Sunday, May 1, 2016

Film Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

One of the notable aspects of American films of the 1970s is that many of the male stars who emerged in that decade looked like the average man in the street. Actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Al Pacino, and Gene Hackman would have been character actors, at best, in the '40s and 50s, but in the '70s they were major stars. None of them were conventionally handsome, some could even be called homely, but they could all act the pants off most of their more handsome contemporaries.

And then we have Elliot Gould. He leaped from character actor to star with back-to-back roles in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and MASH (1970). Both films were controversial and very plugged in to the zeitgeist. Those two roles gave Gould enough career momentum to carry him through most of the '70s as a bona fide leading man. But unlike Hoffman and the others, all of whom continued as leading men into the '80s and even the '90s, Gould's career in the big leagues was fading out by 1978 when he starred in Matilda, the one and, hopefully, only film about a boxing kangaroo. The Long Goodbye is a reminder of why Gould's career as a leading man had such a short trajectory: he wasn't a very good actor.

The Long Goodbye is based on a Raymond Chandler novel, with Gould playing iconic  P.I. Philip Marlowe in contemporary Los Angeles. The plot doesn't matter a whit because Chandler's stories are primarily about character, atmosphere, attitude, and the city of Los Angeles, which also, in a sense, fills the role of Marlowe's sidekick and sparring partner. Director Robert Altman is attuned to the special flavour of Chandler's work, especially the louche charm of crime in the sunny, palm tree-shaded environs of California's upper classes. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond puts that louche quality up on the screen in spades, and it's reasonable to say that he's the real star of the film. The supporting actors, Sterling Hayden, Nina van Pallandt and Mark Rydell are all excellent, and in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment you can spot Arnold Schwarzenegger as an anonymous heavy.

It's Gould who torpedoes this film. He mumbles dialogue that sounds as though it was ad-libbed, and all of it is horrible. What Gould and Altman were up to isn't clear, but I'd guess they were trying to create a Marlowe who has one foot in the whiskey and water '40s and another in the weed and transcendental meditation '70s. It's a disaster. Marlowe's incessant chatter isn't amusing or clever, and Gould's acting is, tonally speaking, in another galaxy from what his fellow actors are doing. The scenes between Gould and Hayden are torture to watch because the latter is actually acting while the former is riffing on some cross between Popeye at his most garrulous and a stoner. A much, much better actor might have been able to do something with this role, but Gould makes a bad situation much, much worse.

Gould was one those average-looking guys who became a star in the '70s, but his natural pay grade was as a supporting actor. He was best at playing shrewd, urban, fast-talking hustlers, but only in small doses. His other films from that decade are mostly forgettable or forgotten, as are his performances in them. California Split (1974) and Busting (1974) are the exceptions to this rule, but in each case Gould is sharing the acting load with a co-star. Bits and pieces of The Long Goodbye are excellent, but the stumbling, nattering self-indulgence of Gould's performance turns the film into, at most, a curiosity rather than something worth seeking out.

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