The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye

Robert Altman

USA, 1973


Review by Michael Nordine

Posted on 21 January 2011

Source MGM DVD

The vast number of conspiracy theories surrounding such far-ranging topics as who shot JFK to whether or not we landed on the moon has proven fodder for more films than can easily be counted. In my mind, this points most directly to one thing: our need to assign meaning where there may be none. In the absence of a truth we can easily wrap our head around, our tendency is often to mine deeper until we find one or, failing that, create it for ourselves. More than any one factor, this might account for the ever-flowing stream of detective movies. A primary (if implicit) role of fictional sleuths is thus to fulfill both our desire for mystery and our even stronger need for resolution, often in the form of a unified explanation for each and every loose end. It’s why the final montage of The Usual Suspects is as satisfying as it is, as well as the reason the ending to No Country for Old Men displeased so many upon its release: the latter affirms the way things often are instead of the way we would like them to be. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye undoubtedly leans closer to the former pole, but it does so in an idiosyncratic enough way to make it notable in its own right.

I got a woman. What do I need a cat for?”

The Long Goodbye announces its oddness by way of a fastidious tabby cat. The feline in question wakes up its owner—Philip Marlowe, formerly embodied by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep but now portrayed by a decidedly less self-assured Elliott Gould—at 3:30 in the morning so that it may be fed. Rather than a mere exhibition of quirk, however, the incident provides Marlowe with his first chance to prove his worth. When the makeshift dinner he prepares is ignored by his discerning pet, Marlowe is forced to trek to a 24-hour grocery store and find a can of Coury cat food, the only brand the cat will accept. They’re out, so Marlowe buys something else and places it in a Coury can while the cat isn’t looking. It isn’t enough: the rouse fails and the cat slinks off, never to be seen again.

This may seem like a too-exhaustive account of a seemingly innocuous event, but it highlights some important facets of Marlowe’s character, namely, the particular ways in which he’s exceptionally clever but not infallible. He sleeps in his clothes, makes no attempt to hide the unkemptness of both himself and his apartment, and in general gives off the impression that his work as a private investigator stems more from an innate knack and less from a strong moral compass or sense of the way things ought to be. The ease with which he cracks wise is natural to his line of work, but Marlowe’s wit is unique in that it isn’t a defense mechanism. His cynicism is nothing new among ’70s private eyes, but the fact that it isn’t there to mask a hidden vulnerability proves atypical. Marlowe has no skeletons in his closet, no baggage he carries with him every day. More than anything, he’s a pragmatist. Only when the simplest solution doesn’t pan out does he turn to convoluted means, as with the cat food and, of course, the film’s larger story arc, which concerns a friend of Marlowe’s accused of murder (wrongly, according to Marlowe) and a woman named Eileen Wade whose husband Roger has a habit of disappearing for days and weeks at a time. The two narrative threads are, of course, connected.

As tends to be the case, it take the film’s entirety for these threads to fall into place. Indeed, plot points are introduced without any hints as to their significance; not until long after their introduction do they form any sort of picture at all. This may seem par for the course, but it’s the way Altman allows them to float (more as a means of focusing on Marlowe and less so that the revelation of their true meaning will be enhanced) that fascinates. Details aren’t belabored here; they’re mentioned in passing and brought back when salient. The result is often a layered confusion on the part of the viewer, doubly so when Marlowe himself can’t add up the clues he comes across.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Long Goodbye is a stylistic one concerning three extended close-ups that occur in the latter half of the film. Seemingly innocuous but ultimately foreshadowing, the first occurs as Marlowe speaks with the now-returned Roger Wade on a beach. The shot: a wave breaking onto sand. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera simply meanders away from the two men as if it has caught a glimpse of something more to its liking. The second—bizarre, hilarious, and difficult to interpret—features one dog humping an unwilling second in the middle of Tijuana. It occurs as if by accident, while Marlowe is walking through the border town late in the movie while searching for information regarding his apparently-dead friend, but ends up being the focus of the shot. What purpose this moment serves other than being the single most absurd of the entire film is unclear, but words fail to express how brilliant the non sequitur seems in retrospect. The third and final close-up is a callback to the first and interrupts a conversation between Marlowe and Eileen. It is night and the two are in front of a window looking out onto the same beach mentioned above. The waves breaking outside are silent, unnoticed. As their conversation goes on, the camera gradually shifts focus off of them and onto a figure walking into the dark water. Long after the camera notices, Marlowe and Eileen do too, but not in time to do anything about it.

A cumulative effect is achieved upon completion of this odd triptych: a dramatic irony in which the viewer is made aware of things before the characters are, Marlowe in particular. As with the cat food incident, these close-ups highlight the way in which even he—the instrument of our understanding—is sometimes at sea. This may either be taken as an affirmation of our own power to discern what is happening in a film of this sort or, more likely, a reminder that meaning, if it is to be found at all, is not always revealed through a linear assessment of hints and clues, but simply stumbled upon.

For instance: The Long Goodbye’s title is never spoken aloud. It certainly seems to evoke death, but anything beyond that—a sendoff to Marlowe’s wrongly-accused friend or even his disappeared cat—seems mere conjecture. This is not only a change from catchphrase-happy films eager to spoon-feed their meaning to viewers, but an instance in which neither chance nor a skilled gumshoe can reveal everything to us. Even to those who fancy themselves amateur sleuths, this is likely cold comfort.

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