Rip van Marlowe: Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye

By Walter Donohue | October 28, 2009
Rip van Marlowe: Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye - LEADPHOTO

36 years after the re-release of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (following an unsuccessful first run six months earlier), Walter Donohue looks at the director's perspective on this revisionist detective noir.

Director Robert Altman and actors Elliott Gould and  Mark Rydell on the set of The Long Goodbye

Director Robert Altman and actors Elliott
Gould and Mark Rydell on the set of The
Long Goodbye

Every so often a movie director comes along whose name becomes an adjective: Hichcockian (immediately a feeling of suspense creeps up your spine) or Hawksian (action movies with male bonding and a feisty woman).

Robert Altman created his own kind of film with a use of sound and image that can only be called “Altmanesque”  – the overlapping layers of dialogue which characterised his films were often imitated but never bettered than within the master's own work - from M*A*S*H in 1970 to Gosford Park 30 years later.

Altman was initially reluctant to take on a film version of Raymond Chandler's novel:
“Originally I didn't want to do it. I've enjoyed reading Chandler, though I never did finish The Long Goodbye, and I liked those 1940s movies, but I just didn't want to play around with them. I was sent the script by the producers and at first I said, "I don't want to do Raymond Chandler. If you say 'Philip Marlowe', people just think of Humphrey Bogart. Robert Mitchum was being proposed for it. But I just didn't want to do another Philip Marlowe film and have it wrap up the same way all the other films did.

I think it was David Picker, the production chief at United Artists, who suggested Elliott Gould for Marlowe - and thenI was interested. So I read Leigh Brackett's script – she wrote the script of The Big Sleep for Hawks - and in her version, in the last scene, Marlowe pulled out his gun and killed his best friend, Terry Lennox. It was so out of character for Marlowe, I said, 'I'll do the picture, but you cannot change that ending! It must be in the contract." They all agreed, which was very surprising. If she hadn't written that ending, I guarantee I wouldn't have done it. It said, 'This is just a movie.' After that, we had him do his funny little dance down the road and you hear 'Hooray for Hollywood', and that's what it's really about – 'Hooray for Hollywood'. It even looked like a road made in a Hollywood studio. And with Eileen Wade driving past, it's like the final scene in The Third Man!

I decided that we were going to call him Rip Van Marlowe, as if he'd been asleep for twenty years, had woken up and was wandering through this landscape of the early 1970s, but trying to invoke the morals of a previous era. I put him in that dark suit, white shirt and tie, while everyone else was smelling incense and smoking pot and going topless; everything was health food and exercise and cool. So we just satirized that whole time. And that's why that line of Elliott's – 'It's OK with me' – became his key line throughout the film.”

Altman describes his particular way of shooting The Long Goodbye:

“I decided that the camera should never stop moving. It was arbitrary. We would just put the camera on a dolly and everything would move or pan, but it didn't match the action; usually it was counter to it. It gave me that feeling that when the audience see the film, they're kind of a voyeur. You're looking at something you shouldn't be looking at. Not that what you're seeing is off limits; just that you're not supposed to be there. You had to see over someone's shoulder or peer round someone's back. I just think that in so many films everything's so beautiful, the lighting is gorgeous and with each shot everything is relit. My method also means you don't have to light for close-ups; you only have to accommodate what may happen, so you just light the scene and it saves a lot of time. The rougher it looked, the better it served my purpose.

I was worried about the harsh light of southern California and I wanted to give the film the soft, pastel look you see on old postcards from the 1940s. So we post-flashed the film even further than we did on McCabe & Mrs Miller, almost 100 percent.”

Essential Viewing: M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, Vincent & Theo, The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park

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