"THE LONG GOODBYE" was Robert Altman's weirdo 1973 take on the Raymond Chandler noir novel, made as Altman was truly at the height of his improvisational, experimental powers. When I watch films he made in this era like "California Split" and "3 Women", I still have trouble believing that they were financially backed by major studios. They're so "of the auteur" and so personal, abstract and unusual - and yet hugely entertaining, funny and engrossing - they truly point to a moment in time (the 70s) justly celebrated for this type of cinematic creativity. Friends of mine have said this one is their favorite of all Altman films. I won't go that far, but after finally checking the box on it, I'll say it's a singularly unique achievement and right up there with his best. I'm going to watch it at least another two or three times and pick it apart some more before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
As you may know, Altman let his actors and actresses take his rough script and plot outlines and go almost anywhere they wanted to with them. While not as wild and verbose as he was in "California Split", the excellent Elliott Gould (private Los Angeles detective Phillip Marlowe) is a motormouth mumbler who talks to himself, to his cat, and has some trouble having normal, intelligible conversations with the people around him - though Altman portrays all the strange dialogue in this film as "normal". This was also at the height of Altman's "everyone talk at once" phase, so the scenes of the beautiful hippie nudist yoga women on their balcony as they talk to their neighbor Marlowe, and each other, are as jarring and otherworldly as anything in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller". Combine that with his gauzy technicolor style and the filters he put on his lenses, and you've got something that definitely exists in its own world.
However, it is a fairly straightforward noir/detective adaptation at its core. I saw the name "Jim Bouton" in the opening credits and thought, ha, that's funny, same name as the Seattle Pilots baseball player who wrote the 1969 tell-all book "Ball Four" that was one of my fave books as a teenager. Turns out it is Bouton, in his only film role ever, as Terry Lennox, the man whom Marlowe unwittingly shuttles down to Mexico to escape from killing his wife and stealing a big load of money from drug dealers, an act that sets some - not all - of the film in motion. Sterling Hayden, as the alcoholic writer Roger Wade, is amazing and a real site to behold - a stumbling, staggering Popeye brute of a man who looks ready to pop anyone & everyone in the mouth at any time, and who literally walks into the sea to end his life in the course of the film.
Gould is on camera the entire film, pretty much. Marlowe is a restless, hunch-driven, seat-of-his-pants sort of detective, and at no point do you ever get any sense that he's exceptional or has prior success at his job. That said, he solves this case in a big way. A cigarette is in his mouth at virtually all moments in the film, and he appears nervous and yet composed and confident at the same time. He gathers some clues and flirts a bit with Eileen Wade, played by Nina Van Pallandt, and as mentioned previously, runs into her crazy drunk of a husband in several classic scenes. It's clear that Altman's deconstructing the "private eye movie" and Chandler's work, and pulling it all into a worldview that only he and a generation of film studies studies might be able to explain. I can't. I just know when it ended I laughed out loud, the way I do when I've seen something wholly original and wild.