Los Angeles, the early 1970s. Down-at-heel private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is asked by his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) to the Mexican border. Soon afterwards, Marlowe is visited by two cops who want information as Lennox has been accused of murdering his wife. Marlowe is released when Lennox is reported dead, Meanwhile, Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) hires Marlowe to find her missing husband Roger (Sterling Hayden), an alcoholic, blocked novelist.
Robert Altman was a late starter as a feature filmmaker. Born in 1925, he made his start with episodic television, documentaries and industrial films. With the exception of one dramatic feature, The Delinquents from 1957, which he later disowned, that was the pattern of his career until he made his next feature, the science fiction film Countdown, in 1967. However, it was his next but one feature, MASH made his reputation, especially with an audience much younger than he was then. MASH was part of the “New Hollywood”, a period – heralded by the commercial success of Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde - which spanned much of the Seventies. It's a decade that many people consider a latterday golden age in Hollywood, and its influence is clear in the work of many filmmakers too young to have seen many of the key films of the time on their release.
It's important to remember that it didn't seem such a golden age at the time, with buddy movies and disaster movies, to name just two popular genres of the time, filling your local cinemas before the invention of multiplexes. It's true that many of the most valued films of the time were commercial failures, many of them character-led, with shades-of-grey antiheroes in their lead roles, downbeat dramas reflecting a time of cynicism. The decade also sowed the seeds of its own destruction in the invention of the blockbuster, first Jaws in 1975 (which is in many ways still characteristic of commercial filming of its time rather than what followed) and especially Star Wars two years later. At the end of the decade, with the failure of large-budget auteur projects (not just Heaven's Gate, though that gained much of the blame) the studios wrested control of films away from some fascinatingly wayward directors, and American commercial cinema has not been the same since.
Many directors who had thrived in the Seventies had a much different experience in the following decades, and Altman was one of them. But he was an example of a director who had the support of the studios, and the commercial success of MASH and, to a lesser extent, that of Nashville enabled him to work steadily, making fourteen feature films after MASH up to 1980, in a variety of genres, both large-cast epics and intimate chamber pieces, many of them clearly uncommercial and far more wayward than . Altman was a risktaker, and while several of those films have continuing critical support and/or large cult followings, some of them have sunk into obscurity. The expensive failure of Popeye in 1980, at the turning point in the film industry referred to above, meant that for the 1980s he worked independently as well as on television, several of his films of the time being adaptations from the stage, until The Player and Short Cuts returned him to favour in the 1990s.
You can see why The Long Goodbye confounded many on its release. Many critics seized on its updating to contemporary Los Angeles, though as has been pointed out this is not the first Raymond Chandler adaptation not to be set in its original period – and indeed the 1975 Farewell My Lovely (with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe) is unusual in being set in its original time of the 1940s. There certainly is a link with the past: scriptwriter Leigh Brackett had a dual career as a science fiction and fantasy writer (one of the few women to do so, with a usefully gender-ambiguous byline – others, such as C.L. Moore, used their initials) and a Hollywood screenwriter, most pertinently in this case, one of the writers of the 1945 adaptation of Chandler's The Big Sleep.
Issues were had with Altman's take on the material, which some identified as contrmptuous – not least the film's ending, which deviates from that of the novel. It's also not easy to pinpoint the genre of this film: if you were expecting a private eye picture, well you got one, but one with strong elements of comedy, indeed spoof (some of it improvised) counterpointed by a couple of violent scenes which in context bring the viewer up short. The satire of contemporary LA mores, which does date the film a little, does have a point: this Marlowe is, in Altman's words, “Rip van Marlowe”, someone who has woken after two decades asleep, and finds his personal code and ethics outdated and dismissed by those around him and he is called a loser because of it. Gould's Marlowe is a somewhat passive beta-male take on the character, but you can sense, towards the end and at the very end, that you can only push him so far.
