This Wednesday, July 23, at 6 pm, we will be screening Robert Altman‘s film adaption of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye as part of our double feature film series. At each double feature event, we screen a film version of a roman noir we know and love. Each screening is free and open to the public, and takes places on BookPeople’s third floor.
Ask any Raymond Chandler aficionado about Chandler’s best book and most will say The Long Goodbye. Rich in Southern California detail and somber meditations on friendship, it is the the closest we get to understanding his private detective, Phillip Marlowe. Although The Long Goodbye, as a novel, has achieved near-universal acclaim, Robert Altman’s film version has drawn controversy for its unconventional interpretation.
While Playback is technically the last book in the series, The Long Goodbye feels like Chandler’s true farewell to the character. In The Long Goodbye, Chandler uses the classic noir structure of two seemingly unrelated cases that soon become intertwined. One case deals with his friend, Terry Lennox, whose wife is found dead after Marlowe gives him a lift to Mexico. Soon Terry is also assumed dead, but Marlowe thinks the truth is otherwise. As he tries to figure out Terry’s whereabouts, he takes on the job of hunting down a drunken novelist, Roger Wade, to whom he ends up acting as part-time nursemaid.
With the Lennox mystery, Chandler looks at Marlowe deeper than ever before. This is the first time Marlowe is truly personally involved in a case. We watch him try to balance his friendship with Terry and his famous personal code. We also get a stronger sense of his loneliness, making The Long Goodbye one of the most existential private eye novels out there.
What makes the book even more personal is Marlowe’s relationship with Wade. Wade and Marlowe share a similar history, especially when it comes to his drinking and marriage. Even when he’s reading one of Wade’s books, Marlowe criticizes him for overusing similes, the simile being something he was known (and often parodied) for. It was as if he was using his detective to investigate himself.
“It’s certainly his most character-driven book, and a lot more ambitious than the other Marlowe novels,” said crime novelist Wallace Stroby when I asked him about the book and movie. “And Terry Lennox is a unique creation. I can’t think of any other crime novel beforehand, except maybe for Dashiell Hammett‘s The Glass Key, in which male friendship is so central to the plot. It’s probably Chandler’s most autobiographical novel as well. It deals pretty straightforwardly with alcoholism. It’s also been hugely influential on the genre. James Crumley‘s The Last Good Kiss is in many ways his take on The Long Goodbye.”
In Altman’s film version, Marlowe is at a distance. Shot in his famed long takes in large frame with a flashing technique he developed with cinematographer Vilmos Zigmund, the movie has a hazy feel about it. Altman said he approached the material as “Rip Van Marlowe”, with the detective coming out of a twenty year sleep that he started right after World War II and then woke up post Vietnam. This time lapse matches the twenty years difference from the release of the book to the premiere of the film. Gould plays him as if he’s sleepwalking through the cases, getting sharper as he figures out he’s getting played, ending in a confrontation far different from the book.
The movie has become a form of debate among Chandler fans. Some believe the film portrays Marlowe in way respectful to the original, while others feel that the film trashes the novel completely. Some place Altman’s cynical depiction of L. A. as in keeping with the Chandler tradition. Some, like myself, have a different reaction each time we see it.
“It’s a love or hate proposition,” says Stroby. “I love it. But I think you have to look at it more as a Robert Altman movie than a Raymond Chandler adaptation. It’s ridiculously entertaining, and very much of its time, but it has some real noir cred, too. It was written by Leigh Brackett and has a great late-career performance by Sterling Hayden (as Wade). In fact, the whole ensemble cast is terrific. I’d much rather the filmmakers took the approach they did, than to just make another Marlowe pastiche set in the ’40s. I think it’s right up there with the best films based on Chandler’s work.”
The major concept that both film and novel share is the idea of Marlowe in changing times. Chandler starts The Long Goodbye in the ’40s, when he meets Terry Lennox, then gets the plot going in the ’50s. Marlowe feels time slipping away and his values slipping with it. With “Rip Van Marlowe” it’s already gone when he wakes up. For both PIs, time is the most dangerous and deceptive femme fatale.
DOUBLE FEATURE STATS FOR THE LONG GOODBYE
Adherence To Book (Scale Of 1-5): 2 (The ending is very un-Marlowe)
Adherence To Quality Of Book: 3 (Many will argue I’m being either too kind or unkind)
Suggested Viewing: Marlowe, Chinatown, Devil In A Blue Dress (Which you can see at our next Double Feature Wednesday on August 6th) Suggested Reading- Moving Target by Ross McDonald, Brown’s Requiem by James Ellroy, Concrete River by John Shannon
And for the record: The Long Goodbye is not Wallace Stroby’s favorite Chandler novel. “‘That would be Farewell, My Lovely, for its characters, mood and plot that – unlike the other Marlowes – is actually fairly simple.”
Come join us Wednesday, July 23, for a free screening of Robert Altman’s film interpretation of The Long Goodbye. It’s sure to spark a great discussion! As always, events are free and open to the public. Come join us at 6pm on the third floor.