Elliott Gould, Robert Altman, and Vilmos Zsigmond: THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)

Opening footage: The Long Goodbye, via YouTube.

It was reported today that Vilmos Zsigmond, the American-Hungarian cinematographer who filmed Altman's The Long Goodbye, has died. Zsigmond filmed other classic movies such as Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (with Altman directing), and The Sugarland Express.

Who can forget those eerie, compelling scenes of the extraterrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Zsigmond deliberately overexposed those scenes so the aliens would appear fuzzy and diffuse. Yet, according to Zsigmond, he nearly got fired during the filming of that movie.

We had a terrible situation on ‘Close Encounters’ because they wanted to fire me several times. The only reason they didn’t was because they didn’t have a replacement who could take over.
— Vilmos Zsigmond

Vilmos Zsigmond on Filming The Long Goodbye

Zsigmond said The Long Goodbye was the funniest comedy he ever filmed, due to Elliot Gould's characterization of Philip Marlowe.

Elliot Gould was never better than in [“The Long Goodbye”]. He plays this private eye who looks really dumb but he’s not dumb.
— Vilmos Zsigmond

In a Rolling Stone interview, Zsigmond said "a cinematographer can only be as good as the director." However, he initially worried about the always-moving camera that Altman wanted and thought the constant motion would be too obtrusive for the audience. At some point, Zsigmond later said, he forgot all about the moving camera as it evolved into the storytelling, just as Robert Altman had envisioned. (More about Altman's reason for an always-moving camera in the below section Robert Altman, Director.)

Zsigmond also used experimental exposure techniques (also called flashing) in The Long Goodbye to give Los Angeles a faded look to match Altman's vision of the city looking like "old postcards." 

Below is the first draft of this article that I wrote last August. It has since been updated with additional material about The Long Goodbye.

Today, August 29, is Elliott Gould's birthday...

So I watched the opening credits to director Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye starring Gould as Philip Marlowe (click on YouTube video at the top of this post). In the scene, Marlowe is trying to feed his cat, which becomes a complicated, bumbling affair. As noted by Marlowe fans, he never had a cat, but apparently Raymond Chandler loved cats, so Altman put one in. Later, Gould said one of the points of the film was that friends could be as fickle as cats.

Raymond Chandler began playing with the Marlowe character in short stories in such pulp magazines as Black Mask and Detective Fiction Weekly long before he penned his first novel The Big Sleep. In those earlier stories, Chandler tested different names for this private eye character, such as Mallory and John Dalmas, finally settling on Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.

Chandler eventually wrote eight Marlowe novels, dying before finishing the ninth, Poodle Springs, which was later finished by Robert B. Parker. Most of the these novels have been adapted for TV and film, with an impressive list of actors playing Marlowe, such as Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, Danny Glover, and of course Elliott Gould.

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published.
— Raymond Chandler

Some say The Long Goodbye doesn't hold up to Chandler's The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely. Others say it's Chandler's best work. Some say Gould isn't as cool as Bogie or as world-weary as Mitchum. Others say Gould is the only actor to have captured the essence of Marlowe.

Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe

In the opening segment, Gould shows us a bumbling, wise-cracking, conscientious, chain-smoking Marlowe. The camera roves and wanders as it follows Marlowe, who meanders and drifts as he looks for cat food, talks to his cat, talks to the ladies next door, drives to find food for both the cat and the ladies. Gould's Marlowe is vulnerable, sweet even, yet cynical. Dressed in his crumpled suit (he puts on his jacket to drive to the store at 3 a.m.), he's a throwback to a more conventional era in the pot-smoking, freer world of the 1970s. 

In a 2000 interview, Elliott Gould said he had "fallen out of grace in the industry, was basically un-castable" when Robert Altman offered him the role of Marlowe. 

Interesting fact: Marlowe's car in the film was actually Gould's (a 1948 Lincoln Continental, very Marlowe-esque). 

Another interesting fact about Gould: He's recorded every Marlowe story on audiotape.

Robert Altman, Director

Peter Bogdanovich was originally supposed to direct The Long Goodbye, and he wanted either Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum to play Marlowe. He didn't want Gould to play the role because he was "too new." After Bogdanovich was off the project, Robert Altman was on.

When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.
— Raymond Chandler

According to the 2009 article "Rip van Marlowe: Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye," Altman initially didn't want to direct the film, feeling that Marlowe had already been done and everybody connected Bogie with the role of Marlowe. But after it was suggested that Elliott Gould play Marlowe, Altman was in. When Gould said he didn't know if he could play Marlowe, Altman said he could because he was Marlowe.

He decided the camera would always be moving (as seen in the opening credits), giving the audience the feeling of being a voyeur who's always looking over somebody's shoulder or peering around someone's back. "The rougher it looked, the better it suited my purpose," Altman said. The article "The Long Goodbye" by Noel Murray quotes Altman saying that the premise of the film was Marlowe falling asleep in Chandler's era and waking up in the weird wonderland of California in the early 1970s.

The film wasn't well received at first, but all these years later it's become something of a cult classic. Many credit Altman's film as being truer to the mood established by Chandler in the book. 

Interesting fact: Leigh Brackett, who wrote this script, was also the scriptwriter for The Big Sleep, directed by the iconic director Howard Hawks (final scene via YouTube, below).  On that note, I'll now finish my coffee and get to work...but first, I have to feed my cat.

Final scene from The Big Sleep, via YouTube