The Long Goodbye (1973)

Directed by Robert Altman


In the opening shot of The Long Goodbye, detective Philip Marlowe lies asleep on his bed with the light on, blending into the muted color palette of the bedroom like he’s invisible.  The Long Goodbye is a noir detective thriller of sorts.  It’s not actually all that thrilling, but it hits many of the same beats as other films with a hard-broiled, lonely detective.  In this case the detective is Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould), a quiet, chain-smoking, suit-wearing, cat-loving private detective.

In many detective films, the story kicks off when the private eye is approached by a client with just another case.  This case proves to be unlike any other, and the client turns out to not be who they said they were.  Oftentimes this client is a woman, most likely the femme fatale.

Now, I’m not incredibly well-versed in film noir detective stories, but I have seen films like Chinatown (1974) and The Black Dahlia (2006).  While Chinatown subverts some of these genre expectations, both films have the same basic structure and character types.

The Long Goodbye does have a femme fatale who approaches Philip with a case, but this doesn’t happen until later in the story, after Marlowe has already driven his friend to the Mexican border in the middle of the night, been arrested for three days by the police and discovered that his friend may have murdered his wife and is now dead himself.

By the time Eileen Wade approaches Marlowe with a job, it feels like we’re going into a completely different story.  Marlowe at first seems incredibly concerned about his friend Terry, again whom he helped escape to the border in the middle of the night and whom he doesn’t believe really murdered his wife.  The story seems ready to throw Marlowe right into this case because Terry is his dear friend.  Instead Marlowe accepts a new case and seems to put Terry in the past.

His new case, a search for Eileen’s alcoholic husband, Roger, is of course connected to Terry.  Marlowe finds Roger very quickly, hidden in a drug rehab sort of place to dry out from his constant drinking.  The man who runs the place demands $4,400 that he says Roger owes him.  Marlowe rather uneventfully takes Roger home, and the mystery is solved, just like that.

There are several moments in this film that seem to stop, dead in the water like this.  At first Marlowe has no lead on any kind of investigation into Terry’s death and no incentive to look into it considering know one is paying him to.  Then Eileen gives him something to do, and once he solves it he’s back to square one.  This time a thuggish, squat man harasses Marlowe, demanding the $350,000 that Terry owed him before his death.  As Terry’s friend, apparently, Marlowe is on the hook for the money.

Now the plot is moving again, and Marlowe easily outsmarts one of the thug’s goons, escaping his tail so he can spy on the man who visits Roger and Eileen.  The real mystery is now established: what do Roger and Eileen have to do with the men to whom Terry owed $350,000?

Roger befriends Marlowe, but Eileen always seems to be a little distant.  In a private conversation to which Marlowe is not privy, we see that Eileen wants to leave Roger and Roger, in his self-hating and self-harming ways, seems ready to let her leave.  In a later scene, Roger runs drunkenly into the ocean and drowns himself, an apparent suicide.

At this point Marlowe has begun to put some of the pieces together.  He believes Roger is the one who killed Terry, and he suspects that Roger owed the rehab center owner the $4,400 for his alibi.  It all seems too neat.

Not long after, the money-demanding thugs (including a shirtless, silent Arnold Schwarzenegger) harass Marlowe once more, coming dangerously close to castrating him, though Marlowe never seems concerned.  They stop themselves when the money they’re looking for shows up at their door, and Marlowe can simply walk away, just like he was suddenly able to walk away from prison after his three day arrest.

The story, in this way, puts Marlowe in a bind and then lets him go with hardly any action on his part.  It doesn’t follow normal narrative rules.  Things don’t add up the way they should, and there is hardly a consistent thread through the story for Marlowe to follow.  He seems to bounce here and there, first concerned with Terry’s death and then pulled into Eileen’s world before learning they’re connected.  Terry’s death and alleged murder of his wife is always at the bottom of what’s going on, but in many scenes Marlowe feels disconnected from seeking that truth and in others it feels like all he wants is to clear his friend’s name.  It’s consistent.

In the end, Marlowe tracks down Terry, who is alive, to a hideout in Mexico.  Terry calls Marlowe a loser, and Marlowe shoots him dead.  He then passes Eileen on his way out.  Terry, it turns out, did in fact kill his wife, and he was having an affair with Eileen.

A lot of the story structure feels familiar to film noirs.  It shouldn’t be too unexpected that Marlowe shows some attraction to Eileen and that she turns out to have been misleading him.  It’s also unsurprising that there is a big reveal to Terry’s story.  We are conditioned to expect a twist of some sort.  Marlowe certainly expects to learn that Terry didn’t kill his wife, though he’s very wrong.  In the end when he finds out Terry’s alive, he seems unsurprised having worked his way down the mystery.

