Altman Makes The Long Goodbye, But Not to Film Noir

Last week, we posted an article about the 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s harbdoiled novel The Big Sleep starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, and whether it should be classified as a filmnoir. This week, we look at another adaptation of a Chandler novel from 1973: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, starring Elliot Gould and Nina van Pallandt. Guest writer Anthony Putvinski, one of my peers in the film studies program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, gives his take on the film.

~ Søren


In trying to classify The Long Goodbye in terms of genre, the phrase “neo noir comes to mind. Both The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep are based of Raymond Chandler’s novels about the character of Philip Marlowe, a private detective who is assigned cases involving dysfunctional family relationships. And indeed, both of these books are predictably similar in terms of plot, character development, and ideology; nevertheless, it is the differences present in the movie adaptations that lead to a fine line of separation between noir and neo noir

Whether or not noir can be considered as a genre, The Big Sleep can unequivocally be recognized as film noir. The movie stars a private eye detective (Humphrey Bogart) in an urban city setting who is offered money to solve a convoluted mystery. Marlowe is in this instance is a more stereotypical noir detective: he is witty and cunning and a constant drinker, he charms the females he meets and often exploits them in exchange for information, and he is an overall likeable character. In an effort to make progress in his case, Marlowe also shares the common noir protagonist role of one who straddles the line between working with the authorities and dealing with the criminal underworld.

In The Long Goodbye, a lot of these same semantic elements also exist. Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is called upon to aid another dysfunctional family unit, this time a woman named Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) as she searches for her missing husband. Unfortunately, Wade does not offer Marlowe enough insight to help him solve the case. On top of that, many of the characters Marlowe interacts with as he tries to solve the mystery have alternative motives in determining the truth. While this underlying premise sounds familiar to that of The Big Sleep, there are many differences in The Long Goodbye film compared to Chandler’s novel of the same name. For example, the book does not have Philip Marlowe kill his old friend Terry Lennox at the end. In addition, only the portrayal of Eileen’s husband Roger Wade’s death as a suicide and Marty Augustine’s intense subplot are uinque to the film. It is worth noting that Robert Altman might have included these different syntactic changes to satirize certain elements of typical noir films, but the line between genre and authorship is unclear.

“Is this where I’m supposed to say ‘What’s all this about?’”

Another noticeable difference is that the Marlowe of The Long Goodbye seems immune to female temptation. While the females in both films possess important information that is crucial to the mystery Marlowe is trying to solve, Gould’s Marlowe has no interest in sleeping with these women. For example, after finishing an extravagant dinner with Mrs. Wade, he never once attempts to seduce her – an opportunity Bogart’s Marlowe would never pass up. Marlowe’s inability to be tempted by female characters is on full display as he interacts with his female neighbors. Marlowe lives next to a group of attractive women who are often engaging in topless yoga sessions throughout the film, but remains completely unamused by their nudist displays and wastes very little time interacting with them. Meanwhile, the sight of them distracts every other man who happens to come to his apartment – from the person responsible for following Marlowe to the police, and still Marlowe himself remains unfazed. I feel that these changes are due in large part to the time periods in which these films were made.

There was a noticeable shift in cultural attitude between the 1940s and the 1970s that is mirrored in these two movies. For example, the change in how Los Angles is portrayed between the two films is impossible to ignore. The Big Sleep is set in a darker version Los Angeles while The Long Goodbye takes place in a warm, seventies-era LA; The contrasting landscape is evident in the beach house properties and series of outdoor scenes that comprise The Long Goodbye. The shift in time period also influence character attributes such as attire, personality, and dialogue – all of which play a role in defining semantic elements. Another difference that comes from being made in a different decade is the limited censorship of the films themselves. For example, the show runners of The Big Sleep would never have approved of Marlowe’s topless neighbors, images of graphic murder and violence, and frequent swearing – all major components of The Long Goodbye.

Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) and Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) have a drink in The Long Goodbye.

That being said, I do still believe there are enough similar elements in each of the films to classify The Long Goodbye as neo noir. The protagonist is a private eye who, true to form, engages in frequent chain smoking and booze drinking and the search for a missing person. In a noir, the audience feels a connection to the plot and that mirrors the main character’s investment in solving the case. The attachment is intensified by voice-over narration and remarks by Marlowe that are only meant to be heard by the audience – these are plentiful in The Long Goodbye asMarlowe constantly talks to himself. This creates a much more human element to the Marlowe in The Long Goodbye as we are given insight into his life, while Humphrey Bogart’s character is a much more mysterious character that is actually incongruous with many other films noir.

To reiterate, the differences of these two films are solely due to the time periods in which they were made. The mantra of seventies culture is represented all throughout The Long Goodbye. It is most noticeably seen in the carefree attitude and experimental behavior of the characters as well as the lack of censorship from the film’s editors. However, this does not entirely separate The Long Goodbye from film noir; scholar Rick Altman is cited in Film Genre as saying that films, like words, “evolve away from their anchoring terms and become stand alone nouns.” I feel that The Long Goodbye is a prime example of a film evolving from noir and incorporating different elements relative to the time period in which it was created. The fact that these two films are based on books from the same author make it impossible to refute that they both have similar elements, and should both be considered part of the film noir movement.

~ Anthony