Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Leigh Brackett
DP: Vilmos Zsigmond
Editor: Lou Lombardo
Score: John Williams
Producer: Elliot Kastner, Jerry Bick
Starring: Elliot Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, Jim Bouton
Distribution: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Length: 1 hr. 52 min.
Near the beginning of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, the main character Philip Marlowe does a favor for his neighbors and they thank him, saying: "Mr. Marlowe, you're the nicest neighbor we've ever had." He doesn't answer them, but thinks to himself: "Got to be the nicest neighbor, girls. I'm a private eye." Later in the film, Marlowe is visited by a gangster named Marty Augustine who wants information. When Marlowe has no information to give, Augustine attacks his own mistress and says: "That's someone I love. You, I don't even like."
If those two scenes have one thing in common, besides both providing decent examples of the film's hard boiled dialogue, it's that they both involve, directly or indirectly, characters manipulating others by building a façade around the way they treat people. As a private eye, Marlowe needs people to believe he's trustworthy, so he's generally nice to people he meets. As a gangster, Augustine needs to be intimidating, so he's cruel even to those close to him so that no one will ever suspect that he can be swayed. Almost every character in The Long Goodbye, we eventually see, has built up some kind of false identity that they display to the other characters.
What sets Marlowe apart from the other characters is that he's the only one trying to suss out the truth. Early in the film he's told by the police that his good friend Terry Lennox was found dead, and that he had committed suicide out of guilt for having murdered his wife. Marlowe doesn't believe this for a second; he doesn't think Terry would be capable of suicide or murder. He doesn't do much about it at first, but eventually starts getting sucked in when details pop up that might be related to Terry's death.
Altman's camera moves with the flow of each conversation that takes place in the film, changing the focal point of the shot multiple times in a single take to underline new revelations and new confusions that pop up while the characters are talking. Someone will be in the corner of the frame, barely noticeable, and then suddenly they'll be in the middle. Sometimes the camera will move closer to Marlowe, pushing the other characters out of sight while they're still talking. Sometimes it'll abandon the characters altogether, instead turning to some detail in the background. We're placed in a world with many moving parts, so many that it can be difficult to pick out what we're looking for.
All kinds of unexpected connections between the characters are revealed, but the one thing that always eludes Marlowe is exactly what any of these connections have to do with Terry's death. Marlowe's view of the situation grows ever clearer, but he doesn't find evidence to contradict the police's account of Terry's death from the beginning of the film. There is certainly a sense of narrative progression for the viewer, but nothing to signal that the climax is ever going to come.
This feeling of aimless wandering and deprivation is amplified by the film's use of music. The same song plays over and over again in the background, a song called "The Long Goodbye." The lyrics of the first verse are as follows:
"There's a long goodbye
and it happens every day
when some passerby invites your eye
to come her way.
Even as she smiles a quick hello
you let her go
you let the moment fly.
Too late, you turn your head
and know you've said
the long goodbye."
This music takes on a dreamlike - or even nightmarish - quality because it only ever comes from a diegetic source. Both the lyrics, the plaintive melody, and relentless repetition of this song highlight all of Murlowe's struggles: The sense of uncertainty he has about every person he meets, the feeling of being disempowered from penetrating that uncertainty, and the way the film is structured as a protracted, elaborate sendoff for Terry Lennox - a long goodbye.
Ultimately, there is a deciding factor, a single impartial force that brings out the truth: Money. It's money that causes the major turns in plot, convinces people to stop obfuscating the truth, or leads Marlowe to useful information. It's also the difference between Marlowe and the other characters: Marlowe moves through the narrative seeking the truth and hoping that it will salvage the dignity of the friend he lost, but every other character only pursues money. Money runs through the veins of the film's setting; it's Los Angeles, but only the penthouses, affluent suburbs, and gated communities.
There's one character who repeats a line from Billy Wilder's 1944 film noir Double Indemnity, another film that takes place in Los Angeles and features characters forming and compromising interpersonal relationships for the sake of money. Though The Long Goodbye, for the most part, uses a different visual language from that of classic films noir and plays with some of the conventions (for instance, the would-be femme fatale ends up being Marlowe's salvation rather than his undoing), it still arrives at the same conclusions. The result is that it preserves the spirit of film noir in a way that makes it feel even more pessimistic and unfortunate. No matter how much has changed between 1944 and 1973, we still end up in the same place: Greed and solipsism, masked by self-aggrandizement, becoming actively hostile toward the innocent. The penultimate line of dialogue uttered in The Long Goodbye is an extremely literal summation of this.