During a documentary extra on the DVD version of The Long Goodbye, director Robert Altman says they called Elliott Gould’s version of Phillip Marlowe “Rip Van Marlowe” because it’s like the iconic 1940s detective character fell asleep for 30 years and awoke in the 1970s.
True to form, the opening scene shows Marlowe being jolted out of a deep sleep. Gould plays Marlowe like he has stumbled out of hibernation and is completely baffled by everything going on around him. He does, however, take it with a 70’s stoned indifference.
The film opens with interconnecting scenes between Phillip Marlowe and Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). The soundtrack plays the same song through both scenes, but in completely different styles. Over Marlowe’s scenes, the music is soft and jazz-like, while when Lennox is on screen it becomes edgier, more rock-influenced. It is a brilliant way to introduce characters and give us a sense of who they are.
This is not Howard Hawk’s Raymond Chandler. Gone are the dark shadows and production code of film noir. Sex and violence are no longer hidden under innuendo and suggestion. Here Marlowe’s neighbors are drug-ingesting nudists. This is Altman’s subversion of a genre.
This is definitely a Robert Altman picture. There are plenty of trademark long shots, and overlapping dialogue. He is less interested in the Chandler story than in a sense of style and the juxtaposition of classically moral 1930s detective in the amoral times of the swinging 1970s.
The story loosely follows Raymond Chandler’s novel. Marlowe drives his friend, Lennox, to the Tijuana border only to return home to an apartment full of cops ready to arrest him for aiding and abetting Lennox, who is suspected of murdering his wife. Meanwhile, Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) hires Marlowe to find her alcoholic husband who has disappeared. Between the cops and the missing husband Marlowe is accosted by local gangsters who want the money Lennox owes them. The three stories meet and interconnect in an ending that is vastly different from the novel.
There is a wonderful scene after the cops arrest Marlowe and are interrogating him. It begins as the standard interrogation scene with Marlowe in a small room being slapped around by tough cops, while others watch through a two-way mirror. Altman invigorates the scene by inter-cutting the two rooms together. While the camera is in the interrogation room, the mirror is always in sight. When the scene moves into the outer room, we see through the mirror and can hear the Marlowe conversation as it overlaps with what the watching cops are saying.
Elliott Gould is brilliant as Phillip Marlowe. He seems completely amiss from his surroundings, oblivious to all the things going on all around him. He keeps the Chandler wisecracks going but sends the tough guy gumshoe routine packing.
Though not a film for noir or even Chandler purists, it is a brilliant piece of cinema. In subverting a genre Altman has created a new kind of detective drama. One that is humorous, thrilling, and cinematic.