Long Goodbye, The (1973): Altman’s Neo-Noir Thriller, Starring Elliott Gould

Robert Altman directed The Long Goodbye, a neo-noir thriller based on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same title, starring Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe.

he Long Goodbye

Theatrical release poster

The tale was penned by vet Leigh Brackett, who, among other films, co-wrote the script for Howard Hawks 1946 noir, The Big Sleep.

The film features Sterling Hayden, Nina Van Pallandt, Jim Bouton, and Mark Rydell (who later became a director on his own right).

Altman shifted the story’s timeframe from 1950 to early 1970s Hollywood. Reflecting the cynical post-Watergate zeitgeist,  Altman described The Long Goodbye as “a study of a moral and decent man cast adrift in a selfish, self-obsessed society where lives can be thrown away without a backward glance, and any notions of friendship and loyalty are meaningless.”

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is visited by his close friend Terry Lennox, who asks for a lift from Los Angeles to the California–Mexico border at Tijuana.

Marlowe is met by two police detectives, who accuse Lennox of having murdered his rich wife, Sylvia.  When Marlowe refuses to give any information, they arrest him.

The police release him, when they learn that Lennox has committed suicide in Mexico. While the police and the press accept the story, Marlowe has doubts about the official version.

Marlowe is hired by Eileen Wade, the platinum-blonde trophy wife of Roger Wade, an alcoholic novelist with writer’s block, whose macho persona is proving self-destructive. She asks Marlowe to find her missing husband, who has had regular alcoholic binges and days-long disappearances from their Malibu home.

During the investigation, Marlowe visits a private detoxification clinic for rich alcoholics and drug addicts. He locates Roger Wade and learns that the Wades knew the Lennoxes socially, leading him to suspect that there is more to Lennox’s suicide and Sylvia’s murder.

Marlowe incurs the wrath of gangster Marty Augustine, who wants money returned that Lennox owed him. Augustine maims his mistress to demonstrate what could happen to Marlowe, saying, “That’s someone I love. You, I don’t even like.”

After a trip to Mexico, where officials corroborate the details of Lennox’s death, Marlowe returns to the Wades’ house. A party breaks up after an argument over Roger’s unpaid bill from the detoxification clinic.

Later that night, Eileen and Marlowe are interrupted when she sees a drunken Roger wandering into the sea, and drowning.

Eileen confesses that Roger had an affair with Sylvia, and might have killed her. Marlowe informs the police, who remain satisfied that Roger’s time at the clinic provides an alibi.

Marlowe visits Augustine, whose missing money has been returned. He returns to Mexico, and after bribing officials, they confess to having set up Terry’s suicide and admit that he is alive in a Mexican villa.

Marlowe finds Terry, who admits to killing Sylvia. He reveals he is having an affair with Eileen and gloats that Marlowe fell for his manipulations. When he describes Marlow as “a born loser,” the latter says, “Yeah, I even lost my cat.”

After shooting and killing Terry in cold blood, Marlowe walks away, passing by Eileen, who’s about to visit Terry (unaware that he’s dead).

The last mage depicts Marlowe playing his harmonica, while strolling down the road and dancing with the locals.

Altman opted for a visual style in which the camera was always moving, putting it on a dolly, aiming to show how the camera movements counter the characters’ actions.

He gave the film a soft pastel look, reminiscent of old postcards, to compensate for the harsh light of Southern California.

Upon initial (limited) release, the movie divided critics.  Some faulted Altman’s putdown (and mocking) approach to the genre, and revisionist view of the private eye, turning him into an unsympathetic character. Other reviewers claimed that it deviated too much from Chandler’s version, without substituting an interesting interpretation. Still others pointed out that the movie lacked heart and soul.

Sharply uneven, the movie contains some nice scenes, such as the opening act, which describes Marlowe and his genuine affection for his cat, while others were indulgent and shapeless, like the argument between Marlowe and Wade, which was ad-lib and shot at Atlman’s Malibu house.

Few critics at the time paid attention to the deliberate fragmentation of the narrative, and Altman’s idea that Marlowe’s lifestyle was more defined by drifting than laziness. The ingenious use of music was also overlooked.  Thus, the main song, “The Long Goodbye,” composed by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, was repeated half a dozen time, but each time arranged differently, to reflect the variegated mood of the shifting events and their contexts.

Ultimately, the film, which was rereleased, was a commercial disappointment, failing to recoup its modest budget of about $2 million.

Curio Note:

The film features an early (uncredited) appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe
Nina van Pallandt as Eileen Wade
Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade
Mark Rydell as Marty Augustine
Henry Gibson as Dr. Verringer
David Arkin as Harry
Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox
Warren Berlinger as Morgan
Pancho Córdova as Doctor
Enrique Lucero as Jefe
Rutanya Alda as Rutanya Sweet
Jack Riley as Riley
Jerry Jones as Det. Green
John S. Davies as Det. Dayton
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hood in Augustine’s Office


Directed by Robert Altman
Produced by Elliott Kastner and Jerry Bick
Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Music by John Williams
Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond
Edited by Lou Lombardo
Distributed by United Artists

Release date: March 7, 1973
Running time: 112 minutes