels inconsistent in overall tone, pulling me in and tossing me out and then pulling me back in. I find it somewhat annoying, and my interest isn’t sustained so it’s also frustrating.

    Also, Gould (though he does manage to take on enough of the overall aura) really sounds nothing like the Marlowe of the novels – except in a very vaguely updated for the ’70s way, but not at all with the kind of cleverness of language that Chandler more or less invented for his character. Perhaps there just was no way to accomplish that in contemporary terms. (I wonder.)

    Naturally, that’s just my own opinion, though, of this film. Many many love this film. I used to think that, when it came to Altman’s films, I would either love one completely or dislike it completely – and that there was no middle road. But this is an exception. I both love it *and* dislike it – I admire what works in it and am disappointed by what I find sloppy.

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