Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on December 28, 2016
As with many years past, I’m spending the transitional period between Christmas and New Year’s in Los Angeles — and as anyone else around here can tell you, it’s a calm but vaguely spooky environment. All of the usual traffic jams and chattering people have temporarily vanished into the ether, leaving a city still filled with sunlight, palm trees and holiday decorations everywhere. We’ve seen a lot of notable films shot in L.A. over the decades (and you can sample most of them in the superb documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself), but the one that really captures this eerie feeling of being in L.A. at winter time (even if it isn’t specifically set at that time of year) is The Long Goodbye (1973), one of the great ’70s noir films and a highlight in the career of director Robert Altman.
The original source novel by Raymond Chandler was published in 1953 and marked the sixth full-length mystery for private eye Philip Marlowe, famously penned at a low point in the writer’s life as his wife was terminally ill. That malaise carries over into the film adaptation, which was surprisingly the first time anyone had attempted it for the big screen despite a spate of other Chandler adaptations over the years from The Big Sleep (1946) to Marlowe (1969). The noir resurgence of the ’70s was given a big boost with this film, which marked a big comeback for star Elliott Gould (who hadn’t had a hit since Altman’s M*A*S*H in 1970) and Chandler, who was a hot property again with subsequent adaptations including Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and a new version of The Big Sleep (1978).
This version brings Marlowe up to the present day in L.A., but his morality and attitude are left essentially intact — which leads to some fascinating wrinkles in the story as adapted by Leigh Brackett, who had also penned the original The Big Sleep. The story is still a circuitous murder mystery in which Marlowe, a California knight of sorts, sets out to clear the name of his best friend who ended up dead of an apparent suicide. Dark doings in Malibu soon figure in the story in the form of socialite Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) and her much older, wealthier husband, hard-drinking novelist Roger (Sterling Hayden).
Altman was really at the peak of his career at this time, churning out one or two films per year without a single miss (at least in terms of quality). His loose, improvisational style is particularly unsettling here as the uneasy, wandering Panavision cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond gives you a real fly-on-the-wall feeling that becomes horrific during the film’s brief, perfectly paced acts of violence. One memorable scene involving the violent ocean waves outside the Malibu house is a real stunner, forcing your eye to rove around to pick out the important grim details as both sound and image threaten to dissolve into a complete hazy abstraction. That goes double for the film’s most startling element, its ending (a notable departure from Chandler penned by Brackett and left intact at Altman’s insistence); it’s one of the truly great shock finales in ’70s cinema, still capable of jolting viewers out of their seats before the film closes out with its bookend vintage theme, “Hooray for Hollywood.”
That brings us to one of the most essential elements of the film, its audacious music score by none other than John Williams. This was actually the second film in a row for both men after working on the creepy psychological shocker Images (1972), which featured no cohesive main theme and instead agitated viewers with a largely atonal, experimental score. Here Williams goes around 180 degrees with a score that’s entirely monothematic, offering one variation after another on its main theme, “The Long Goodbye” (which is even presented as a vocal number with lyrics by Johnny Mercer). Altman and Williams had been colleagues going back to their early TV days on shows like Kraft Suspense Theatre, but it’s here that their partnership really pays dividends. The moment when Gould strolls into the supermarket to get cat food for his finicky feline (who can sniff out B.S. better than any human in the film) is a particular favorite, capturing the feel of a desolate late night in L.A. perfectly while turning into a musical game of hide and seek as we hear that omnipresent theme bubbling up as Muzak in the background. Williams keeps you on your toes through other scenes as well, often slipping that theme in as source music in various locales including a great variation performed by a mariachi band. The director and composer would never work together again, but after this, where could they possibly go?
As for Altman, we normally don’t think of him as a thriller filmmaker but he regularly showed an affinity for tweaking the conventions and expectations of the genre. He’d already dabbled in the form with his twisted two-hander That Cold Day in the Park (1969), and he would go on to hammer it mercilessly through the lens of Hollywood with The Player (1992), which Pablo just covered so well for us on Christmas Day and a very dark adaptation of an original John Grishman screenplay with The Gingerbread Man (1998). However, it’s with this film that he found his Los Angeles masterpiece, a perfect encapsulation of what it feels like when all of the tourists and industry players alike have fled town for far-flung destinations, leaving a disoriented man dropped in from another era to deal with the treacherous forces that refuse to take a vacation.
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