News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: The Long Goodbye

This week featured our first introduction to Robert Altman, one of the prominent figures in the New Hollywood pantheon.  Over the final three decades of his career, Altman would release more than his share of great films—but there is nothing to compare with his remarkable stretch of nine films from 1969 to 1975, arguably the greatest sustained sprint of the New American Cinema. And while most of those movies bear the distinct Altman stamp, no two are alike: That Cold Day in The Park (a claustrophobic psychological drama with Sandy Dennis), MASH (a mega-hit, with Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, and a large cast who would form the heart of Altman’s stock company of players), the curio Brewster McCloud (has its fans, apparently), the landmark revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie; Images (an underseen gem, greatly influenced by Ingmar Bergman), The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us (depression-era outlaw antiheros, Altman-style), California Split (George Segal and Elliot Gould roll the dice in a story that might be the director’s most allegorically autobiographical), and the capstone masterpiece of this era, Nashville.

The Long Goodbye, one of Altman’s best films, is not only part of this impressive run but also holds a prominent place in the rich cluster of revisionist neo-noirs of the period.  The New Hollywood revered film noir (the dark, gritty crime dramas of, say, 1941-1958)—yet at the same time those revisionists were determined to aggressively interrogate the conventions of the “genre” (quotes here because noir is not a proper genre). The two movements shared obvious affinities: a taste for the downbeat (noirs featuring almost invariably and then-atypically unhappy endings); a visual style in radical opposition to the norms of the studio system; representations of suspect authority that in the classic era sidestepped the marching orders of the Hollywood Production Code; and an alertness to – and in the case of noir at least, anxiety about – female sexuality and changing gender relations more generally (in the 1940s in the context of GIs returning home to find more independent women, in the 1970s with the rise of the feminist movement). But seventies filmmakers were determined to take on an already-subversive genre, and withhold the few comforting life preservers that were tossed in the direction of an earlier generation of film-goers. Yes, it was a cold, dark world out there, where the powerful lived above the law and the police were less than helpful.  But in the classic noirs, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” Raymond Chandler famously explained. “A man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”  Tough, smart, and wise – able to see through the game (which is not the same thing as winning it) – the noir hero was a free agent, one step ahead of the law, living by a code of ethics shared by trusted friends and understood by an underground subculture of bartenders, cabbies and too-cool-for-the-mainstream operators. These White Knights could never hope to beat the system, but they could win small, meaningful battles, as agents of justice in an otherwise immoral, indifferent universe.

What the seventies film could do then, was to strip these knights of their shining armor: their code, and their savvy.  There would be no small victories in the neo-noirs of the 1970s—it was dark, all the way down.  In Night Moves, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) “played something else, and he lost.” In Chinatown, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) “made the same mistake, twice.”  In The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) – as written by Leigh Brackett, who decades earlier had adapted Chandler’s classic The Big Sleep with Bogie as Marlowe – is also taken down a notch.  As Pauline Kael observed, in a critique of the noir detective that could not be more cutting, “even the police know more about the case he’s involved in than he does.” But Altman and Brackett, in a film beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (sun-drenched daytime settings contrast with jet-black night-for-night sequences), are out for even bigger game. They confront Marlowe with an unspeakable betrayal: the violation of his trust by an intimate friend, and leave him with nothing, not even his cat, stranded in the empty seventies. This theme, and its (enormously controversial) resolution, was what the movie was all about for Altman; he signed onto the picture with the proviso that Brackett’s ending of the film (a radical departure from Chandler’s source material) not be altered.  As the director explained, “my intention was that the greatest crime that could be committed against Philip Marlowe . . . is that his friend broke faith with him.”  Which is right.  And not something one gets over.    


Questioned by the Cops


I don't Believe it

"I Don't Believe It"



Sterling Hayden (as Roger Wade)



With Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt)