Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Seeing a film more than once gives you the chance to fall in love with it even more or to pick at its faults. Unfortunately, I found more faults when I saw The Long Goodbye on DVD recently. I had seen it a long time ago, more than once, on television. I liked Elliott Gould in the role of Philip Marlowe, but that was before I saw Marlowe (1969), starring James Garner. And it was before I read a few of Chandler’s novels.

The film opens with a great sequence that gives viewers a peek into Marlowe’s personality. Marlowe is asleep in bed, fully clothed, including shoes. An orange tabby cat wakes him up. The first thing Marlowe does, though, is light a cigarette. The cigarette pack, the matches, and the ashtray are on the bed next to him. He fell asleep with a cat and a fire hazard.

Marlowe leaves for the grocery store in the middle of the night because his cat is hungry and he doesn’t have any of the cat’s favorite brand of cat food (the cat refused to eat Marlowe’s improvised cat dinner). The opening credits commence as the film cuts between Marlowe going to the grocery store and Terry Lennox driving in his car. Viewers don’t know yet who Lennox is or where he is going—or why his knuckles are bloody enough that he decides to wear driving gloves.

Marlowe arrives at a twenty-four-hour Thrifty Mart. He is looking for Courry’s Cat Food, the only brand his cat will eat. When he asks a grocery store clerk about the brand, he is told that they are out of it.

Grocery store clerk: “We’re outta that [Courry’s Car Food]. Why don’t you get this? All this sh-- is the same anyway.”

Marlowe: “Oh yeah? You don’t happen to have a cat by any chance?”

Grocery store clerk: “What do I need a cat for? I got a girl.”

Marlowe: [to himself] “Ha, ha. He’s got a girl, and I got a cat.”

It’s an amusing exchange, one of many in the film. Another example occurs during a conversation between Marlowe and Eileen Wade. They are discussing Eileen’s husband Roger, a famous writer who can’t seem to kick his dependency on alcohol:

Eileen Wade: “He’s really a sick man, you know. More so than you might think. He feels he’s all finished as a writer. He sits down and stares at the papers, and nothing happens. I don’t know what to do. He really needs help.”

Marlowe: “Yeah, well, Mrs. Wade, if you think your husband is suicidal, he needs some Freudian analysis or primal scream, or I need a cigarette myself, but I’m not qualified for anything like that.”

Eileen Wade: “I know. Anyway, I’m very grateful for what you’ve done. You will come back again, won’t you?”

After the opening credits, Marlowe is back from Thrifty Mart. His cat refuses to eat the cat food that Marlowe did purchase and promptly disappears. Terry Lennox arrives at Marlowe’s apartment soon after to ask Marlowe to drive him to the U.S.-Mexico border. Marlowe obliges. It isn’t too many days later that Sergeant Green and Detective Dayton show up to question Marlowe. They don’t find Marlowe particularly amusing, and he is taken in for questioning.

Several officers give Marlowe a hard time in the interrogation room at the police station. Marlowe gives as good as he gets, even though he’s at a disadvantage. Marlowe does learn from Lieutenant Farmer that Terry Lennox’s wife, Sylvia, is dead. He also learns that Lennox’s real name is Lenny Potts and that Lennox is a gambler and works with a criminal already known to police named Marty Augustine. It’s quite possible that Marlowe didn’t know Lennox as well as he thought he did.

Marlowe is booked and held for three days. When he’s released, Lieutenant Farmer tells him more stunning news about Lennox: He is dead, and he committed suicide. Detective Moran gives Marlowe a ride home. He gives Marlowe some of the previous day’s newspapers so that he can read about the Lennox case. Terry Lennox killed himself in Otatitlán, Veracruz, Mexico, and left a full confession. Marlowe doesn’t believe Lennox is dead or that he killed his wife.

