Directed by Robert Altman and based on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel, with a script by Leigh Brackett (who co-wrote the screenplay for Chandler’s The Big Sleep), who said that United Artists demanded that “either you take Elliott Gould or you don’t make the film. Elliott Gould was not exactly my idea of Philip Marlowe, but anyway there we were.” — The Long Goodbye was revised to move the story to the 70s.
As for Gould, he hadn’t worked in two years, ever since battling with Kim Darby and director Anthony Harvey on A Glimpse of Tiger. He had to take a psychological examination before United Artists would sign him to be the lead.
Marlowe (Gould) is asked by his friend Terry Lennox (baseball player and author of Ball Four Jim Bouton) to take him to the border at Tijuana. When he gets home, the cops bring him in and question him about Lennox killing his wife Sylvia. After three days in jail — and refusing to help the police — Marlowe learns that Lennox is said to have committed suicide. He refuses to believe that story.
Marlowe is hired by Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt, who dated Hughes diary forger Clifford Irving and sings “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) to find her missing husband Roger (Sterling Hayden, who was drunk and stoned for most of the movie; he’s still great), which takes the detective — who never stops smoking — into the health and fitness world of well-off Californians. And of course, the Wade and the Lennox couples knew one another, as Eileen confesses that Roger was sleeping with Sylvia, and might have killed her, right after Roger walks into the sea and drowns. Oh yeah — there’s also the matter of mob boss Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who has some money owed to him by Terry.
All paths lead back to Mexico, where Marlowe soon realizes that he’s been played for a fool. However, he plans on having the last laugh. Altman referred to his character as Rip Van Marlowe, as he saw him as a man trapped in the 50s and “trying to invoke the morals of a previous era.”
The cast also includes David Arkin, Pancho Córdova, Amityville 2 and Mommie Dearest star Rutanya Alda, Jack Riley, David Carradine, Morris the Cat and a non-speaking role for an impossibly young Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Critics savaged this on initial release with Jay Cocks from Time saying, “It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire.” Chris Champlin of the Los Angeles Times summed up what so many thought of Gould as Chandler’s hard boiled detective hero by writing, “He is not Chandler’s Marlowe, or mine, and I can’t find him interesting, sympathetic or amusing, and I can’t be sure who will.”
As for the actor, he has said that as ong as he is physically able, he holds out hopes that he will reprise the role. He has a screenplay entitled It’s Always Now based on the Chandler story “The Curtain.” The Chandler estate sold him the rights for $1.
With an always moving camera and the pastel cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, this movie still looks wonderful and has stood the test of its time, a time when it was not as well considered.