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  • Writer's pictureLucas Friesen

Sunday Cinema: The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye is a 1973 United Artists movie directed by Robert Altman, starring Elliott Gould with support from Sterling Hayden, Nina van Pallandt, topless hippies and a cat. Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) wrote the script. The movie is quintessential neo-noir, with a laidback, bright Los Angeles setting that juxtaposes its dark, sinister story. The story deals with common tropes of the genre but the look and feel of 1970s America provides a refreshing backdrop.

United Artists is an essential production company of 1970s Hollywood. They are a keystone of Hollywood history and date back to Charlie Chaplin, who started the original United Artists with Mary Pickford, D. W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks. In the 1970s, UA was known for allowing directors to have greater freedom and, as such, it produced movies like Annie Hall, New York, New York, Apocalypse Now! and The Long Goodbye. It was a haven for auteurs until 1980’s Heaven’s Gate bombed so hard at the box office that the brand was sold off. However, it being such an iconic name, UA still stands today, even if it lacks some of the avant-garde that made it popular.

Altman is an auteur director, along with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. He is the quintessential director of the 1970s’ hippie hangover. It’s the lens of his modern America that makes The Long Goodbye’s neo-noir so refreshing. Behind the camera, Altman is subversive, with lots of fluid camera motion. The Long Goodbye’s style is akin to McCabe & Mrs. Miller and California Split. Luckily, in The Long Goodbye, everybody isn’t talking over one another.

Gould plays Philip Marlowe, a character first created by Raymond Chandler in his 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. However, Gould plays the role like Gould rather than a “proper” Marlowe, which can be seen by Humphrey Bogart in 1946’s The Big Sleep. Gould’s acting is not different from The Long Goodbye to California Split. With Gould, it feels like you are getting a look into his world by the movies that he chooses to star in. Gould has undeniable charisma. He’s a memorable presence on the screen, with slick line delivery. In his eyes, however, you only ever see Gould; not the character.

Sterling Hayden plays an alcoholic writer in the movie. He is exceptional, as usual. His most memorable scene is with Gould and set in an exterior at a beach house. This isn’t Hayden’s best role, you’ll have to watch Kubrick’s The Killing for that, but it is always nice to see him in a movie.

The Long Goodbye includes a cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He plays a background tough in one scene where he doesn’t speak but takes off his shirt. In his 1970s youth, the bodybuilder-turned-governor had only been seen on screen once before, in 1970’s Hercules in New York.

Like La La Land, The Long Goodbye uses a song theme, which is a song or tune that gets used repeatedly in a movie but often with different tones or tempo. Thus, music becomes a movie’s subversive theme. This movie’s song is “The Long Goodbye” by John Williams and Johnny Mercer.

Upon release, the movie met a cold reception. Neither the opening nor the limited release were well received, and the film made less than $1-million on a budget of $1.7-million. Most of the contemporary critics bemoaned Altman’s handling of Marlowe, which they felt wasn’t true to the original character. However, modern critics are more favourable of the movie. The jumpy plot that critics panned is now seen as unconventional and refreshing for cinematic storytelling, with its many small cycles inside the story’s overarching cycle. One critic who saw value in the movie upon its release was Roger Ebert, who gave the movie three stars out of four. I’d agree with that rating. The Long Goodbye is another great movie in the Altman filmography.

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