The Long Goodbye: The Art of the Calm Thriller

Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel by the same name may be the calmest thriller you’ll ever see; as it toys with your nerves endlessly, you’ll completely surrender yourself to the arbitrariness of a classic Chandler story with all of it confusing, spiraling incidents because this is the only film adaption of one of his stories that can ever hope to be called soothing. By the time of Raymond’s death in 1959, The Long Goodbye was one of two novels of his still not adapted into film (save for a television production with Dick Powell in 1954), and that perhaps worked out for the best; The Long Goodbye is not Chandler’s best and doesn’t defer much from his other work, and an adaptation at the height of the classic film noir period would have just resulted in yet another detective story, but the fact that it survived until the 1970s gave birth to one of the most unique renditions of Philip Marlowe on the silver screen: glamorous, almost soothing but naturally nerve-wracking.

The Long Goodbye puts Elliot Gould in the shoes of the classic private detective, Philip Marlowe, as he once again gets dragged into a spiraling web of crime and conspiracies, this time triggered by a suspicious favor to a friend that he willingly accepts before suffering its unforeseen consequences, from a couple of rough nights at the police station, death threats from a crime overlord, and even losing his cat! Robert Altman moved the story, which was originally set in the 1940s, to 70s Hollywood, thus enabling himself to both modernize the tale and give it more contemporary relevance and depth, with a subtle critique to a society that resembles a jungle of “kill or be killed” more than a human community, with a complete disregard to any notions of companionship or friendship.

The film opens with a 10-minute long scene of Philip Marlowe being woken up by his cat then forced to go to the supermarket in the middle of the night to buy the only kind of cat food she eats, and it is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen. Grumpy, rumbling and not in the best of moods, Elliot Gould walks around his dimly-lit apartment, a cigarette in his mouth as he talks to himself and his cat in his serene solitude, making small talk with the neighbors, driving to the market while still talking to himself...this opening sequence perfectly sets up both the film’s tone and its protagonist; even the most dire of problems are made to be simple inconveniences, and Marlowe’s ironic, laidback temperament only makes it matters more careless. The same untroubled way in which Philip Marlowe deals with his cat’s whining for 10 minutes, he replicates with life or death situations, and in the face of mortal danger; his doleful carelessness is both satirical and comforting.

The advantage classic film noir had over neo-noir is its black-and-white cinematography which allowed for very moody and shady cinematography, with shadows being the focal point of every shot; whether they’re highlighting danger, accentuating sensuality or underscoring paranoia, shadows had a vital role in classic noir camerawork. Shot in color, The Long Goodbye, and indeed most of the films that could be called “neo-noir” lack that element and try to make up for it with their tones. The Long Goodbye in particular is shot in a very gritty manner, rough, coarse, raw, inspiring calm and comfort in the hell it paints. John Williams’s incredibly jazzy score only accentuates the film’s haunting impact; on its own, it stand toe-to-toe with other memorable neo-noir tunes like Bernard Hermann’s Taxi Driver and John Barry’s Body Heat, with Jack Sheldon’s vocals, it is the best of the best and cannot be topped.

Elliot Gould plays Philip Marlowe like no actor before him and gives the iconic character a new dimension that classic film noir never allowed him, but not only does he reveal a new side of Marlowe, he also gives him a newfound depth and profundity; while other adaptations like The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet afforded little more than conspiracies and smart dialogue, The Long Goodbye is as diagnostic as it is interesting, and couldn’t have ended with a better note, “I even lost my cat!” with Marlowe going back home after days of insanity to look for the one comfort he has.  


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