Being a long-time fan of Robert Altman, it pains me some to say that his take on The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler is not a particular favorite of mine.
It is a clever film – I’ll give it that. The story based on the book is updated in the film from the late 40s/early 50s to 1970s Hollywood. In this way, Altman satirizes the changes in society from the 1950s-style lone figure private eye to those of the 1970s, which embraced sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and hedonism.
Elliott Gould plays Philip Marlowe as an anachronism – a cat-loving, chain-smoking shamus whose best friend Terry Lennox (played by Jim Bouton) begs him for a ride across the border.
That trip is put off so Marlowe can hit the convenience store to buy food for his finicky cat. He comes home to find the cops at his door, claiming that Lennox murdered his wife.
Being in no mood to talk, as his cat has gone missing, Marlowe says nothing, which apparently provides grounds for arrest in California. After his release, he’s told that Terry Lennox committed suicide in Mexico. While the cops consider the case closed, Marlowe feels there’s more to the story and (naturally) busts his butt (for a non-existent client) to find out.
At this point, the plot takes a distinct turn for the worse. Given the odd clash between Marlowe’s old-style PI lines and the various 70s-style come-ons from his barely clothed female neighbors, who seem to party endlessly, because that’s what everyone did in the 70s (at least, in movies and/or Hollywood), the story does have a funny moment or two.
There’s plenty of sardonic wit and irony. Provided you’re willing to endure numerous scenes of torture, scene-chewing threats, and Sterling Hayden raving like a maniac, it’s all well and good. Gould plays Marlowe as such a cool character, he seems almost comatose. As such, he is less an anachronism and more like a bizarre private eye/hipster hybrid.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say this. If someone told you a friend committed suicide in Mexico and you wanted to confirm that, wouldn’t your first move be to go to freakin’ Mexico? Yet somehow this simple approach doesn’t occur to our hero until more than halfway through the film.
Despite Altman’s efforts to send up the private eye genre, I can’t recommend this film, except for the most die-hard of Altman fans. As for me, I felt the movie was only so-so.