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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Department of Book Reports: The Long Goodbye

Revisiting The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler's penultimate Philip Marlowe novel (pay no attention to the last Marlowe novel, Playback, which isn't very good), is to be reminded of how great an American novelist Chandler was. He transcended genre in perhaps no other way, with perhaps he exceptions of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. I think The Long Goodbye is his greatest achievement, though there are Chandler enthusiasts who prefer The Big Sleep or Little Sister.

The plot is straight forward enough. PI Philip Marlowe has been aroused late at night by his friend, Terry Lennox, who asks Marlowe to drive him to Tiajuana, as he is in trouble. Marlowe has met and developed a friendship with Lennox over the course of several months, during which he has learned that Terry is alcoholic, war-scarred and prematurely white-haired, and married to a rich young woman. Or recently re-married to her. Marlowe take Lennox to Mexico, and upon his return, is taken into custody by the LAPD for criminal assistance. Marlowe refuses to divulge anything to the police and is only released after Lennox's confession to his wife's murder and subsequent suicide emerge. Marlowe resumes his life and is asked by a New York publisher to help one of their best-selling novelists escape from a self-inflicted and alcoholic-induced writers block. The writer is Roger Wade, and he, too, is married to a beautiful woman, Eileen. The two cases do not seem related at first, but, as these things go, they are.

But more than a plot with twists and turns (I think of the famous story of William Faulkner trying to write the screenplay to The Big Sleep and calling Chandler in the middle of the night to find out who has killed a certain character, and Chandler not knowing; but they were boozehounds, so who knows?), Chandler was as good a prose stylist as there was in 20th Century America. To wit:

From now on I wouldn't tell you the time by the clock on your wall.

Next morning I got up late on account of the big fee I had earned the night before. I drank an extra cup of coffee, smoked an extra cigarette, ate an extra slice of Canadian bacon, and for the three hundredeth time I swore I would never again use an electric razor. That made the day normal.

I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars.

Chandler is also critical of the Hollywood milieu, and the rich as well. There's no sneaking admiration as a F. Scott Fitzgerald might have fawned (the rich being different than you and me, but they have great, lavish parties). They are no different than the mobsters who dog Marlowe and warn him off the Lennox case. In fact, both the rich and the gangsters are quick to remind Marliowe of how much clout they can and do exercise. But more than this, The Long Goodbye is a mediation on friendship: how far does it extend, what can we be reasonably expected to do, and what can we do when that friendship is abused and betrayed. The Long Goodbye belongs on the same bookshelf as anything by Hemingway, Steinbeck or Faulkner. If you haven't read Chandler, do so.

Which brings me to the film adaptation of the book, released in 1973, and directed by Robert Altman from a screenplay by the science fiction writer Leigh Brackett, who also worked on the films of The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back. Ask any Chandler enthusiast how they liked the movie and almost to a person, it is loathed. I'm not sure why. The movie deviates from the story in places, especially in the ending, but the main themes remain. And it is as well done as anything Altman ever directed. The social satire remains. Only it is a Philip Marlowe who has been transported to a 1970's LA, and lives in an apartment next to a commune of brownie-eating young women who do their Yoga exercises on the porch only partially clothed. Marlowe still drives a '48 Lincoln, but he tries to adapt. "It's all right by me", he keeps telling everyone he encounters. Only it isn't ok and his dislocation is such that, while he does try to help his friend, it seems the only one he can love is his cat. Who abandons him. Beautiful movie, with a great performance by Elliot Gould, Sterling Hayden as the author, Henry Gibson as a quack head-shrinker and ex-baseball pitcher, Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox. And, oh, it has one of the most shocking scenes in cinema history, featuring director Mark Rydell as a gangster dogging Marlowe.

The Long Goodbye is still in print from Vintage Books ($14.95) and available from Jackson Street Books and other fine Independent bookstores.As always, books ordered here will have a freebie publishers Advance Reading Copy included as a thank you to our blogosphere friends.


  1. Dan, only a post on Chandler could urge me out of my fog. Chandler, is my all time favorite author. So much so that everything Chandler has been devoured by this cricket - yes, even Playback. Not sure if the Linda Loring thing should have been resurrected though.

    Having said that, and never having seen the movie, I can only offer this as a possible reason for the loathing of the movie: The Marlowe stories were more than Marlowe. They were of the dichotomy of Los Angeles in transformation. Never again the farm country of its origins, not yet the trashed-out, all consuming metropolis of its destiny. Marlowe stood with a leg in each of the two worlds and every single character with whom he had contact was a hostage to one of those two worlds.

    Changing the period to the seventies would make The Long Goodbye focus on character and storyline. Simply another movie. BFD.

    The Long Goodbye is Chandler's lifetime masterpiece (IMHO). It is a masterpiece not because, in addition to his character Marlowe working through a twisted plot in stark but humanly decent terms, but because the world in which Marlowe operates is in a flux that will one day overtake even him. The City of Los Angeles was just as much a main character as Marlowe himself. The producers of the film either did not realize that, or discounted it to the detriment of the story.

    Anyway, my two cents.

  2. I am offended by the teaser on that penny dreadful's cover. The sloot had SIX husbands?!? Marital track records like that are the reserved privilege of ekkksemplary kkkonservatives such as Rush and Newt, not wimmens! Even if she IS a fictional character. At least she dies violently in the novel, eh?

  3. Chandler saw the gauzy bauble through smoke and whiskey, and he despised the Hollywood meat factory. The more the town gleamed with a big, bright smile the more lurid it stank beneath the surface. Chandler's romantics fell from on high and crashed to sleep, only to wake up wise and cynical--a great book.


  4. I like Chandler quite a bit, but I really loved the movie. I got it and watched it again a couple of months ago. The level of violence simmering along barely below the surface of the action with the actual violent scenes few and far between, but you find yourself constantly expecting something and given the kind of movie it is you know it is going to happen so you are on the edge of your seat waiting for it.

  5. I devoured all of Chandler about 30 years ago during my brief residency in LA. He truly was one of the great American stylists.

    I make it a rule never to compare movies to books, they are totally separate creatures, no matter what similarities they share. The Big Sleep is a wonderful movie, but it is not the book. I can enjoy both.

    It's been more than 30 years since I've seen The Long Goodbye. The most memorable thing about it for me was ABC cutting the ending when it was broadcast because they didn't want the hero murdering someone. Sillier times.

  6. That's funny about ABC, Edward. Altman said he would direct the film only if the ending as written stayed in place and not changed.

    Jcricket makes the great point that LA itself is a character in Chandler's novels. Indeed it is. I even had it in my notes to talk about when writing the report. But then: 1. I forgot 2. It would have made longer what was already a longish report. I would say that LA remains an important character in the movie as well. The trailer gives a hint of that.

    And, Bukko, I'm not going to tell you what happens to the characters! Read the book. Or the Cliffs Notes.

  7. Dan, I tried to look up Chandler in Conservapedia, the only trustworthy source for information on teh Internets tubez, but they haven't gotten around to making an entry on him. They have a page up and ready, though. I think some well-meaning patriotikkkal person should pen an entry for them detailing how conservative Chandler was. Or maybe he was a libbo, I dunno. Since he focused so much on alcoholic lushes and murderous losers, though, I'm guessing conservative.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.