The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is three o’clock in the morning when Detective Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is woken up by his hungry cat. Out of food, he goes to the store to buy a can of his pet’s favorite chow and when he returns, his friend, Terry (Jim Bouton), with a huge scratch down his cheek, drops by and asks to be dropped off to Tijuana immediately. Marlowe agrees to help, but when he gets back to his apartment, three cops wish to ask him some questions involving Terry’s dead wife. Convinced that his friend is not a killer, Marlowe tries to clear Terry’s name which leads him to a woman named Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt), whose husband, a famous writer, had gone missing.

Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, “The Long Goodbye” is an interesting breed of mystery because of its tendency to focus on the mundane, like how a cat jumps from a shelf, to a counter, and then to its owner’s shoulder or how its protagonist walks around so deep in thought that it appears as though he is sleepwalking. It creates a sort-of poetry between conversations that sometimes appear to be about one thing but really about something else entirely. Since it requires time and patience to get into its groove, the mystery is not quite so easy to figure out.

I loved the way Gould plays his character with such a dry sense of humor and an air of secrecy. From the moment we lay eyes on him, it is increasingly understandable why he has a cat instead of a girlfriend because most cats do not require much attention and affection. I am especially drawn to Marlowe when he is on the move: his shoulders a bit hunched and has the tendency to mumble things to himself that only he could decipher. Throughout, Marlowe surprises us with his high level of wit and intelligence, qualities that a person will likely not consider him to have simply by looking at him. In a way, his greatest weapon is his ability to appear ordinary so those who he find suspect will have their guard down.

The way it is shot is interesting because it is drained of colors that pop out. For this same reason, it can be exhausting to stare at various shadings of grey, black, white, and beige. While it is perhaps the point considering that it contains plenty of noir elements in the screenplay’s DNA, I found it challenging to be fully engrossed in the material when the detective is not in the foreground. It does not help that the other actors, though adequate, do not inject something special in their characters to inspire us to ask questions about them as people living specific lifestyles in ‘70s Hollywood.

Directed by Robert Altman, “The Long Goodbye” does not have a predictable trajectory. Though it might bore half of the audience with its seemingly unrelated side quests from the central murder plot, it all comes together in a way that makes sense without relying on flashbacks that hammer us over the head with what happened exactly. It trusts us to have retained the memory of the events along with their implications and the last-minute revelations simply fill in the gaps.

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