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Classic Pick: The Long Goodbye

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It wasn’t until after I’d written this little article that I realized I was recommending two Robert Altman films in a row. But you know what? Robert Altman was a great director and you should watch more of his films.

Altman’s The Long Goodbye is very different film to M*A*S*H, but it has as many claims to excellence as that better-known work. Adapting Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name to 1973 Los Angeles, Altman turns a hard-boiled detective story into a rumination on the decline of the counter-cultural movement, and the slow implosion of American society.

Detective Phillip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) really just wants to be left alone and scrape out a meager living for himself and his wandering cat, but instead he does the dumbest thing possible and gives his friend Terry Lennox a lift to the Mexican Border. Upon returning home, Marlowe is met by two detectives who claim that Lennox has murdered his wife. Being a recalcitrant sort, Marlowe declines to be strong-armed into revealing his friend’s whereabouts and is carted off to prison. Returning home, Marlowe is hired by evident femme fatale Mrs. Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her missing husband Ernest Hemingway…I mean, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), who has disappeared on an apparent alcoholic binge. The two cases eventually inform on each other, as usually happens in hardboiled neo-noirs, with Marlowe doing his best to balance right and wrong in the face of overwhelming odds.

For anyone who has seen an Altman film of any period, the same use of realistic and partially improvised dialogue, a certain documentary style, and a roving camera eye will be immediately recognizable. The task of updating a detective novel of the 1950s to the more post-modern concerns of the 1970s might seem impossible, but Marlowe’s put-upon character is curiously well suited to 1973 and the malaise generated from the decline of the counter-cultural movement, the rise of violence in Los Angeles, and the continuing aftermath of the Vietnam War. The Long Goodbye is a defiant and angry film with characters that never really raise their voices, a film that has no call to arms but a quiet resistance against the oncoming tide. Less energetic and even less optimistic than M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye is both a worthy historical marker, and a brilliant piece of cinema.