The Long Goodbye

Raymond Chandler’s signature gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, was once standard film noir fodder, at least as portrayed by standard bearer Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 film The Big Sleep. But more often than not, actors have trouble recapturing that hard-boiled magic. Robert Mitchum was a suitably weathered dick in the 1975 film Farewell, My Lovely (the less said about his 1978 The Big Sleep, the better), but Liam Neeson’s recent turn in Marlowe hasn’t exactly resuscitated a new franchise hero. Chandler had such a rich tone on the page, weary wise yet somehow hopeful, if time and again defeated by the machinations of the justice system and the sad ways of the world. That tone was hard for any actor to embody. Who’d have thought that Elliott Gould would make a good Marlowe? But that smug, shaggy persona, with the shrugging tagline, “It’s okay with me,” made him the perfect detective for the cynical ’70s, and, despite wildly changing the book’s original ending, Robert Altman’s 1973 film of The Long Goodbye may be the definitive Chandler adaptation. Gould wanders through the movie for the most part acting as if he could not care less whodunit, and the plot details—which involve a friend’s suicide, a missing novelist, and, of course, sadistic gangsters—almost don’t matter. What mattered in the books was the way Chandler evoked the old Los Angeles, and Altman, for his part, bathes the sprawling ’70s metropolis in salt and sleaze. You might want to visit Bogart’s L.A., but Altman’s town is sick, and with his own outdated moral code, Gould’s Marlowe manages to keep his head clean, until even he gets fed up with it. Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue is mirrored in dense overlapping visuals and one of the bloodiest single acts in a violent decade. This is one crime drama that makes you want to take a hot bath to wash away the thick mistrust and pessimism embedded in the era. But first, celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary at the AFI this spring, and wonder if things aren’t even worse now. The Long Goodbye has multiple screenings from March 4 through 9 at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring. $11–$13.