Many of the elements of Altman's style were in place by the time of MASH and they are evident here: the “democratic” shooting method, especially in his ensemble pieces, where you are invited to pick out individual characters as part of a widescreen vista (with the exception of Thieves Like Us, all of Altman's 70s films were shot in Scope), often with the aid of a mobile camera – before the Steadicam was invented – and a zoom lens. Also, there were the multilayered soundtracks, which pushed the limits of what optical mono sound was capable of, with dialogue often overlapping, but what you needed to hear clear enough. Altman acknowledged the debt he had to jazz. In many of his films, the plot beats you might expect in a more conventional picture are de-emphasised, almost buried at times, but definitely still there, while he pays more attention to character shading, to mood, to “routines”...to the soloists, as it were. This does result in a pace which is slowish by modern standards, and which does need some adjustment to, and if you were still expecting a conventional thriller by now, you wouldn't get it. Much of the opening sequence features Marlowe with possibly his only remaining friend, a fussy cat who will only eat one brand of food, and who promptly leaves him...a comic sequence which pays off in one line towards the end.
You have to give credit to his collaborators as well. In this film, Altman was working with Hungarian-emigrant cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who had previously shot McCabe and Mrs Miller and Images for him. Zsigmond was an exponent of “flashing”, wherein the negative was pre- or post-exposed to light – a risky procedure as the camera negative was irrevocably altered. This gave the effect of reducing contrast and the naturally hard LA light is softer and more hazy as a result. (A detailed description of this process can be found among this disc's extras.) John Williams's score is a series of variations on the title song, used both non-diegetically and diegetically (not just played by bands and sung by singers, but also appearing as supermarket muzak and even the Wades' doorbell chime.
Altman's approach to casting is equally open-minded. Elliott Gould had played the lead role of Trapper John in MASH and would go on to work again with him in California Split and appear as himself in Nashville and The Player. Gould is such an ideal leading man in Altman's work it's a surprise that they didn't work together more often. (That might have happened: Gould was approached to play the lead in McCabe and Mrs Miller, a role which eventually went to Warren Beatty. Gould was in fact already attached to Long Goodbye before Altman was involved.) As Gould plays him, Marlowe is more sinned against than sinning, and also manages to downplay his actual quite large physique (6'3”) - though being cast against the two-inches-taller Sterling Hayden and the not-unbulky form of an uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly helps in that respect. Hayden certainly drew from experience playing the alcoholic writer Roger Wade, and the actor's past experiences during the McCarthy era may have informed his acting here. Another Altman regular, the distinctly shorter Henry Gibson, has a brief role where he confronts Wade during a beach party. Nina van Pallandt had been a folk singer, part of a duo with her husband as Nina and Frederik. Jack Bouton was a baseball player making his screen acting debut. Mark Rydell was better known as a film director rather than an actor (he would go on to direct Gould in Harry and Walter Go to New York) but he's effectively used as the gangster Marty Augustine, and is quite chilling in one scene I won't spoil but which you won't forget in a hurry.
Altman spent much of the 70s restlessly experimenting and the results are fascinatingly wayward, not unflawed, and hard to imagine a major studio ever making nowadays. The Long Goodbye is certainly one of the best of his films of that time – though I won't be iconoclastic in rating the likes of Nashville higher than this. But it's a film that rewards multiple viewings and its cult following is well earned.
The Long Goodbye is released by Arrow as a Blu-ray which, given the film's major-studio (MGM) origins, is encoded for Region B. The disc is a BD50, and it certainly needs the space, as the extras are substantial. In 1973, the BBFC cut the film for a X certificate, for eighteens and over (if you've seen the film, all I will say is “coke bottle” and you will know which scene I refer to). This Blu-ray is uncut, of course, but still carries an 18 certificate.
The Long Goodbye was shot in Scope with Panavision anamorphic lenses, and the Blu-ray transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. Given the amount of flashing that Zsigmond used – and he provided detailed notes for the transfer – this can't have been the easiest of films to transfer accurately to disc. My only previous viewings of The Long Goodbye were on television (and panned and scanned as well) – though I have seen in the cinema other films where Zsigmond employed the same technique – so watching the film on Blu-ray is something of a revelation. There's nothing to fault here, and I can't see this looking any better at Blu-ray resolution.
