‘The Long Goodbye’ is an unwavering proof of Altman’s genius

It took some time for Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, based on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name, to reach the hearts and minds of the critics and the audience. After a shaky start, this neo-noir masterpiece, written by The Big Sleep co-writer Leigh Brackett, has gained cult status over the years and is now regarded as something a person infatuated with the world of film simply must put on their bucket list. Dark and full of mystery, with Elliot Gould’s role of a lifetime, The Long Goodbye is an unwavering proof of Altman’s genius that would be a crime to miss, and here’s Brackett’s invaluable script available for your pleasure and education.

“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 then I 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.” —Robert Altman


“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.” —Robert Altman

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Leigh Brackett’s screenplay for The Long Goodbye [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

Originally broadcast on 17 July 1996 in Channel Four’s Cinefile series, Paul Joyce’s acclaimed documentary profile of Robert Altman, with contributions from Altman, Gould, Shelley Duvall, assistant director Alan Rudolph and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, spans his career from its earliest beginnings to Kansas City (1996) and offer some interesting insight into the director’s career.

Film critic Tony Macklin visited Leigh Brackett “on a hot, humid, blazing July 1975 day” at her farmhouse in Kinsman, Ohio. “I vividly remember Leigh’s making us lemonade to help cool us—it was pure sugar.” See also: Leigh Brackett—Journeyman Plumber. Daniel Martin Eckhart discovered more about what must have been a very special friendship between Brackett and Hawks.

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  • Chandlerfan

    “Out of character” is an understatement. The anger I felt seeing the classic character of Philip Marlowe kill someone needlessly is only rivaled by Superman killing Zod in Man of Steel. At least he was saving the world from a violent psychopath. I will never understand why changing the integrity of a pervasive figure in popular culture just for the sake of being different is considered ground breaking. What makes Philip Marlowe a lasting character is the fact that he has a conscience that leads to him not doing things he may want to do because they aren’t right; he is not a vigilante. Beautifully shot though.

  • True Detective

    It’s not the job of cinema to reassure book lovers and trot out adaptations of their beloved works. You have the book and nothing can spoil it or hurt it, it’s a classic and it always will be. But the movie is the movie and it needs to be different to be honest. I think the ending of this film is stunning. It is out of character – inasmuch as the bumbling persona of Marlowe has yet to strike out or threaten anyone. But he’s been boiled down to nothing by the investigation. He’s almost had his balls cut off. He’s been lied to by the only person in the whole movie that he trusts. He’s seen a great writer drown himself. Like Holly Martins in The Third Man he has been humiliated and abandoned by his own ethics. In my view the killing is a masterstroke that, like Chinatown’s equally strange and upsetting finale, leaves you thinking about the film for a long time after the credits. It’s weird and that makes it absolutely true to the essence of great detective fiction.