Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is – in a sense – more about style than it is about story. Rather than recreate the tightly-wound, meticulously-constructed plot of the Raymond Chandler novel on which Leigh Brackett’s screenplay is based, Altman is content to wander, roaming the world of Phillip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) with a kind of lackadaisical attitude toward the labyrinthine material.
Altman and Gould, it is well-known, referred to Marlowe as “Rip Van Marlowe” behind the scenes because their approach to this story was to create a neo-noir with a 1940s/50s gumshoe stuck in the heady time of the early 1970’s. Marlowe wanders around the sun-drenched beaches and warm communities of Southern California mumbling to himself (“It’s alright with me” is his constant refrain, originally improvised by Gould), attempting to take care of his cat (the famous opening sequence features Marlowe attempting subterfuge with a stand-in for the cat’s favorite food in an attempt to trick it), and trying to deal first with the murder of his friend’s wife followed by his friend’s suicide, and then the concerns of a Jewish gangster named Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell, channeling Martin Scorsese’s fast-talking vocal style) who is convinced Marlowe has his money. Oh, and there’s the business of the alcoholic bore-ish writer (Sterling Hayden) whose wife (Nina Van Pallandt) hires Marlowe to track him down after he escapes to a sanitarium run by a questionable diminutive doctor (Henry Gibson) to dry out.
Altman is seldom concerned with plot in his films and spends more time here on style and behavior. Everything flows, in a sense, from how Marlowe appears to see the world. From mistreatment at the hands of the fascist police detectives who question him over his friend Terry Lennox’s wife’s murder to the naked women who live next door, smoke pot and perform nude yoga on their front porch, Marlowe’s attitude is always one of quiet tolerance – or is it indifference?
Another fascinating element of Altman’s stylistic approach here (besides his trademark overlapping dialogue which here serves to create the sense that Marlowe, quite correctly, isn’t quite picking up on everything said around him), is the “flash” cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond. Using some carefully calculated “extra light,” the effect is one of a “faded pastel quality,” which seemingly helps to balance out the tension between the 1950s gumshoe at its center and the 1970s sun-drenched Southern California locations of its setting. This hazily faded pastel quality is aided and abetted by Altman’s ever-roaming camera, often shooting through obscured foregrounds (glass, trees and bushes, pieces of architecture, etc.).
Yet another stylistic refrain in this film, coming on the heels of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), which employed somber, melancholically beautiful Leonard Cohen songs to haunting effect, is the consistent title song played in various styles and forms, even including a Mexican marching band. Like the Cohen songs in Altman’s earlier Western – and prefiguring the country songs of Altman’s forthcoming Nashville (1975) – these various versions of “The Long Goodbye” composed by John Williams and Johnny Mercer lend the film a haunted – and haunting – quality.