The soundtrack is in mono (single-channel LPCM) and is clear and well-balanced, both of which are essential for a typical Altman soundtrack. Also on the disc is an isolated score option, also in LPCM 1.0. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The extras begin with “Rip Van Marlowe” (24:35), a featurette brought over from MGM's previous Region 1 DVD release. This does allow us to hear the comments of those now departed, especially Robert Altman. His memory is at fault though: he claims that Leigh Brackett died before the film was released, when in fact she died in 1978 and saw the film at least twice. (For more on that, see the booklet.)
“Robert Altman: Giggle and Give In” (56:32) is a film made by Paul Joyce for Channel 4's Cinefile in 1988. For those of us old enough to remember the early years of Channel 4, this item is a reminder that the channel could and did produce admirably thorough and intelligent cinema documentaries. This is a runthrough of Altman's career up to that point, including glimpses of his early TV work and documentaries. He discusses the influence of jazz on his work and methods, which is particularly relevant as his then-newest film was Kansas City. Aspect ratios in the film clips are respected for the most part, though to be picky two 1.85:1 films (Thieves Like Us and Secret Honor) are shown open-matte in this 4:3 presentation – which is the ratio you would expect from television of that time.
A series of interviews begins with “Elliott Gould Discusses the Long Goodbye” (53:05), a Q & A conducted by Michael Connelly, for whom the film was a lifechanging experience – he shows Gould his copy of the novel with the film poster artwork on the front. This is undated but would seem to be recent, as Gould looks noticeably older than he does in “Rip Van Marlowe” and he also refers to Mark Rydell (born 1929) as being in his mid-eighties.
“Vilmos Zsigmond Flashes The Long Goodbye” (14:23) features the cinematographer who pays tribute to Altman for hiring him for his first major-studio film (McCabe and Mrs Miller). Zsigmond goes into some detail about the role of the cinematographer, and specifically discusses the use of flashing in this and other films and Altman's characteristic use of the zoom, often combined in this film with a dolly track, giving the effect of a diagonal movement.
The remaining interviews are less specific to the film at hand but are certainly valuable as context setters. “David Thompson on Robert Altman” (21:03) gives an overview of Altman's career before discussing The Long Goodbye itself – beware some major spoilers. Tom Williams wrote a biography of Chandler and he talks about the writers' career as a novelist and screenwriter (14:29). He discusses how Chandler's work is more urban and tougher than the English country-house tradition of the crime novel. Chandler's break into Hollywood was by being invited to work with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity - which is alluded to in the film. (Check out the security guard's Hollywood impressions.) Maxim Jakubowski is a crime writer and anthologist and also a bookseller. He was the owner of the Murder One shop in London until his retirement and as a publisher had reprinted some of Leigh Brackett's crime novels. He talks more generally about hard-boiled fiction (14:33), including writers other than Chandler, on the page and on screen, and how it reflected American anxieties about its own society in the post-war years until the 1970s.
The on-disc extras conclude with the theatrical trailer (2:30, presented in 1.85:1) and five American radio spots, presented as one item with chapter stops (3:24) with the audio playing over stills from the film.
Arrow's booklet runs to forty pages and begins with an essay by Brad Stevens, which again contains some major spoilers. Stevens talks about how much of Altman's film is concerned with identity and how it can change, the tone and genre of this particular film being as mutable as anything else. The booklet continues with extracts from contemporary reviews, pro and con and mixed, and an interview with Leigh Brackett by Tony Macklin from 1975. (The full 70-minute version of this interview can be heard online.) She discusses how much part of the film was different from her conception of the film when she was writing the script. The novel of The Long Goodbye was far longer and introspective than The Big Sleep had been, and this brought its own adaptation challenges. However, with some key exceptions, much of what she wrote appeared on screen, including the controversial change of the ending. This is followed by an interview by Neil McGlone with Alan Rudolph, who worked as an assistant director for Altman before becoming a director in his own right. This is more recent, as it was recorded after Altman's death. Finally, there is a reproduction of the American Cinematographer article in which Zsigmond talks about his work on the film, especially with regard to his use of flashing, which he describes in some detail. The booklet also includes stills and promotional imagery, and credits for the film and the disc.