Wow, before we start this review, just take a look at that poster. Click on it and make it big. Look at that! If you don't recognize the style, that's by legendary Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis. The reason I'm pointing this out is that only a kooky Robert Altman movie from the 1970's could get sold with a poster like that. And it's appropriate that Altman himself narrates it, since his movies liked to poke fun at their own conventions, much in the way a Mad parody would do. I would totally hang that poster on my wall (hint, hint, gifters!).
The Long Goodbye is Altman's take on the Film Noir genre, adapting the famous Raymond Chandler novel featuring Elliott Gould as his detective, Philip Marlowe. The movie kicks off with Marlowe's buddy Jim coming to his run-down apartment, asking for him to take him across the border. He, of course, needs to cool down for a while. Upon returning, Marlowe finds out that Jim's wife has been killed and the cops think Jim did it. Believing his friend innocent, Marlowe attempts to crack the case, digging his way through L.A.'s seedy underbelly in the way that all great Film Noirs do.
But Altman would never settle to just make a Film Noir. He could never just make a genre movie. He had to find ways to explore and deconstruct the genre, twist it around and flip it on its head. In the case of The Long Goodbye, he takes a rumpled, unkempt 1950's detective, and transports him into the present in order to explore the shallow, health-obsessed Los Angeles of the early 70's. Marlowe radiates unhealthiness, with his chain-smoking and squalorous, filthy apartment. His neighbors are healthy, young, new-age, yoga obsessed girls. His investigations even lead him to a corrupt rehab clinic.
Elliott Gould creates something truly unique and utterly bizarre with his characterization of Marlowe. Altman was well known for giving a ton of leeway to his actors, and I think in this case he just let Gould do whatever the hell he wanted, and in doing so hit upon something kind of magical. Marlowe mutters to himself constantly (and hilariously), possibly Altman's twist on the voice-over narration of detective movies of old. He also wisecracks endlessly, presses his face up against windows, and talks to his cat as though they were equals.
The other cast member of note is Sterling Hayden, possibly best known for being the lead in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. As a drunk, unstable old writer, he is the only other anachronistic character in the modern world Marlowe inhabits. I don't think he even had a script, Altman probably just said, "just go, be drunk."
I think this is the 10th or 11th Altman film I've seen so far, most of them being the important ones, and The Long Goodbye is quite possibly my favorite. It's extremely funny and weird as a comedy, but still works on the level of a good old fashioned detective story. I wish the types of movies that warranted Mad Magazine posters could still get made, but alas, there was a time and a place in cinematic history for that, and that was the 70's.