Robert Altman | 1973 | 112 min | USA
I'm not sure how it happened, but somehow, even though I've always been a '70s-Altman fan, I had never seen The Long Goodbye until a couple of days ago, when I found it on the shelf of a place I'm house sitting and decided to give it a whirl.
The strange 1970s take on Phillip Marlowe has Elliott Gould (handsomer and more charming in the role than he had any right to be) waking up in the middle of the night to feed his cat, and getting embroiled in the murder of a friend's wife. The oft-mentioned Rip Van Winkle parallels are subtle but noticeable in Altman's take on the wisecracking gumshoe. Gould chain smokes his way through scene after scene in a rumpled suit and vintage car, seeming absolutely out of his element and yet perfectly natural just as he is.
The plot of The Long Goodbye holds up, the way most good '70s suspense films do, but the main reason to watch this is Gould's astonishing performance in a role that had previously been tackled by some of Hollywood's most charismatic leading men. Gould isn't just believable as Marlowe. He is Marlowe, the moral figure at the centre of a world gone askew.
Altman pulls no punches in his critique of modern alienation. There's no empty nostalgia here for a bygone era. Instead, the harshness of Altman's vision is thrown into stark relief by the out-of-time Marlowe, and by the time the film comes to its grizzly (but perfectly fitting) conclusion, it's impossible not to sympathize with his straight-talking, no-nonsense antidote to the bullshit around him.
Next to Gould's acting, the best thing about this film is the title song, which appears in a variety of more or less subtle ways throughout the film. As part of the score, it's haunting and pretty - but when it appears diagetically (on a thug's car radio, for example) the effect is almost disturbingly beautiful.
Basically, this film is a bizarre and daring work of genius. Altman manages to totally capture the vibe of the Raymond Chandler story and retell it without having to 'update it' in the usual sense - which would have rapidly dated the film instead of making it an instant classic. I feel like a dummy for living through 30 years without ever seeing this amazing piece of work.