Tuesday 20 October 2020

Movie Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

A private detective neo-noir crime drama, The Long Goodbye dives into a sordid mess of murder and deceit among the rich and decadent.

Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) helps his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) cross the border into Tijuana. Terry is soon revealed as the prime suspect in the murder of his rich wife Sylvia, but the case is closed when he apparently commits suicide in a small Mexican town.

Marlowe is next hired by Terry's neighbour Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her missing husband Roger (Sterling Hayden), a celebrated but frequently drunk author. Marlowe locates Roger in the dubious care of a Doctor Verringer (Henry Gibson). Eileen is curiously interested in the Lennox case, while her marriage to Roger is clearly disintegrating.

Vicious criminal Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) and his goons accuse Philip of hiding money Terry allegedly stole from Marty. Marlowe also learns the Wade marriage is perforated with accusations of infidelity and Roger owes money to both Doctor Verringer and Marty. Untangling all the crooked motives will require sleuthing on both sides of the border.

An adaptation of Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel with a script by Leigh Brackett, The Long Goodbye takes liberties with the source material but successfully updates the famously cynical detective into the early 1970s. With director Robert Altman maximizing the use of windows, mirrors, and reflections, in this Los Angeles peeking into the lives of others is easy, but everyone is too self-obsessed to care. From the gaggle of frequently topless yoga-practicing nubile neighbours to the one-way mirror at the police station and the Wades' glass-enclosed beach house, the visual barriers are for show, and flaunting is now the vogue.

As Marlowe delves deeper into the trouble swirling around his supposedly dead friend Terry Lennox, the emerging themes are edacity and narcissism, the privileged succumbing to the pursuit of lust, wealth, and reclamation of fading glory, eradicating anything and anyone standing in the way. Lennox, the Wades, Verringer, and Rydell all reside on the same side of the coin, without a single sympathetic character among them, and if nothing else, all deserving of their propagating miseries.

Altman maintains good pacing and combines the investigative elements with plenty of character definition, ambience and acidic humour. Memorable context-setting scenes include the opening adventures with Marlowe's cat (representing all that is uppity about Los Angeles) and a couple of chilling encounters with the borderline unhinged Augustine involving a Coke bottle and a parade of shirtlessness (with a brief uncredited appearance by unknown actor Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Elliott Gould dissolves into an endearingly wisecracking Marlowe, the only person still smoking in Los Angeles but always ready with a quip for every predicament and enough inner steel to keep fending off lies until the truth comes out. Sterling Hayden chews the scenery in a Hemingwayesque turn, while Henry Gibson as Doctor Verringer and Mark Rydell as Augustine inject large doses of nauseating menace.

Nina van Pallandt does not quite register the requisite mystery, and not unexpectedly with a Chandler story, a few ends may be either loose or simply scattered into an impossible puzzle. But with Marlowe growing increasingly annoyed with the rampant egotism, the The Long Goodbye emerges as an expedient cure for those who seek it.

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