Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Instant Movie Club: The Long Goodbye

Every week, your friends at Culture Blues get together to watch a movie from their Netflix Instant queue. Then, they answer a series of discussion questions while ogling their free-spirited neighbors. This is The Instant Movie Club.

This week we’re watching The Long Goodbye. Robert Altman and Elliot Gould offer their take on Raymond Chandler's most famous creation, private eye Philip Marlowe.

Next week:  V/H/S. We're watching last year's Sundance horror anthology success story to prepare for seeing the sequel at this year's Tribeca.

He sure chain smokes like a private detective.

He sure chain smokes like a private detective.

Upon its release in 1973, Time Magazine’s Jay Cocks called The Long Goodbye a “haphazard putdown without affection.” Conversely, Roger Ebert shortlisted with his “Great Movies” and wrote that “most of its effect comes from the way it pushes against the genre.” Forty years later, who was right?

Jeff Hart:  Jay Cocks, LOL! No, but seriously, Jay Cocks. The Long Goodbye has about 45 minutes of being that movie Ebert describes, where the hardboiled detective story is updated for the swinging 70s and hippy-dippy Los Angeles. However, the film’s second half becomes one rambling, disinterested digression – right around the point we’re assaulted by a lengthy, mostly improvised scene between the drunk writer and his femme fatale wife – that refuses to engage in anything so cliché as storytelling. Maybe I’m just too big a fan of the kind of pulpy thriller Altman is deriding, but the Long Goodbye’s listless second half relentlessly demonstrates how silly the filmmakers find their chosen genre. That’s not a film I’m interested in sitting through, especially when its “haphazard putdowns” aren’t even clever.

Jeremiah White:  The lack of clever reactions to the genre it’s supposedly pushing against is what really drags The Long Goodbye down. It’s so derivative of the film noirs of the past that it’s hard to take it seriously as a subversion of their conventions. That other Philip Marlowe movie, The Big Sleep, also has a convoluted plot that’s much less important than the film’s more ethereal qualities. Touch of Evil’s mystery also gets solved in the background. The Maltese Falcon features a detective who isn’t bound to the traditional codes of honor and decency. Hell, we’ve even seen a gangster disfigure his moll before. Lee Marvin did it in The Big Heat. The Long Goodbye doesn’t push against the genre as much as it picks up existing threads and stretches them well beyond their breaking point. The fact that one result is a mob boss ordering all his henchmen to undress with him in his office provides only slight redemption.

Where does Elliot Gould’s take on Philip Marlowe rank in the pantheon of movie detectives?

Jeff Hart:  So it should be clear that I didn’t really like The Long Goodbye, but I did enjoy Gould’s performance. Ignoring that this version of Marlowe does almost no detective work (that’s the crappy script’s fault) and that he doesn’t have the tough edge of Humphrey Bogart’s previous portrayal (or every other portrayal or Marlowe, ever), Gould does an admirable job of imbuing his slightly neutered detective with the world weary rage I expect from my P.I.s, and a ton of well-delivered one-liners. He’s Philip Marlowe by way of Fletch… which, by the way, is a better movie than The Long Goodbye.

Jeremiah White:  What a Fletch superfan! I was thinking more of The Dude myself. They’re both walking anachronisms. They get dragged into encounters with the movie’s other inhabitants. They have trouble handling simple everyday responsibilities. I’m sure the Coen Brothers had Altman’s movie in mind when they wrote The Big Lebowski, which is definitely a better movie than The Long Goodbye. Where it excels, and The Long Goodbye frequently fails, is stuffing the hollow, aimless husk of a detective movie with memorable characters and scenes. Oh wait, the question is about Gould, right? He’s really good! I love his scenes with the guy who’s tailing him. It’s hard to measure him against other detectives, because he doesn’t do a whole lot, but he’s like 70% of a Dude. Not too shabby.

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