Marlowe goes to Herbie’s bar to pick up his messages. One of them is from a Mrs. Wade: She needs to find her husband. She lives in Malibu Colony, which is where Terry Lennox lived. Marlowe arrives at Malibu Colony and is greeted by the Wades’ vicious dog (it’s a running gag throughout the film that the dog hates Marlowe and can be controlled only by Eileen Wade). Marlowe finds Roger Wade at Dr. Verringer’s retreat, where he is receiving treatment for alcoholism, and brings him back home to his wife.

Los Angeles police detectives aren’t the only ones interested in paying Marlowe a visit. Marty Augustine does so because he wants the money that Terry Lennox was carrying for him. He threatens Marlowe by smashing a glass bottle across the face of his own girlfriend. Augustine puts a tail on Marlowe, but Marlowe outwits him and follows Augustine, who goes to the Wades’ house.

Marlowe has a lot of questions to answer in this case. How does Marty Augustine know the Wades? Do the Wades know the Lennoxes better than they are letting on? How did the Wades get mixed up with Augustine? And where is Terry Lennox if he isn’t dead and hasn’t committed suicide? Marlowe gets all the answers. It might take viewers more than one viewing to understand how all of the details are connected, but Marlowe figures it out by the end of the film.

I was optimistic about seeing The Long Goodbye again after so many years. I remember liking Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe—but that was then. The film doesn’t hold up quite as well as I had hoped. One of the most glaring faults is Elliott Gould’s impersonation of Al Jolson at the police station. After Marlowe is taken in for questioning and booked as a suspect or an accessory after the fact in Sylvia Lennox’s murder, Gould, as Marlowe, uses the ink that is still on his hands from the fingerprinting process to blacken his face and imitate Jolson. Was this section of the film cut for television? It’s been so long that I cannot recall, but it’s a cringeworthy scene to watch now.

I also found Elliot Gould mumbling his way through the film to be a real distraction. I often had the sense that his mumblings were dubbed in later, and they annoyed me after the opening scene. Was he supposed to be thinking out loud part of the time? Acting as the voice-over narrator? It was hard to tell sometimes, and the fact that I started thinking about it at all is not a good sign about the plot holding my interest.

The film uses a lot of foul language, which doesn’t sound like Marlowe or Chandler to me. I haven’t read all of Chandler’s novels, but I haven’t come across foul language so far. In the film, Marlowe keeps repeating the phrase, “It’s okay with me,” but this, too, doesn’t sound like Marlowe or Chandler. I don’t think Chandler’s Marlowe would keep making this kind of observation about what he sees around him.

Marlowe as someone out of time worked well in the film Marlowe; Marlowe as someone out of time and confused didn’t work nearly as well in The Long Goodbye. Robert Altman said in one of the DVD’s featurettes, “Rip Van Marlowe,” that he wanted Marlowe to be a character that woke up in 1973 and was bewildered by everything that he saw. But that conceit grew tiresome when I watched the DVD. Marlowe is a private eye, and surely he would have adapted to a case and his circumstances after getting his bearings.

Click here for my blog post about Marlowe (1969), starring James Garner.

I haven’t yet read Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye; I will eventually. I have read that the characters of Terry Lennox and Roger Wade could be interpreted as alter ego stand-ins for the writer Chandler himself. That interpretation is a bit hard to believe based on the film, but maybe it will be easier to believe after I have read the novel. The film is still worth seeing: Sterling Hayden gives a great performance as the alcoholic Roger Wade, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Carradine have uncredited bit parts. But I am already close to certain that Chandler’s novel will be a lot better than the film.

March 7, 1973, release date    Directed by Robert Altman    Screenplay by Leigh Brackett    Based on the novel The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler    Music by John Williams    Edited by Lou Lombardo    Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond

Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe    Nina van Pallandt as Eileen Wade    Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade    Mark Rydell as Marty Augustine    Henry Gibson as Dr. Verringer    David Arkin as Harry    Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox    Warren Berlinger as Detective Morgan    Jo Ann Brody as Jo Ann Eggenweiler    Stephen Coit as Detective Farmer

Distributed by United Artists    Produced by Lion’s Gate Films, Inc.

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