Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) faces the most bizarre case of his life, when a friend's apparent suicide turns into a double murder involving a sexy blonde, a disturbed gangster and a suitcase of drug money. But as Marlowe stumbles toward the truth, he soon finds himself lost in a maze of sex and deceit - only to discover that in L.A., if love is dangerous... friendship is murder.
Robert Altman and Raymond Chandler certainly make strange bedfellows. Of all the directors in Hollywood who might have seemed suited to adapting one of Chandler's famed hard-boiled detective novels, the man who made 'M*A*S*H' and 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' couldn't have been very high on the list. Nevertheless, he wound up with the job. Presaging later movies like 'The Big Lebowski' or 'Inherent Vice', Altman's 1973 version of 'The Long Goodbye' is a soft-boiled detective story and a revisionist film noir drenched in the glaring L.A. sun.
Chandler's private eye hero Philip Marlowe was of course most famously played by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks' 1946 film of 'The Big Sleep'. For the 1970s revival, studio United Artists wanted a grizzled, macho star like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum to play the role. With a perverse twinkle in his eye, Altman instead cast his 'M*A*S*H' star Elliott Gould. To say the least, this was a counter-intuitive choice. Constantly muttering to himself and overly preoccupied with his cat, the author's legendary investigator has been re-imagined as a bumbling, smartass drunk. Although never explicitly defined as a stoner, his behavior sure has many of the hallmarks of one. Living in then-contemporary 1970s Los Angeles, he's also a man trapped in the wrong era. He wears a suit every day, drives an old 1940s car, and never stops smoking no matter the hour or the circumstance. He's a walking anachronism in the sunny, casual, health-conscious California of the day.
With his repeated catchphrase "It's okay with me," this Marlowe is a very passive, reactive character, and hardly the man of action that Chandler fans expected. When his friend Terry Lennox shows up on his doorstep in the middle of the night begging for a ride to the Mexican border, Marlowe doesn't ask questions because he doesn't want to know the answers. Police arrive the next morning, claiming that Terry murdered his wife. Marlowe doesn't believe it. Nor does he buy later reports that Terry committed suicide in Mexico. Dragged into investigating his friend's apparent murder, Marlowe faces the usual bevy of Chandlerian twists and turns, including a mysterious blonde who knows more than she lets on and a tough-talking gangster. An abusive, Hemmingway-like author (Sterling Hayden in a marvelously blustering performance) with a gambling problem may also be involved.
The film was scripted by Leigh Brackett, who'd also adapted 'The Big Sleep' for Hawks, but Altman had her tailor the screenplay to his own sensibilities. The result is a fusion of Golden Age Hollywood and New Hollywood. It's both an old-fashioned detective thriller and a commentary on old-fashioned detective thrillers. It's part satire and part serious drama. Set in and around Hollywood itself, the story is infused by the culture of movies. In a running gag, a security guard character spends more time working on his celebrity impersonations than actually guarding anything. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger has a bit part with no lines as a thug who repeatedly flexes his pectoral muscles for no reason other than to draw attention to himself. And yet, the story ultimately takes some dark, deeply cynical turns that are perhaps darker than anything Chandler intended.
Like its hero, 'The Long Goodbye' balances an odd mixture of awkward and cool. It's captivating to watch and one of Robert Altman's best films. Raymond Chandler purists are free to disagree.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Long Goodbye' was last released on DVD back in 2002 by MGM. For Blu-ray, the studio has licensed the title out to Kino Lorber, which has put it out under its Studio Classics line. Like most releases from the label, the disc has a boring static menu and is pretty much just a direct port of the old DVD contents onto the higher-resolution medium.
Before we get into just how poor Kino's Blu-ray looks, we should attempt to keep things in perspective. Even at its best, 'The Long Goodbye' has what you'd call "difficult" photography. In an attempt to evoke a hazy, nostalgic feeling, director Robert Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond used a technique known as post-flashing to expose excess light onto the film frame. That gave the picture muted colors and soft, washed-out contrasts. Experiments like this were very common in the 1970s, when filmmakers sought to make their movies less pretty as a reaction against the classical Hollywood style. This is very different than the sharp, high-contrast, vibrant aesthetic that modern movies are made in and that many viewers will expect (and prefer) to watch on their HDTV screens.
Even with that said, however, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer authored onto Kino's Blu-ray is clearly recycled from the old DVD master. It looks like a very old film scan. For as soft as the movie's photography may have been, not enough of the detail that actually got captured has made its way into the video transfer. The 2.35:1 image is quite soft and extremely grainy most of the time. Black levels are milky while bright lights and match flames bloom distractingly.
To some degree, these traits may be endemic to the film. To its credit, the Blu-ray doesn't appear to have any noticeable digital filtering or manipulation, and it indeed looks better than the DVD. Printed newspaper text, for example, is much more legible here. If you're in a charitable mood, I suppose you could call it film-like – to the extent that it looks kind of like watching an old, faded print in a repertory theater. However, I'm confident that a modern high-resolution scan from the camera negative could resolve more detail and manage the grain structure a lot better. Sadly, MGM didn't feel it worth the investment to try before licensing the movie out.
At around the 1 hour 14 minute mark, a pinhole is visible at the top of the frame for about a minute. This happens during a dissolve and may have been an artifact of the original production.
The only sound option on the Blu-ray is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track. Although technically encoded in a lossless format, its sound quality is constrained by limitations of the original mix and the soundtrack's age. In other words, it sounds like a low-budget movie from the early 1970s, with audible hiss issues and very flat dynamic range. The ADR work (dialogue re-recorded, or "looped," in post-production) also sounds disconnected from the rest of the soundtrack.
On the other hand, that dialogue is always clear and intelligible. Even the most severe of Gould's mumbling is easy to follow. Director Altman has a fondness for overlapping dialogue where multiple characters speak at once, which could easily turn into to a muddy mess but somehow doesn't.
The disc's musical fidelity is the best aspect of its soundtrack. For a monaural source, it sounds reasonably robust and full-bodied. John Williams is credited as Music Composer for the movie. Aside from the opening strains of "Hooray for Hollywood" over the first shot, the only music heard is the repeated use of a theme song Williams wrote with the legendary Johnny Mercer, which is jokingly performed in numerous different styles and arrangements throughout the film, from a romantic ballad to supermarket muzak to a Mexican funeral dirge. Any time the movie has an excuse for music, whether as a score overlaid on the action or a character absent-mindedly humming a tune to himself, it's always some variation of the same song. The melody even serves as a doorbell ring at one point.
The Kino Blu-ray ports over all the bonus features from the 2002 DVD release by MGM. Sadly, we've lost director Robert Altman since he participated in the first featurette.
During its theatrical release, 'The Long Goodbye' confused both critics and audiences who expected a traditional film noir adventure or a faithful Raymond Chandler adaptation. Those viewers would get their wish a few years later when Robert Mitchum (whom Altman had passed over) played Philip Marlowe in 'Farewell, My Lovely' and a remake of 'The Big Sleep'. Altman's picture, however, has grown in stature in the meantime and is now recognized as a brilliant revisionist take on the genre.
This is a difficult film to transfer to video, and unfortunately the Blu-ray doesn't quite get it right. I wish I could hold out hope for a proper remaster someday, but I doubt that's in the cards anytime soon. This disc, as flawed as it is, will have to do for now.