This review contains spoilers about the book and the film.
One of the most unique neo-noirs of the seventies, The Long Goodbye displays both the advantages and pitfalls of free-association adaptation. Both critics and defenders of the film tend to miss the point. Goodbye boosters point to Altman's rich invention and thought-provoking subversion of genre tropes, but tend to take for granted the conventionality of the source - Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Marlowe had become in '73 and remains today a cultural icon as the prototypical private eye thanks to Chandler's series of detective stories and novels spanning the thirties and forties and (especially pertinent here) the films based on this material. Meanwhile, the film's critics notice what Gould's and Altman's Marlowe is missing but don't seem to appreciate what is added to, or even improved upon, from the book. The latter group have become more obsolete these days, as the distance from Chandler's era increases and the movie becomes more and more a part of the cinematic firmament it once seemed to subvert - a fixture rather than an outlier. In the mean time, I sense, less and less people commenting on the film have actually read the book it's based on, or realize how much the film's sense of subversion, disappointment, and distance shares with the novel itself - and what the film misses in some of its broader departures.
In a sense, this is not very surprising. When Leigh Brackett adapted The Long Goodbye, Chandler's penultimate (and to many eyes, best) Marlowe novel, it had been twenty years since the book was written and few eras have been as tumultuous as that which passed between 1953 and 1973. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who had worked on the most famous Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep, in the mid-forties) felt a need to update the book, claiming that parts of it were implausible and "unsatisfactory." She wanted to update it to the seventies, recognizing that codes of masculinity and social behavior had been transformed; she sensed that it would seem silly or stilted if the postwar milieu was preserved in amber (as indeed it does in the contemporaneous period adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely). Brackett eliminated the femme fatale (Eileen Wade remains disingenuous but is no longer deadly), updated the setting, and most importantly made Terry Lennox, Marlowe's friend and the engine of the plot, into a narcissistic villain whom Marlowe murders himself in the dramatically-altered conclusion. Altman want even further with Brackett's revisions, using improvisatory methods, free association additions, and cinematographic invention (heavy use of zoom lenses, camera movement, and film-flashing) to dilute the remaining influence of the old noirs until Marlowe - driving an old forties car, and wearing a suit - came to seem a fish-out-of-water, a relic of Old Hollywood adrift in the New; although his hipster demeanor and lack of emotional control mark even him as a post-sixties figure.
What results is a fascinating but at times disappointing revision of Chandler's The Long Goodbye. The film is best seen as a collection of bold and vigorous gestures and details, moments that may seem out of place or off-kilter - in that sense, of a piece with Altman's thrillingly unsettling oeuvre. As a collection of such fragments, The Long Goodbye is a very rich picture. But as a totality, it loses much of the novel's psychological complexity, emotional resonance, and structural integrity - unsurprising as Brackett seems to have missed much of the novel's appeal, and Altman himself claims to have read the open and close of the book but little in between. In Chandler's version, the connection between Marlowe and his friend Terry Lennox is established right away and allowed to develop before Lennox comes to Marlowe and asks him to assist in a flight across the border to Mexico. We learn not only how friendship developed between the two very different men (Lennox is a morose alcoholic, Marlowe a private eye with impeccable self-control), but begin to suspect why - despite Lennox's weakness and Marlowe's strength, both men are sensitive, sad, and out of place in the surrounding world. Lennox sees in Marlowe a better version of himself, while Marlowe sees in Lennox a trap into which he could easily fall. Thus we understand why Marlowe, without asking any questions, assists Lennox in an escape from the police after Lennox's rich, promiscuous wife has been killed (perhaps by himself).
In the movie, Lennox is a glib playboy. Unlike the figure in the book, a war hero with a scarred face, this Lennox seems to be an untroubled figure, not haunted by any demons or memories. We don't really understand why Marlowe is friends with him - he just is - and Marlowe's later loyalty, it is indicated within the film and without (through comments by Brackett, Altman, and others), is a foolish gesture of chivalry, out of place in the modern era. When Lennox turns out to be a scumbag, having actually murdered his wife and put Marlowe on the spot, we aren't surprised and Marlowe's defense of his friend seems old-fashioned and silly as Lennox himself points out, and as Marlowe eventually admits (by shooting Lennox for his betrayal). It's been indicated that this is a subversion of Chandler's own code, an acknowledgement that his vision of the detective as latter-day knight was overly romantic and unrealistic, but in fact this is a gross simplification of the Marlowe ethos. Marlowe is a romantic, but he isn't a fool - and the book, with its flavor of disappointment, its already-existing indication that Marlowe is a man out of place and time (and moreover, that he knows it), hardly needs to be subverted for the benefit of "modern" sensibilities (as if those didn't already exist in 1953).
