The Long Goodbye is not typical of Chandler’s crime novels, but it may be the closest he ever came to writing a novel that can stand as a work of literature, independent of hard-boiled, or detective trappings. That observation to the side, if Michael Connelly came to the writings of Chandler after viewing this Altman fiasco [1973 Altman flick the Long Goodbye] then this speaks more about the quality of Chandler’s talent than the accidental association of Altman’s film with Chandler’s writing. The film opens, with Elliot Gould playing coy games with cats that have nothing to do with Chandler’s characterization of Marlowe, nor do these antics reveal anything about the wit and language of Marlowe—the narrator of the novels. Gould’s character is underdeveloped, immature, and not very witty or clever. Chandler’s Marlowe is always surprising in the way his language reveals his character. Chandler always delights, with similes and metaphors never read before in any other American novel, let alone any other detective novel.
Altman’s film is muddled and unsurprising, its mundane revelation of character confusing. I dislike this film but that does not mean I dislike Altman. Many of his films are excellent. Altman takes chances—many of his films fail as a result.
Because I think Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a failure, does not mean I think the same of Chandler. Because the Altman film introduced Connelly and others, to the writing of Chandler, I feel this may have influenced these readers into reflecting back on the film some of the reading glory they experienced in their initial exploration of Chandler.
I guess I was lucky to have discovered Chandler as an inquisitive pre-teen reader, and I continued to read Chandler, both his novels, and later his short fiction—some of it only revealed within the last thirty years or so—in the noble collection, Killer in the Rain, because Chandler abhorred the publication of his formative pulp short stories, which he used to produce his early novels. But I enjoy reading these early tales, which Chandler cobbled together to form his early novels even more than reading his more “pure” short fiction. I enjoy observing how he constructed his novels from his short fiction.
I enjoy reading everything I have ever discovered by Chandler, including his final novel and screenplay Playback. I even enjoyed his screenplay for the Alan Ladd script, The Blue Dahlia, which Chandler admits he wrote while mostly drunk.
In my opinion Chandler is the greatest stylist of the Black Mask school. I do not think he wrote the best mysteries however, The Maltese Falcon, and Red Harvest, both by Dashiell Hammett, are the two greatest detective novels, along with short story The Glass Key—all of which originally appeared in Black Mask Magazine.
I think The Long Goodbye may be the closest Chandler, or any Black Mask contributor, ever came to writing a classic literary novel. I also think that Chandler is the finest writer to have appeared in Black Mask. Hammett’s Maltese Falcon is an iconic work of American literature. Its dialogue is unsurpassed in detective writing. But Marlowe’s narrative voice is a work of genius—and Chandler’s use of poetic imagery in his similes and metaphors is unsurpassed, in the popular novel—perhaps even in the literary novel. In addition, Chandler’s physical and psychological description of the American city, specifically Los Angeles & Hollywood is unsurpassed. Chandler excels in his descriptions of the movie industry, wealthy socialite society, and the poseur social scam artists who inhabit this world.
But I stand by my original impression of Altman’s The Long Goodbye: it was a failure as a Chandler film; it was a failure as an Altman film; and it was an embarrassment as an Elliot Gould film. Many years ago, Gould narrated a number of Chandler’s longer short stories. He did an outstanding job in these narrations and he was proud of this work.
I spent time on Temple Campus speaking with Gould. And later we had a few phone conversations after he returned to the west coast. We spoke of Chandler, and he mentioned the audio readings a number of times with pride. He never once mentioned the Altman film, which by the way, I saw when it was originally released in the theaters. I remember wondering what Altman and Gould thought they were doing when I watched the first 15 minutes or so of the film—with the business with the cats.
Chandler was very fond of cats. He was sentimental and wrote with great sadness about the passing of his oriental cat who can be seen with Chandler on the back cover of many books. The Altman business with the cats was entirely out of character for Marlowe. And it got the film off to a poor start. Not that the film ever found a good place to go to!
Visit a screening of The Long Good Bye 3/25/2012 in Santa Monica Library, Los Angeles. Meet Elliot Gould and Michael Connelly after for a Q&A session