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Meta-daptations “The Long Goodbye”

July 13, 2009

Excellent movies kinda sorta based on a book

By Nat

57023006266ozb3 Second in our series of meta-daptations (click here in case you missed the first)  is the criminally overlooked 1973 Robert Altman gem The Long Goodbye, based(?) on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 Philip Marlowe novel of the same name.

The flick stars Elliot Gould as Las Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe. At first glance, Gould, with his curly hair, trim frame, and, well, Jewishness, seems as peculiar a casting choice to play heavy-drinking, WASPy, tough-guy Marlowe as Robert Mitchum was appropriate . And yet, Gould retains the two critical traits that make Marlowe Marlowe: 1) smoking, and 2) being a wise-ass. I guess chivalrousness fits in there, too, but it’s not as interesting.

Supporting Gould is a terrific cast of actors this generation wouldn’t know by name but remembers seeing them in that one movie. One of them is Sterling Hayden, the corrupt cop who gets shot in the throat in The Godfather. Here he doesn’t get shot, but he does spend most of the time getting blasted. Hayden plays the hard-hard-hard-drinking Hemingway-esque writer Marlowe’s hired to find. Bar-none, Hayden’s drunk is the best that’s ever graced the silver screen—and that includes Nicholson in The Shining, Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, and even Finny in Under the Volcano. The way he flails his arms, the way he stumbles through his esses and then recovers on a hard consonant, the way he offers everyone else a capper of brandy at 7:00 in the morning—he doesn’t give a damn about what they think; the only thing worrying him is that they’ll accept—Hayden absolutely steals the show in every one of his scenes…save one…

Hayden’s wife is played by the ultra-sultry Nina van Pallandt (even her name is sexy), who juggles her husband with her massive hound of a pet and still has energy to fling woo at Marlowe with a sex-oozed offer of cheese. You probably haven’t seen Pallandt in anything else, but don’t worry: I haven’t either. But doesn’t she look familiar? I think it’s because she looks like what your really attractive women looked like in the ‘70s, and as well she should, because she satisfies all the criteria of ‘70s hotness: 1) bronze, 2) slim, 3) smart, 4) 40+ years old. Number 3 is the one Pallandt excels at: She’s so good, you never realize that you never know what her character’s up to—or even if she’s up to it.

Henry Gibson’s there, too (you know, the bad guy from The ‘Burbs? No? What about the mute-blabbermouth priest from Wedding Crashers? Yeah, that guy. He’s really young in this one, too, and…oops—sorry), playing the same kind of creepy, oily, snakish-guy-who-slaps-Sterling-Hayden he plays in everything else. Except this time he’s younger…and a doctor!

This is where the review would start summarizing the plot, but, honestly, there’s no point in doing so. Maybe it’d be nice to give you an idea of the big mystery, but (in contrast to the book) The Long Goodbye’s not a mystery— it’s really more a parade of delightful scenes. And there’s not a bad one in it. The opening sets the understated tone through shots of meandering precision—how much of it is planned? No idea, but it comes off too well to be slapdashed. Seriously: How can something as banal as feeding your cat be so entertaining?

Soon after that scene Marlowe smart-asses his way through a police interrogation, smearing finger-printing ink on his face and singing Swanee over the cops’ questions. When he’s released, he sees the clerk from the cat-food store and asks about his girl. It’s a wonderfully Altman moment: In addition to the overlapping dialogue, there’s a masterful staggerin’ circular shot that takes Gould as its focal point. That one shot sums up Marlowe’s character: freewheelin’ but not careless. You don’t notice it until the quick cut to the officers behind the interrogation mirror: steady and with their backs to us. Each one waits for the other to finish his sentence before speaking. It’s the polar opposite of the preceding shot.

In another scene, Marlowe’s brought in by the local gangster who gives a long soliloquy detailing his day then orders his hooligans to strip down before they pummel their quarry. It’s one of those scenes where, when you’re watching it, the progression from point A to be point B seems perfectly natural; the gangster is one of those obnoxious ‘70s LA yuppie types: very health-conscious and insecure. In an effort to show how open he is and in what great shape he’s in, he tells everyone to get naked. His thugs just kind of look at him, which gets him angry, which gets them nervous. So they strip, and soon everyone’s looking at everyone else with great awkwardidty—save Marlowe, whose full clothed and grinning. Like I said, it makes sense when you’re watching it, but if you’re writing a quick recap—he brings Marlowe in and everyone gets naked—you can’t help but wonder how you got from the beginning of the scene to its bizarre conclusion. Obviously, this scene wasn’t in the book.

Neither was the gangster.

And by the way, the film takes place in 1973. Except Marlowe—he takes place in the ‘40s. He’s sort in his own little world.

It’s tempting to go on describing scenes, like when Marlowe visits a rehab center…or when he smart-asses a thug railing him…or the perfect, perfect ending…

There’s a lot of differences between the film and the book, but you can’t quite call it “loosely” based because it follows the basic plot, has the same characters, and has them doing what they did and being who they were. It takes all these things from the book and gives you a movie that’s totally thematically different: It’s just not a mystery; it’s more of a comedy, and that’s sort of the point…or maybe the point is it is a mystery with some comedy. Or maybe there is no point…Hell, I don’t know, and that’s okay with me.

Frothygirlz rating 10/10


2 Responses to “ Meta-daptations “The Long Goodbye” ”

  1. pancake on July 13, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Sold! I am putting this in my Netflix now…

  2. anncine on July 13, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Oh Nat, how did I miss this? Must correct situation…immediately.