It’s never easy to correctly place the beginning and end of a film genre. Sometimes, however, some films identify the ideal conclusion, definitively consecrating a narrative period.
The long goodbyedirected by Robert Altman in 1973 and based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, paid homage to the noir classic and arrived well in advance of the contemporary detective genre, closing an era in which detective stories had fascinated the public, especially those inspired by timeless books.
The Long Goodbye (original title) is one of the reference titles of American cinema of the seventies and, in addition to being perhaps Altman’s most celebrated work, it contains many aspects that still make it a fascinating film.
Fifty years after its release, let’s rediscover The long goodbye in detail. Enjoy the reading.
In a twilight Los Angeles
One night, after feeding his capricious cat, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) sees his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) knocking on his door, asking him to be accompanied from Los Angeles to Tijuana, on the border with Mexico. Back home, the following morning Marlowe is visited by two police detectives, who accuse Lennox of murdering his wealthy wife Sylvia and, faced with the investigator’s refusal to give them any further information, arrest him for aiding and abetting. A few days later, however, Marlowe will be released, after the news of Lennox’s death arrives, who would have taken his own life.
While the investigator tries to better outline the contours of this anomalous affair, he is called by Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt), wife of the alcoholic novelist Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), who has been away from home for a few days without making you any more return. Following the clues available to him, in a short time Marlowe finds the writer inside a private clinic, dedicated to detoxification for wealthy clients addicted to alcohol. By bringing Wade home, Philip will be able to become more familiar with Eileen, also discovering that the couple knew the Lennoxes. Marlowe will become more and more convinced that behind the killing of Sylvia and Terry’s suicide there is something highly suspicious…
Robert Altman: from America today to Nashville, 10 masterpieces by an unforgettable director
A modern Marlowe
Written by Leigh Brackett, The long goodbye is based on the sixth novel by Raymond Chandler, published in 1953 and heir to the debut story, that The Big Sleep which had been transposed to the cinema by Howard Hawks in 1946, with Humphrey Bogart in the role of the investigator. Between the 1940s and 1960s, Marlowe had already been brought to both cinema and television with various actors and directors, and in the continuation of the 1970s he will be taken up again on two occasions by Robert Mitchum. There is no doubt, however, that The big sleep e The long goodbye are the two most important films in the series. Brackett’s screenplay, in collaboration with Robert Altman’s vision, differs in many ways from the original novel, making the narrative even more multifaceted. Not only do some details (even important ones) of the plot change, but above all the profound meaning of the entire work.
The one in which Philip Marlowe moves is a cynical, ruthless and unscrupulous Los Angeles. Each points exclusively to their own interests: whether it’s an apparently frightened woman like Eileen or a sadistic criminal like Marty Augustine (another character that Marlowe will meet on his way), everyone is hiding something and they don’t pose any problem to overcome the limits in order to protect their position or achieve what they set out to do. Altman presents the investigator as light-hearted and ironic, and this spirit will often help him get out of some inconvenient or even dangerous situations: but he too, in an unpredictable and bitter ending, will become aware of how much he was forced to go into murky to get to the truth.
Masterful, from this point of view, the actor’s performance of Elliott Gould: his Marlowe is lanky, biting and witty. He knows his city in every detail and, above all, he knows the people. After all, his job leads him to deal with characters of all kinds, and Philip has accumulated so much experience to predict exactly what to expect. He is no longer the solid Marlowe of Bogart’s time, but that of Gould (who was chosen by Altman despite having returned from some failures) is as suited to his time as to the size of the city in which he moves, ready to parry even the most unexpected blows.
Nashville, Robert Altman’s masterpiece that changed the history of cinema
Farewell to the old noir
But what exactly does that mean “The Long Goodbye”? According to some critics, Altman wanted to refer more simply to Marlowe’s farewell from his friend Lennox, whose fate only he can shed light on. According to others, and it is the hypothesis that he also feels he is writing to you, the title refers to the definitive farewell to a genre: the old noir.
Typically, it has as its fulcrum an investigation conducted by detectives or investigators in an urban setting, and whose psychological implications are always fundamental in the description of the characters on stage. But there is also a purely stylistic question, since, in the 1940s and 1950s – i.e. the period of greatest success of the genre – film noir was almost exclusively in black and white, and the chiaroscuro used by directors and cinematographers highlighted the indissoluble contrast between good and evil, between protagonists and antagonists: just think of works such as The Mystery of the Falcon (1941), The Flame of Sin (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946), just to name a few of the most significant.
At the end of that fortunate and unrepeatable period, the advent of New Hollywood from 1967 onwards he revived the noir under another key, e The long goodbye is probably the first major title. It will be followed, only to remain in the seventies, by other masterpieces such as Chinatown (1974), The conversation (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), directed by masters of the caliber of Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese who shared with Robert Altman the ability to recreate rarefied atmospheres and an essential narration, as well as paying homage to the classic by declining it to the contemporary. If in more modern films social criticism, a certain negative judgment on individuals and institutions is more than evident, it will not escape the most attentive observer that in classic noir almost all the characters on stage were negative, as if evil were inherent in each of them. A gloomy vision of society, which was still involved in the Second World War or had just come out of it, considering the period 1940-1959 as the indicative one for the peak of noir in cinema.
MASH, war according to Robert Altman: laughter will bury us
From the 1980s onwards, the detective genre has decisively prevailed over noir, which in the current panorama, if revived with the right stylistic features, could involve the new generations. Also for this reason, re-evaluating films like The Long Goodbye is of fundamental importance, to savor a timeless and extraordinarily refined genre.
Leave a Reply