Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To celebrate the return of Veronica Mars, we dig up some other unconventional detective stories.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
The Long Goodbye is actually one of the more plot-heavy films in Robert Altman’s filmography. Of course, Altman was a director who would frequently eschew traditional narrative in favor of pursuing a laid-back, hangout vibe, sometimes to his detriment. So to say that The Long Goodbye is plot-heavy is to say it actually has a plot, which is necessary on some level for any riff on the private-eye genre. But said plot is unspooled almost lackadaisically. Tension arises abruptly then fades away just as quickly. The ultimate solution to the mystery is pieced together in a couple of minutes, and the scenes in which protagonist Phillip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) actually puts two and two together are few and far between. Instead, Altman and his star lose themselves in a portrait of a ’70s Los Angeles that already feels faded, like a Polaroid left in the sun too long. The first 15 minutes of the film, which set the loose tone, concern Marlowe trying to get the right brand of food to feed his cat, who woke him up at 3 a.m. It’s glorious.
When it finally arrives, the plot—very loosely based on a Raymond Chandler novel, and concerning Marlowe’s investigation into a friend’s suicide and a missing husband—moves in jerks and starts. Altman’s interest is always in the other things going on in the film, like the gossip among the jailbirds that Marlowe ends up bunking with, or a dog standing in the middle of the road, impeding the hero’s progress. The film’s attitude toward the detective plot is best summed up in a shot that occurs around the midpoint, in which an irascible old bear of a writer, clearly modeled on Ernest Hemingway and played by the great character actor Sterling Hayden, has an argument with his wife about the state of their marriage. Marlowe can be seen in the reflection of the sliding glass doors Altman shoots through to watch the argument. As always in one of the director’s film, the life going on around the protagonist is more interesting than the usual Hollywood shenanigans. And Altman’s signature, clever touches—including a title song that pops up everywhere, in every possible musical form—are scattered throughout.
That’s not to say that Marlowe, as played by Gould, is uninteresting. Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett apparently intended him to be a kind of man unstuck in time, transported with ’50s attitudes and mores to early ’70s L.A. There’s certainly an element of that to the character and Gould’s performance, but watched in 2014, Marlowe can seem almost bohemian in his lack of worry about what other people get up to—so long as they’re not hurting anybody. “It’s okay with me,” he says, to everything from drug use to organized crime, not wanting to get involved beyond the cases he’s paid to solve. Gould brings weary charm to the role, and he’s almost here to seduce the audience into thinking things are going to be just fine—until acts of brutal violence arrive as if from out of nowhere.
Availability: The DVD of The Long Goodbye is out of print, but it can still be obtained through Netflix—or streamed on the site. The film is also available to rent or purchase through the major digital services.