Chandler closes the novel with Lennox returning to L.A. and visiting Marlowe in disguise. Marlowe recognizes him and returns a $5000 bill which Lennox sent and Marlowe kept, unused, as a souvenir. He realizes that Lennox, while not actually a murderer or untroubled conscience (as in the movie), is cowardly and self-serving and that even Marlowe's seemingly realistic sense of loyalty and friendship were chimerical concepts. The conclusion, in which Marlowe does not shoot Lennox but rather gives him the cold shoulder, is far more powerful than the Mexican shoot-'em-up at the end of the movie, and is far more charged with disappointment and a sense of loss, because more is at stake. Altman's conclusion was celebrated and defended as a more realistic, subversive, and moral conclusion than Chandler's, but I'd argue it's exactly the reverse. Indeed, it's a far more "Hollywood" ending than Chandler's and it's rather remarkable that it could be accepted as anything else (some writers have tried to pass it off as an ironic gesture, reflecting but not endorsing the era's obsession with vigilante gesture, but Altman's own statements on the subject seem to contradict this reading).
Brackett and Altman are far more successful with two other characters - one major and one minor - for opposite reasons. Roger Wade, the alcoholic novelist who is murdered in a fake suicide in the book, and actually commits suicide (by walking into the sea) in the movie, remains a blustering, melancholy triumph of characterization on page and screen. It's been suggested that Marlowe, Lennox, and Wade represent a tripartite self-portrait on Chandler's part, manifestations of the disciplined, pathetic, and grandiose aspects of his personality respectively. While missing the Chandleresque overtones in Lennox and handling Marlowe with mixed results, Altman immediately recognized Wade's similarities to the author. By casting Sterling Hayden, old-school actor, repentent informer, and recovering alcoholic (recovering apparently with copious helpings of hash), Altman enhances the sense of Wade as a figure from the past, a movingly tragic figure in a world that has forgotten the meaning of tragedy. The only major misstep in the Wade sequences involves not Wade, but Marlowe, whose drunken, teary tirade after Wade's death is completely out of character, even for the less disciplined seventies version of the sleuth onscreen. On the other hand, there is a brilliant transformation of Dr. Verringer (Wade's quack doctor) into a spiteful little troll who humiliates Wade at a party by asking the much larger man for money and then slapping him across the face.
This is where Altman is best, finding cinematic gestures to get across literary devices - instead of dialogue, we get action demonstrating Wade's loss of dignity, a visual moment that is both surprising and infinitely right. It is echoed by what may be the film's most famous moment, also an addition with no correlation in the book (or Brackett's screenplay): when gangster Marty Augustine smashes a Coke bottle across his demure girlfriend's face, in order to show Marlowe what will happen if he doesn't turn over Lennox's money - "Her, I love. You I don't even like." The character of Augustine, barely adapted from Chandler's Marty Melendez (probably the weakest, most cliched character in the book), is the film's best invention and largely the work of director/actor Mark Rydell, who didn't like Brackett's characterization in the screenplay, and whose suggestions Altman enthusiastically embraced. He is both funny and nasty, at once a larger-than-life cartoon of a swingin' seventies mobster and a reminder of the dark reality hovering around the playful genre games of the movie (this is the aspect Altman highlighted most). Augustine is one of the areas where the film actually improves upon the book.
The Long Goodbye is in many ways an excellent picture - and it's unarguably inventive, from its innovative photography, to its loose performances, to its clever use of a single song (in multiple forms on the soundtrack), and most importantly for its willingness to embrace wildly irreverent and bracing asides (Marlowe's blackface in the interrogation room, Augustine's Coke bottle violence and bizarre clothes-stripping "redemption," the humping dogs caught in a Mexican montage, that brilliant harmonica flourish which helps redeem the ending). Its use of stormy seas at Malibu vs. the lifeless enclave of the books' "Idle Valley" seems more resonant to me (though as a beach bum, perhaps I'm biased). It succeeds as a collection of knickknacks and odd-ends and since this is, to a large extent, how cinema thrives - the termitic charms of the medium, to borrow critic Manny Farber's formulation - this is a very good thing. But it still seems a pity that Altman and Brackett seem so uninterested in the very heart of Chandler's book, the thing that makes it more penetrating and timeless - despite its ostensibly "old-fashioned" setting and the familiarity that has set in around its tropes and icons (although it's worth remembering that the book is actually intended as a subversion and departure from the earlier detective fiction in and of itself).
The book is about the author, reader, and characters, engaging in the long goodbyes of life. The film - except for the scenes with Sterling Hayden as Wade - is more about a world in which the long goodbye has already been said, and now we can't even remember why.
See also Spade & Marlowe, Private Eyes for my take on the classic Hollywood interpretation of the literary sleuths.
In researching this piece, I had help from the following books: A Cinema of Loneliness, by Robert Kolker; Creatures of Darkness, by Gene Phillips; Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, by Mitchell Zuckoff; Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, by Patrick McGilligan; The Raymond Chandler Papers, edited by Tom Hiney & Frank MacShane; and Raymond Chandler, by William Marling.