April 30 at Doc Films: “The Long Goodbye”

BY BRIAN BELAK

Hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe is perhaps the most famous “private eye” of the early/mid-20th Century, appearing in numerous stories by Raymond Chandler and portrayed in film by such great actors as Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. By the 1970s, however, this image of a chain-smoking, fedora-wearing detective had fallen out of favor, now incongruous with the new, post-‘60s world.

This incongruity lies at the heart of The Long Goodbye (1973), showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on April 30, which removes Marlowe from his dark post-WWII setting and dumps him in Governor Ronald Reagan’s sun-bleached California. As he works to clear the name of his friend Terry Lennox, who has been accused of murdering his wife, and find missing novelist Roger Wade, it becomes increasingly clear that loyal, honest Philip Marlowe no longer has a place in this world.

That’s not to say that Elliott Gould does not play a fantastic Marlowe, instead proving himself worthy of replacing Bogart’s iconicity in the role. The fedora may be gone, as that would be entirely unfashionable in the ‘70s, but otherwise Gould embodies all aspects of the Marlowe persona, from endless smoking to expert detective work and constant cracking wise in the face of his adversaries. In particular, his loyalty is established immediately when in the first scene he’s willing to go out in the middle of the night to buy a specific brand of cat food for his cat and then drive his friend across the border to Mexico to escape the cops, no questions asked.

Based on a 1953 Chandler novel of the same name, The Long Goodbye’s twenty-year update was the idea of screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who also wrote for the Bogart Marlowe in 1946’s The Big Sleep) and director Robert Altman, who conceived of the project as a satire of the hardboiled detective genre with the goal to reveal its clichés and weaknesses.

The backbone of this satire thus arises mainly through placing Marlowe in a strange new environment, with Altman nicknaming the character “Rip Van Marlowe” during production because of Marlowe’s awaking from what could be a twenty-year sleep at the start of the film. Marlowe even alludes to this gap in time himself, making a comment to a police detective that he’s “from a long time ago.”

The other characters in the film recognize Marlowe’s allegiance to a bygone era and repeatedly make fun of him for it: the drunken Hemingway-esque Wade only calls him “the Marlboro Man” and the police, trying to drive Marlowe away, yell at him to “go back to [his] gumshoes.” Sometimes it’s even Marlowe himself joking about the difference between himself and the other detectives, saying while under interrogation, “Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s all this about?’ and he says, ‘Shut up! I ask the questions’?”

However, like any good satire, what makes The Long Goodbye such a great film is its consistent reverence to the genre it is simultaneously poking fun at. On top of his idiosyncrasies with the other characters lies the simple fact that Marlowe is still a very good detective. He repeatedly escapes those tailing him, even turning around to give them cheeky advice about how bad they’re doing, and neatly solves both cases he’s working on. Furthermore, since the basic plot is consistent with the Chandler novel, the mystery and suspense of classic film noir remains wholly intact.

Of the few changes made to the original story, the biggest is the ending of the film. It’s the only moment where Brackett writes a part for Marlowe that alters his personality from the Marlowe of the ‘40s and ‘50s, suggesting that maybe after the events of the film, the ‘70s have finally changed him from his old ways. Whether he likes it or not, he’s become a part of this new world for good.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.