The cat. A feature of many memorable moments in cinema. Alien and Inside Llewyn Davis immediately come to mind. The tabby-cat seen in The Long Goodbye joins the ranks of unforgettable feline friends. Our introduction to Elliot Gould’s mumbling, loner Private Investigator Philip Marlowe is, as he’s woken at 3am, by his meowing, hungry, cat.
Interestingly, in the source novel, Marlowe has no pets. Roger Ebert explains that this disposable sequence “establishes Marlowe as a man who is more loyal to his cat than anyone is to him”. Clearly, The Long Goodbye is an unusual, innovative take on the detective drama.
Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, The Long Goodbye relocates Marlowe from 1953 to 1973. He may drive the same car, but he’s past his sell-by date. He mumbles and stumbles his way into frame. He struggles to make a sentence. He has barely any friends. In fact, the one buddy he does have, Lennox (Jim Bouton), needs to escape town – and Marlowe dutifully helps. Upon his return, things have changed. For one, his cat is missing. The cops are swiftly on his case, and their questioning presents a resentment that dates much further back. His new case, involving a missing drunken, abusive writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) and his flowing-dress wearing, young-wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt) reveals that his Mexico-escapin’ mate may have left a few stones unturned on his departure. Finally, enter Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), a gangster with Arnie Schwarzenegger (literally in an uncredited cameo) as a hench man, who wants money stolen by Lennox, back. This is more than a P.I. investigation, and as his neighbours blissfully (and nakedly) meditate their way through life, Philip Marlowe wants justice – and he wants Lennox cleared for the crime of murder.
But the plot is secondary. Akin to Tarantino’s Jackie Brown or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, it’s nice to leisurely hang out with Marlowe. Everyone else has a purpose, but Marlowe has to change and adapt as the story unfolds. The Wade’s are first merely clients, then they are connected to Lennox’s disappearance and Marty’s racket too. He’ll reluctantly change and adapt (as Altman adapted the story by twenty years) but Marlowe resents the world he lives within. It’s dirty and unkempt, much like Elliot Gould’s portrayal and Marlowe’s apartment.
The Long Goodbye asks the titular question as to whose goodbye it is. Terry Lennox? He leaves for Tijuana, and creates this storm in L.A’s teacup. Or perhaps it is the victim of suicide midway through, whose demons have haunted him for too long. Or, of course, it could be Marlowe. Seemingly tired of this life and simply attempting to bid adieu properly, to the slippery friend he transported to Mexico. It is not a film whereby you’ll connect all the dots. Maybe you will the next time. It’s a film that’s as beguiling as The Third Man (with a clear homage in the final moments), but as cool as the beach-bathed LA natives. Going back to Ebert’s review, it is worth noting that initially he graded the film a mediocre 3/5, and promoted it to 5/5 when including it in his ‘Great Movies’ series. This is not a criticism of Roger at all, but a warning to new viewers. The first watch may be tricky to grab a firm hold of. But afterwards, it’ll linger and stick and drag you back. And that’s “alright with me”.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth in April 2015