The protagonist in The Long Goodbye is one of the world’s most popular fictional private detectives named Philip Marlowe, a character created by author Raymond Chandler. He was seen in several film adaptations most notably Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. But what Robert Altman did with this character must have pissed off a lot of purists for he is depicted here in a way that he had never been depicted before. This is a complete re-interpretation. At first glance, he could be mistaken for a bum wearing clothes that he probably picked up from the dumpster. Marlowe is depicted here as a mumbling loser who is unshaven and seemingly uncouth. He lives alone in a shabby looking residence with a cat that has a refined taste. One naturally expects Marlowe to have learned at least a thing or two from it but apparently, that is not the case.
Getting home one night after having bought cat food for his sophisticated cat, Marlowe is visited by his friend Terry Lennox who asks him to drive him to the California-Mexico border. After Marlowe drops him off, he is picked up by two detectives who inform him that Terry has killed his wife. He finds his hard to believe and after spending three days in jail, the cops let him go because they have learned that Terry has killed himself. Even though the case is closed, Marlowe senses something amiss.
Marlowe is then hired by a filthy rich blonde lady Eileen Wade who asks him to find her eccentric, alcoholic and suicidal writer husband Roger Wade. Marlowe does a little snooping around and finds Roger at a rehabilitation clinic and brings him home. He soon learns that the Wades knew Terry and his wife. Naturally, this piques his interest and decides to seriously commit himself to unraveling the truth behind all this. Meanwhile, he is also being pestered by an outrageous and lunatic gangster named Marty Augustine who wants to be repaid the money that Terry owed him.
From the outset, Altman makes it very clear that this is not your grandfather’s private eye film. He takes this particular genre and turns it on it’s head. Elliott Gould is perfectly cast as Marlowe and plays him as someone who appears as if he is sleepwalking most of the time, but obviously very aware of his surroundings. He is the complete opposite of Marlowe the dapper looking gent played by Bogart in The Big Sleep. He is also an expert bullshitter and a smartass. When the cops pick him up to get some information on Terry, he repeatedly annoys them. I must admit that it took me two viewings to properly appreciate this film. The first time I saw it, I found Sterling Hayden’s character Roger Wade intolerable. But now I think it’s one of his best performances. He is nearly unrecognizable here.
Also notable is the Marty Augustine character played by Mark Rydell. He is truly a despicable piece of work but also ridiculously funny. In one scene, in order to demonstrate to Marlowe how menacing he is, he takes a coke bottle and smashes it into his girlfriend’s face and follows it with the line: “That’s someone I love. You, I don’t even like.” A disturbing scene that immediately brings to mind a similar scene from The Big Heat where Lee Marvin throws a jug of scalding hot coffee on Gloria Grahame’s face. The funny bit here is when Augustine asks Marlowe to take off his clothes to prove that he is not hiding anything and in order to make him comfortable, takes his own clothes off as well as asking his thugs (one of them played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) to do the same. It’s a hilarious scene.