Robert Altman's version of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye  (screenplay by Leigh Brackett), is probably the best adaptation ever done of Chandler's narratives, to the screen. Chandler's novels are at the center of the Noir phenomenon, despite the fact that few of them were made into decent movies. This is partly the result of the formulaic nature of the movie-making craft during the 1940's and 1950's--and perhaps because the kind of subtle shades of irony and suspicion weren't developed until later in cinema--which prevented the full exploitation of Chandler's skills as a documentarian of human drama and behavior. The process of adapting fictional narratives to the screen has a long history, not all of it distinguished. In Altman's hands, it finally achieves something like the level of ambiguity and irony that Chandler had put into it.
Elliott Gould was right in his prime when he was chosen for this part--he'd done MASH , and would go on to have a busy career in movies, as well as television, though his "weight" as a heavy declined steadily over the decades, and he's now relegated to bit parts, as in the Oceans series [2001, 2004, 2007]. Here, he brought a kind of haphazard, disheveled, smart-aleck-y seediness to Marlowe, qualities not imagined in this character previously. This updated version puts him on the top floor of a breezy LA highrise apartment, across the way from a room full of flower girls, traipsing about half nude, blowing bubbles and dropping acid. His cat--an alter-ego tabby who won't be fooled by the wrong brand of canned cat-food--is his roommate. He's unromantic, his tie chronically half-tied, a perpetual cigarette hanging from his lower lip. He's a clown of a private eye, but a native suspicion keeps him afloat. He can be fooled occasionally by charm and the needs of friends, but not twice.
You can get to like Gould here, without in any way emulating any of his traits. He has just enough innocent investment in human frailty and perfectibility to save him from drowning in the miasma of late 60's--or early 70's--counterculture corruption and vice.
Elsewise, the cast is a circus of fascinating actors and actresses, whose real life stories are in some instances, as interesting (or more so) than the parts they're tasked to play here. Nina Van Pallandt, who plays the washed-up old faux-Hemingway writer's long-suffering blonde wife, was the one-time mistress of Clifford Irving (who penned a fake biography of Howard Hughes), and a former European folk-singer with spouse Baron Frederik van Pallandt, prior to her film career. The Long Goodbye was undoubtedly the height of her film credits. She basically plays herself.
Sterling Hayden, who steals the show with his masterful portrayal of an aging, failing he-man of an American novelist, emasculated by his alcoholism and writer's block, raging with impulsive violence, by turns prideful and ashamed, roaring like Lear on the misty beach with his effusive Doberman, or whimpering before the wrath of his pipsqueak psychiatrist (played with high comic effect by Henry Gibson) come to collect his bill.
Hayden, playing close to his real life self, had maintained an on-again, off-again, love-hate relationship with Hollywood for twenty years, only returning periodically after the 1950's to take the occasional bit part to fuel his passion for sailing. In the late 1940's, Hayden was among the most promising figures in movies, so good that he survived the black-listing era (he'd been briefly a member of the Communist Party following a connection with Yugoslavian dictator Tito during WWII). The Long Goodbye was his last significant part, as his career as an actor wound down.
The film included a part for erstwhile major league pitcher Jim Bouton, whose checkered career with the New York Yankees included a sterling 21-7 year (in 1963, and going 18-13 the next), and a novelty year for Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves at age 39 in 1978 (specializing in a lob pitch). The Author of a tell-all verité account of his years in the majors, Ball Four [New York: World Publishing, 1970], Bouton's career as an actor began and ended with The Long Goodbye, in the part of Terry Lenox, the "heel" who double-crosses Marlowe and receives his just dessert in the end.
Noteworthy among the bit parts was a very young, bushy-tailed Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the gangster's muscle men, who has no embarrassment at being commanded by his boss (wonderfully played by Mark Rydell) to disrobe, as an exercise in naked "honesty." Rydell, better known for his directorial efforts--The Reivers, Cinderella Liberty, On Golden Pond--is thoroughly convincing as the clinically sadistic crook famished for revenge at the theft of his 350 Grand.
Marshalling all these disparate participants--and a sprawling multi-faceted plot--into a single organized, unified production was a skill Altman excelled at, displayed to the hilt in such later productions as Nashville , A Wedding , and The Player .
Leigh Brackett, a veteran of the Noir era and Pulp Sci-Fi genre circuit--she wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep [1946, in collaboration with William Faulkner]--here neatly bracketed her screen work over a 25 year span. Howard Hawks remarked that she was good because she "wrote like a man".
Whether fans expected a typical hard-boiled cliché, or were pleasantly surprised at this updated interpretation of a 1940's trope, it was ambiguously received by critics and audiences alike. Barry Watten and I saw it together one night in 1973, and we agreed that it was a pleasant surprise. Did we even know who Robert Altman was? Almost certainly not. Aside from MASH  and McCabe & Mrs. Miller , nearly all his previous work had been in television productions.
The lingering, laid-back mood of the 1960's heavily influenced the feel and touch of movies throughout the Seventies, and The Long Goodbye is very much of the mood of the hour. 37 years later, it feels as much like a roman a clef--as it does a fictional account--in which the identities of the actual participants vibrate inside their screen identities with as much vividness as the made-up characters they were meant to represent.
Altman-Gould's is a more believable version of Marlowe than anything tried before. Living on the edge, scuffling through a morally compromised society of corrupt cops and predatory criminals, he's an unshaven nerd, self-consciously inhabiting the ill-fitting out-of-date wardrobe outfit of yesteryear. As a piece of unabashed nostalgia, it had a tinny ring. But as an original vision, it redefined the genre. On balance, a fine piece of movie-making.