long goodbye

© 2008 William Ahearn

The Long Goodbye is without question my favorite Raymond Chandler novel. There is a simple explanation for this and it is that it is the Chandler novel least open to parody or imitation. While Chandler is known for his dialog – it’s why he was hired to work on screenplays – his hard-boiled prose can drift into descriptions that age quickly due to imitators and posers.

In a letter to his agent, Bernice Baumgarten, in May 1952, Chandler writes 

“Anyhow I wrote [The Long Goodbye] as I wanted to because I can do that now. I don’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people, about this strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or foolish. Enough of that. There are more practical reasons. You write in a style that has been imitated, even plagiarized, to the point where you begin to look as if you were imitating your imitators. So you have to go where they can’t follow you . . .”

What the genre squad and the fan boys never grasped is that The Long Goodbye isn’t a hard-boiled detective story. One could argue it isn’t even a detective story in the conventional sense and gone are the gats and the dames and the gaudy patter. This is clearly a story of small corruptions and the betrayals of relationships told in a more mature and more flowing style.

I don’t love The Long Goodbye for the way it sounds; I love it for the way it feels.

Marlowe is older – 42 instead of 38 – and the book evokes a sense of transition from the world of the private eye of the 1940s to a place where there isn’t anything left to salvage for an errant knight making fifty bucks a day plus expenses.

If anything, The Long Goodbye is about how Marlowe can’t be Marlowe anymore. It reads – as a totality – like a suicide note and Marlowe struggled with suicide much as he struggled with alcohol. In 1954, after the death of his wife, Chandler – in a drunken stupor – attempted suicide with a pistol in his bathroom. He was taken by the police to a county hospital and then a friend moved him the next day to a private sanitarium. In Raymond Chandler: A Biography, author Tom Hiney cites police reports indicating that this was not Chandler’s first suicide attempt.

One oddity that needs pointing out is that when Chandler started The Long Goodbye, the main character was not Philip Marlowe. It would be a difficult book for Chandler and halfway through the third-person narrative he lost interest.

In a letter to Jamie Hamilton, Chandler wrote:

“[The main character] was merely a name; so I’m afraid I’m going to have to start all over and hand the assignment to Mr. Marlowe, as a result of which I’m going to lose a number of good scenes because they took place away from the leading character. It begins to look as though I were tied to this fellow for life. I simply can’t function without him.”

For an interesting article by Mark Coggins – the author of the August Riordan private eye series – on Chandler's struggle with writing The Long Goodbye, go here.

There were other problems as well. After he submitted the manuscript to his agent, Bernice Baumgarten at the Brandt and Brandt company, she wrote Chandler to say that Philip Marlowe had become “too Christlike and sentimental” and “we feel that Marlowe would suspect his own softness all the way through and deride it and himself constantly.”

Chandler rewrote significant parts of the novel. He also fired his agents.

The Long Goodbye is a novel that describes how Marlowe has lost his way. It’s the first book where he allows himself a friend and that friend plays him for a chump. He’s attracted to and almost seduced by a woman who Marlowe would never have been anywhere near in The Big Sleep days. Marlowe utterly fails at his job of keeping an eye on a drunken and dangerous writer – a rather odd turn of events for a hard-boiled detective – since the writer ends up dead. This is a far more subtle and nuanced situation than the jade transaction with Lindsay Marriott in Farewell, My Lovely; there is much more at stake and Marlowe is far more deeply involved. In Farewell, My Lovely, he’s sapped from behind in the dead of night on a side road in the woods. In The Long Goodbye, it’s a bright and sunlit morning and Marlowe isn’t paying attention as he drifts down to the beach to watch the water skiers go by.

Philip Marlowe breaks his cardinal rule: He gets involved. Not only with Terry Lennox but also with Linda Loring, the rich wife of a doctor. Marlowe describes Lennox as a “pampered poodle” at one point in the novel and that could be interpreted as envy if you ever read Playback, Chandler’s disappointing last novel to see where Marlowe ends up.

Based on all the flack that the film generated from self-described Chandler “purists,” I always thought it was Robert Altman who killed Terry Lennox. It wasn’t. It was Leigh Brackett. It was her novel No Good From A Corpse that attracted the eye of Howard Hawks and he hired Brackett to work on the adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep with William Faulkner in the 1940s. Hawks didn’t know the hardboiled writer was female and there’s a funny story about Humphrey Bogart complaining to Brackett that a certain scene wasn’t “tough” enough. Brackett told Bogart that she didn’t write the scene, Faulkner did.

That was a long time and many reels ago and sometime in the late 1960s, a script for “The Long Goodbye” written by Brackett landed in Robert Altman’s hands. Altman was – according to various stories – not that hot to do it but if he did, he wanted written into the contract that the ending couldn’t be changed. That Philip Marlowe would shoot his friend and wife killer (only in the film) Terry Lennox was a given as written by Brackett and carved contractually in stone by agents and lawyers.

“The Long Goodbye” is one of my favorite films and it’s beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond and I love watching actors work in the Altman milieu. In “The Long Goodbye,” Altman’s quirky way of working – with the overlapping dialog that he said he learned from Howard Hawk’s 1951 sci-fi classic “The Thing” (another favorite film) – everything comes together and produces something odd. The movie doesn’t look like the book as much as it feels like the book.

If the film “Marlowe” showed anything clearly it was that updating Philip Marlowe wasn’t as easy as it might seem. No matter how you sliced it, the private detective from another era would seem anachronistic in modern surroundings. And the approach Robert Montgomery took with “Lady In The Lake” – to show Marlowe’s world through his eyes – would be even more difficult since Marlowe only really exists in his own environment and needs to be seen there to make sense. That would be just as anachronistic in a different way.

What Brackett and Altman set out to do – it seems – is to play him as an anachronism and to have him live as the world around him sees him and not as he sees himself. They referred to the character as “Rip van Marlowe.” This is an extension and not a violation of the text; in fact, if anything, it clearly shows “how any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or foolish” as Chandler wrote in a letter about Marlowe in the novel.

And that foolishness and sentimentality is clearly known to Philip Marlowe – he doesn’t need Linda Loring to point it out – and he knows that this particular story isn’t going to end well. It won’t end badly for someone like General Sternwood or Mr. Grayle; it will end badly for Marlowe and sees it coming early on:

“And the next time I saw a polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Wraith,” Marlowe muses in the novel,” I shall depart rapidly in several directions. There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”

Many of those who complain about the portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Altman’s film usually cite Howard Hawks’ production of “The Big Sleep” as having the definitive Marlowe. Yet Humphrey Bogart plays a false Marlowe who is nothing like the detective in the novels. While one could quibble with Elliot Gould’s performance, Robert Altman’s film captures the spirit of the book far better than the Hawks’ film that became a Bogie and Bacall film and not a Marlowe film.

This book is – at its heart – a story of someone who breaks his rules and allows himself a friend only to be played and used. In The Long Goodbye, everyone uses or tries to use Marlowe for any number of things.

Chandler ends The Long Goodbye with this,

“[Terry Lennox] turned and walked across the floor and out. I watched the door close. I listened to his steps going away down the imitation marble corridor. After a while they got faint, then they got silent. I kept on listening anyway. What for? Did I want him to stop suddenly and turn and come back and talk me out of the way I felt? Well, he didn’t. That was the last I saw of him.

“I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”

All Leigh Brackett did was to invert the disillusionment, resentment and despair from being directed inward to being acted upon. It is far less a violation of Chandler’s work than any of the other films. What does anyone think that Marlowe – or Chandler – was saying goodbye to? As the tagline to Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” says,

“Nothing says goodbye like a bullet.”

William Ahearn