Reviews

The Long Goodbye

5

Never one to stick to the rules, Robert Altman pissed off the Raymond Chandler purists with this freeform adap of the crime writer's last - and best - Philip Marlowe novel.

Updating the action to '70s LA, unpicking many of the plot's gnarly entanglements and throwing out the ending altogether, Big Bob added insult to injury by casting a laidback, shambling Elliott Gould as gumshoe Marlowe. Of course, it didn't help that Bogart's trenchcoat-and-fedora turn in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep had put grizzled face to gristly character in the public consciousness. And it really didn't help that Gould's Marlowe spends the opening scene pandering to his haughty feline, his pathetic attempts to pass off a second-rate brand of cat food as the furball's favourite being met with tail-swishing disdain. Bogey would have booted it out and nailed up the cat-flap.

Yet, without question, this is a superlative riff on Chandler's source material, its plotting compact yet insouciant as our smartmouthed hero sets about clearing an old friend (Jim Bouton) from a wife-killing rap. It's an honest intention that plunges him into a dishonourable underworld of blackmail, suicide and murder, Marlowe bouncing off both low-lifes and high-fliers as he pinballs across the woozy LA backdrop. Throughout, Vilmos Zsigmond's loose, fluid photography combines with John Williams' melancholy title ballad to weave a hypnotic spell.

This being Altman, The Long Goodbye deconstructs film noir even as it pays affectionate tribute, paving the way for the knowing likes of Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975) and, 25 years later, the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. It also works as a vicious swipe at LA and its selfish, uncaring ways, with Marlowe's inherent decency and ethics marking him as a man out of time. Not that he's a pushover: betray him and it's those very morals that'll ensure a swift, sometimes brutal, reprisal. Even the purists must approve of that.

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