Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Discount Bin Movie Club #3: The Long Goodbye

Welcome to another edition of my irregularly scheduled and erratically posted Discount Bin Movie Club!

Today we're looking at director Robert Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett's adaptation of Raymond Chandler's classic 1953 crime novel The Long Goodbye, starring Elliot Gould, Sterling Hayden, and Danish actress Nina Van Pallandt

The premise is fairly simple.  Private eye Phillip Marlowe is a man with only one real friend, drinking buddy Terry Lennox.  One night Lennox shows up at Marlowe's door and announces that he's leaving his wealthy, but chronically unfaithful wife, and wants Marlowe to give him a lift to Tijuana.  Marlowe agrees.

Upon his return, Marlowe is arrested.  His best friend Terry Lennox is accused of savagely beating his wife to death.  Marlowe refuses to believe this and refuses to cooperate.  After word of his friend's apparent death in Mexico reaches Los Angeles, the case is closed and Marlowe's released.

A short while later Marlowe gets involved with the Wades.  Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) is a rich, best-selling author with a bad tendency to disappear, leading his wife Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt) to hire Marlowe to find him.

But a series of coincidences lead Marlowe to detect a possible connection between the Wades and the deaths of Lennox and his wife.

Now before I go on, I have to state that I am a big Chandler fan, and the Long Goodbye is one of my all time favourite novels.  I also have to admit that I'm ambivalent towards Robert Altman's work.  So it was with some trepidation that I leapt into the fray with this film.

Let me just list the pros and cons:

-Smart complex plot.  You really have to pay attention, Chandler and screenwriter Leigh Brackett didn't write this story for slackers.  Everything is a clue, and they're not going to stop and explain it for you.  Though they do give the original novel's themes of loss, loneliness and alcoholism short shrift, it is understandable under the circumstances.

-Sterling Hayden's performance.  The role of Roger Wade was originally written for Bonanza's Dan Blocker, who was a long time friend of Altman, but his death opened the door for Hayden.  Hayden's performance is masterful, his Roger Wade carefully cultivates the image of a Hemmingway-esque writer, brimming with confidence and braggadocio, but that's just a facade to cover up the fragile, self-loathing neurotic he really is.  He deserved an Oscar for this performance.

-Nina Van Pallandt was not only eye-candy for the film, but also gave an excellent performance of a woman with more going on than anyone knows.

-Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond did a risky move exposing the film to more light than recommended, creating the sun bleached look of the film, but it works.

-Mark Rydell as mobster Marty Augustine.  His character is not in the novel, but was added to the movie for reasons I don't quite understand.  His character's erratic behaviour and obsessive compulsive quirks are a needless distraction and don't serve any purpose than the filmmaker's desire to have at least some mob activity in the movie.  Watch his scenes for a young Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of his goons.

-Elliot Gould as Marlowe.  The filmmakers based their film on what they called Rip Van Marlowe, the idea that Marlowe's been figuratively asleep since the 1950s and that he's out of place and out of step in 1970s Hollywood.  While it's an interesting concept, it just doesn't work, and seems to make Marlowe a borderline somnambulist instead of the sharp-witted, but emotionally crippled alcoholic in the novels.  Gould might have pulled it off, if he had been given a different direction.

-Robert Altman's affectations.  If you know Altman's films you'll no what I'm talking about, sometimes the 'quirkiness' of the characters seem forced and artificial, distracting us from the actually interesting story.

All in all the Long Goodbye is a good film, but it just wasn't the great film the novel deserved.

The DVD is a pretty good package, with a making-of documentary, and a pristine widescreen print that probably looks better than its original 70s theatrical release.  If you're an Altman fan you'll love it, but you might be a bit iffy about the movie if you're not.

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