A lot of this film felt murky in the same way Altman’s other films (that I’ve seen) have felt murky.  I’m thinking of MASH and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  The plot never feels like the point in Altman’s films.  Hell, this film begins with Marlowe waking up in the middle of the night to his hungry cat, running out of cat food, going to the store, not finding the right kind of cat food, mixing in the new kind with the old to fool his cat, then receiving a visit from Terry.  There is so much time with Marlowe and his cat before the story begins, and the cat runs away, and we never see him again.

The scene does set up Marlowe as a loyal friend.  He’s loyal to his cat in the same way he’s loyal to Terry.  He also seems to expect that same loyalty in return, so when he hears that Terry murdered his wife, he can’t believe it because he can’t believe Terry would betray his trust.  Even in police interrogations, Marlowe doesn’t give up his friend.  In the end, of course, he realizes that he’s been played for a fool, and when he shoots Terry, it’s surprising because I don’t think we’ve seen Marlowe with a gun at any other point in the film.  In fact, we see Marlowe get beat up on several occasions.  He feels powerless.  Sure he’s creative and a bit cunning, but the police beat him up, the goons beat him up, and he’s nearly castrated.  It’s that final beating, more of a mental beating, by his friend that pushes him over the edge.

He never breaks, though.  He’s lost his cat, and he’s lost his only friend, so you might think something in him has snapped, but instead the film ends with him grabbing a stranger and dancing with her.  The truth has set him free, so to speak, which is at odds with most noirs, in which the protagonist learns something that reinforces their pre-existing, pessimistic world view.

When you think about the opening and closing images (Marlowe woken up by a cat, Marlowe dancing with a stranger), it’s hard to imagine a gritty detective crime story.  These images are light and playful.  Marlowe himself always feels playful, but that might be due to his sense of humor which does feel a little based on a perspective of life as dark and absurd.  His banter seems to come from a place of disenchantment with the world, like he already knows it’s going to hell so there’s nothing he can say or do that will change his trajectory, meaning he can say whatever he wants.

Still, in other moments he seems to care a great deal.  He cares about his cat and his friend and even Roger during the short time he knows him.  Philip Marlowe is like the kid in a large group of friends who doesn’t really fit in but has been pretending to talk like them, dress like them, say the same slang as them, etc.  He has many of the same characteristics of the classic noir detective, but underneath it he feels like he belongs in Animal House.  That might also be because I’m thinking of his character from MASH.

Marlowe is a pretty amusing guy.  He smokes in ever scene, and it’s so over the top that it’s impossible to notice.  In one scene he walks up to a gate, not holding a cigarette.  Then we cut to him on the other side of that gate, only seconds later, and he’s already got a cigarette lit in his mouth.  Between that, his grumbling, his curly hair and his feline affections, he’s like a character out of a sitcom or a comic strip.

The Long Goodbye is basically about a character saying goodbye to his only friend, Terry.  He says goodbye early on when he drops him at the border, helping him out of a bind, and he ultimately says goodbye again when he kills him.  Marlowe loses his cat too, so there’s that “goodbye” as well.  The story is very ambivalent in the middle.  There never seems to be a big sense of urgency, and there aren’t many payoffs.  The thugs get their money, but it just shows up.  Marlowe doesn’t have to maneuver his way out of any tricky situation.  Instead he’s just let go.  When he’s at the police station, he’s held until they no longer need him.  In both cases he’s trapped but also set free due to events outside of himself.

The only action Marlowe initiates is when he finds Roger, but even that feels so quick and easy that it must be a set up.  When we realize that Eileen is involved with Terry, it becomes apparent that she has tricked Marlowe, making the whole thing just a charade.  Like the police and the money-collecting men, she has picked Marlowe up, only to let him go when she’s done with him.  Marlowe is really just being toyed with and then abandoned.  Even the girls who live next door to him use him and dump him.  They ask for brownie mix early in the film, and he buys it for them.  Then they never come into the story except to serve as a distraction to men with a wandering eye.  In the end there’s a moment in which Marlowe greets them, but they ignore him, lost in some sort of mediation.

Marlowe is interacting with a world that is increasingly disinterested in him.  It’s never malicious, just ambivalent.  The police don’t care about him when they have their suspect, the thugs don’t care about him once they have their money, the neighbors don’t care about him except when they need something, Roger doesn’t care about him unless he’s drinking, Eileen doesn’t care about him and Terry never really cared about him.

So the end of the film feels like Marlowe coming to terms with how careless the world is.  It’s a point of view that feels very innate to noir detectives, and it starts to appear as though Marlowe is simply making that transition into a noir state of mind, like The Long Goodbye is really a prequel to a more conventional noir plot and character.  But then you have Marlowe grabbing that stranger and starting to dance after Eileen has ridden by, seen him and put two and two together to realize he figured it all out and probably did something about it.  So while Marlowe knows the world is apathetic to him, he also knows that he’s gotten someone’s attention, meaning he’s no longer invisible.

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