Paul Thomas Anderson claims his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern detective novel Inherent Vice was influenced by Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, Cheech & Chong, and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Frankly, the ZAZ connection is hard to see in Inherent Vice, and though there’s plenty of pot smoke in the movie, none of it is redolent of Big Bambu. But The Long Goodbye? Altman’s shaggy private-eye picture is so close in spirit to Anderson’s that the latter could almost be a sequel—or a remake.
Altman made The Long Goodbye in the middle of a five-year, eight-film stretch—from 1970’s M*A*S*H to 1975’s Nashville—in which he jumped from genre to genre, reshaping classic Hollywood movies into something he found more entertaining and meaningful. For 1973’s The Long Goodbye, Altman made a washed-out, sun-dappled version of film noir, adapting Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel about L.A. gumshoe Philip Marlowe. Elliott Gould plays a very 1970s Marlowe: a mumbling, rumpled smart-ass who shuffles through life, retreating over and over to his mantra, “It’s okay by me.” When Marlowe agrees to give a ride to his friend Terry Lennox (played by former New York Yankee Jim Bouton), he ends up involved in a complicated plot involving Terry’s murdered wife Sylvia, the gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), alcoholic writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), Roger’s worried wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt), and quackish self-help guru Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson), nearly all of whom live in and around a ritzy Malibu beachfront subdivision.
Altman often said he never cared much about plot, but he and veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett preserve almost every major story beat in Chandler’s book, making The Long Goodbye one of the most straightforward films Altman ever made—though it still isn’t exactly “straight.” Throughout, Altman undercuts the conventions of the hardboiled mystery movie by letting Gould play Marlowe as a smirking, laid-back dude rather than a man of action, and by repeating John Williams and Johnny Mercer’s theme song in increasingly silly iterations, including as supermarket Muzak and as a doorbell chime. The film begins and ends with a sarcastic blast of “Hooray For Hollywood”—the first over Marlowe snoozing in his sloppy apartment, the second just after he’s done something petty, violent, and unheroic—and every now and then, the story winds by a security guard who does impressions of old movie stars. The Long Goodbye isn’t explicitly about the changing culture of the motion-picture business’ hometown, but it does suggest a fundamental incompatibility between Cary Grant’s world and the world where naked hippies do yoga on their front balconies.
The Long Goodbye isn’t just about Altman being “a real cutie-pie,” to quote what the cops say about the ever-unhelpful Marlowe. For all the attention paid to Altman’s love of sprawling ensembles and overlapping dialogue, he was also a superior visual stylist. In The Long Goodbye, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond uses experimental exposure techniques to give L.A. a faded look—meant to resemble “old postcards,” according to Altman—and follows Altman’s direction in gliding slowly and smoothly around the story’s various locations, paying as much attention to what’s happening in the background of shots as to what’s front-and-center. At times, it seems like Altman and Zsigmond would rather watch dogs humping in the street, or track the leaps and mews of Marlowe’s finicky cat. But sometimes important plot-points unfold through windows, too, and The Long Goodbye as a whole peels back the surfaces of private-eye stories, paying special attention to their macho bluster and abused women.
Altman was never a wunderkind like P.T. Anderson. He was already 45 years old and had more than a decade of TV and film work under his belt when he broke through with M*A*S*H. Even people who questioned his methods back then talk about how Altman’s relaxed confidence and blatant indifference to authority left no confusion about who was in charge. Altman was 47 when he made The Long Goodbye, and Anderson turned 44 while making Inherent Vice, which may explain the betwixt-and-between quality of both films. In The Long Goodbye, Altman seems to show some empathy toward the mob goon who hears about a candle-dipping shop and sighs, “I can remember when people just had jobs.” But like Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice, Marlowe and Altman (and Brackett, and Chandler) exhibit some weary resignation as they watch once-beautiful people and ideals get pulverized by charlatans, thugs, and opportunists.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition of The Long Goodbye carries over the solid extras from an earlier MGM DVD, including an interview with Zsigmond about how he accommodated Altman’s love of zooms, and interviews with Altman and Gould that have been cut together into a featurette called “Rip Van Marlowe.” The latter gets into what Altman saw as the premise of the film (that Marlowe was a man who fell asleep in Chandler’s era, and woke up in the weird wonderland that was California in the early 1970s) and what Gould saw as the main point (that friends can be as fickle as any cat). Mostly though, the two talk about Altman’s methods, which in The Long Goodbye saw him moving the camera almost constantly, to keep changing the audience’s perspective and make them feel more like voyeurs, seeing something they may regret.