'The Long Goodbye': THR's 1973 Review
On March 7, 1973, Robert Altman unveiled his two-hour, R-rated noir adaptation of The Long Goodbye in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter's original review of the United Artists film is below.
Robert Altman's film of Raymond Chandler's novel The Long Goodbye, produced by Jerry Bick from a screenplay by Leigh Brackett, is as witty as any movie ever made. Its scenes are so resourceful and so emotionally appealing that they nearly succeed in overcoming some careless plotting.
The eccentric casting of Elliott Gould is altogether successful and allows the filmmakers to embrace the detective genre affectionately, transforming it into a dreamlike excursion through modern Los Angeles.
Gould's Philip Marlowe is no beat-'em-up tough guy; he's a wistfully human and tolerantly benign anachronism. He isn't, of course, Humphrey Bogart, but it would have been foolish to chase the achievements of The Big Sleep in 1973. Instead, The Long Goodbye charts its own perverse course, throwing much (perhaps too much) of Chandler's novel out the window.
A friend (Jim Bouton) asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana in the middle of the night. Upon his return, Marlowe is arrested because Bouton's wife has been viciously murdered. He is released three days later when it is learned that Bouton has written a confession and supposedly committed suicide.
The beautiful wife (Nina van Palandt) of a successful but alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden) engages Marlowe to retrieve her husband from a sanitarium run by Henry Gibson. A gangster (Mark Rydell) assumes that Marlowe can find a vast sum of money Bouton has stolen from him. The elements of the mystery ultimately converge into a series of denouements.
Unfortunately, the plot is not as interesting to Altman as it should be. Perhaps his recklessness with story mechanics is the cost of creating the parade of remarkable scenes, as good as any ever made in the genre (and that includes The Big Sleep). But because the scenes don't mesh into a whole, the drama never becomes as powerful as its elements.
Leigh Brackett's screenplay provides dialogue as brittle and humorous as Mankiewicz's in All About Eve. Brackett's ear is inventive, oblique and frequently hilarious. Coupled with Altman's flair for improvisation, Brackett's work gives The Long Goodbye humanity and reality.
Altman's style has the finesse and control of a true filmmaker; his movies look and feel like no one else's. He stages his scenes with a fluid, probing camera that relentlessly, but affectionately, unmasks his characters as they try to maintain their shaky identities.
There isn't a mediocre performance in the movie, and Altman turns The Long Goodbye over to his inspired performers. Gould has never been more relaxed or likeable; his essential innocence is unusual for the Marlowe character but engages the audience and allows Altman to comment subtly on corruption.
Van Pallandt's screen debut reveals her to be a ravishing, mature beauty with charm and elegance. She's one of the villains, and what's disturbing about the movie is that she is presented as a totally sympathetic, if inaccessible, character.
Hayden's flamboyant performance is probably a great one; it has the ache of writer's block and alcoholism to it. Rydell's hoodlum czar is something new in movies — a nouveau riche gangster, a hilarious piece of social portraiture.
Gibson is sinister as a creepy doctor whose function in the story gets lost along the way. David Arkin, as a fledgling mobster, is extremely funny; Bouton is properly arrogant as Marlowe's playboy friend. Warren Berlinger, Jo Ann Brody, Ken Sansom and Steve Coit are all excellent in smaller parts.
Technically, the movie is consistently remarkable; there isn't a lazy shot in it. Vilmos Zsigmond's rococo photography is hypnotic and less mannered than it has been in previous Altman movies. Lou Lombardo's film editing is generous to the actors and builds scenes carefully for feeling and atmosphere.
There is no credit for production design; the selection of locations is unusually fresh. John V. Speak's sound is excellent, particularly in light of the awkward (for recording) locations.
The title song by John Williams and Johnny Mercer is wonderfully Forties in feeling; it is used wittily several times throughout the movies in different styles. It's a leitmotif reminder that The Long Goodbye is a gloriously inspired tribute to Hollywood that never loses sight of what Los Angeles has become. — Alan R. Howard, originally published on Feb. 28, 1973