Robert Altman is a great director, but one who can be difficult to like. His two best-known films are both somewhat unapproachable. With its blatant sexism and racism, his era-defining 1970 comedy “M*A*S*H” fails to stand the test of time. “Nashville,” Altman’s 1975 magnum opus, remains a masterpiece but is hampered by its three-hour runtime and ambitious cast of 24 main characters.
Luckily, there is an easier entry point into Altman’s work: 1973’s “The Long Goodbye.” Hindered by an initially poor — but now strong — critical reception, the movie stands out as a highlight not just of Altman’s filmography but of the entire noir genre.
“The Long Goodbye” adapts a novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler, often regarded as the author’s best. Chandler’s hard-boiled detective fiction defined noir in the 1940s and 1950s through his main character, Philip Marlowe, a name now synonymous with the American private eye. Chandler’s books spawned the film adaptations that defined American film noir, most notably “The Big Sleep.” Altman turns all the post-war cliches of Chandler’s works on their heads by re-setting the novel within the social unrest of 1970s California and pushing the cynicism of the noir genre to the point of satire.
“The Long Goodbye” showcases all of its director’s strongest skills; his chaotic blocking has characters speaking over each other in believable, engaging spats. His view of American society and culture is satirically biting but shows obvious love for the subject matter. John Williams’ score is understated, beautiful and almost purely diegetic. Music pours in naturally from the set as if part of a unified song. Car radios, party crowds and grocery store speakers within the movie all contribute to an unending song which accompanies the lead.
Actor Elliot Gould, Altman’s go-to star, serves the film well. Gould delivers one-liners and investigates the film’s mystery with a combination of hungover fatigue and quiet fortitude that makes his character far more complex and intriguing than the classic noir hero. Gould’s identity also contributed to the transgressive performance: He was part of a generation of Jewish leading men who helped thaw the dominance of clean-shaven and slick-haired WASP protagonists in Hollywood.
Critic Roger Ebert said that the film “undermines the premise of all private eye movies, which is that the hero can walk down mean streets, see clearly and tell right from wrong,” and the movie is subversive in its use of a beaten-down, shades-of-gray protagonist.
But in the process, the film also strengthens the core of the noir genre. In my view, the intrigue of a good detective film is the voyeuristic quality of the protagonist’s adventure through the seedy underbelly of (usually American) society. In line with classic heroic structures, noirs see good people thrust into an underworld in which each turn and twist of the plot reveals more corruption and filth from the conspirators. “The Long Goodbye” sits in that groove but with a more understated morality on behalf of its hero and fewer good-cop cliches. It is a melancholy movie that never surrenders to nihilism. While Philip Marlowe’s catchphrase when confronted with betrayal is always “it’s alright with me,” the movie reminds us — most of all in its conclusion — that Marlowe is hiding a staunch morality.
If you like “The Long Goodbye” — and I recommend that it be the next movie you watch — there are many more films in the same vein to enjoy. If you love the satirical noir and the hippie-filled setting, try the more recent 2014 “Inherent Vice,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix. If you love Gould’s cool humor and Altman’s artistry, watch “California Split,” an excellent buddy film starring Gould as a gambling-addict grifter. Hopefully, “The Long Goodbye” will draw you into the noir genre and Altman’s masterful work.