A look at THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)

Opening footage: The Long Goodbye, via YouTube.

Vilmos Zsigmond on Filming The Long Goodbye

Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer on The Long Goodbye, said it was the funniest comedy he had 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 Robert Altman, the director, wanted and thought the constant motion would be too obtrusive for the audience. At some point, however, Zsigmond said he forgot all about the moving camera as it evolved into the storytelling, just as 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."

What About the Cat?

The above YouTube segment at the top of this post shows the opening credits to Altman's The Long Goodbye. 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.

The Genesis of the Philip Marlowe Character

Raymond Chandler began playing with the Marlowe character in short stories for pulp magazines such 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, before 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, including 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.

Altman 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

Remembering Mike Nichols: From Comic to Director

vintage typewriter on sepia.jpg

Today is Mike Nichol's birthday. He would have been 86 years old. What a mega-talent and inspiration he was to writers, actors, directors, and others.

He directed some wonderful films, including The GraduateSilkwoodWorking GirlWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Heartburn. And he directed plays, from what I believe was his final one, Betrayal (which sold out for all performances before the play even opened), to years ago directing a young unknown named Whoopi Goldberg in her one-act play that took her from obscurity to being a star.

He Grew Up a Loner...

Later in life he said that growing up a loner gifted him with the ability to know what people were thinking. I think he likely meant that he could easily, and often correctly, interpret people's emotions and motivations, which makes me think of "truth wizards." This is a term coined by research psychologists about people who have an uncanny way of detecting liars, as well as other emotions/motivations within a person. Truth wizards have typically grown up in difficult environments where, as children, they learned to carefully observe people as a means of survival, really. I know about truth wizards from researching them years ago for an article, and later a murder-mystery novel featuring a character who was a truth wizard (Mistletoe and Murder in Las Vegas).

From Loner to Famous Comic

 Elaine May and Mike Nichols, 1960 (image is in public domain)

Elaine May and Mike Nichols, 1960 (image is in public domain)

After Mike Nichols started college, he said he was a loner no more. His first success as an artist was as part of the two-person comedy team with Elaine May. After that came directing plays, then film. He won every award as a director: the Emmy, Oscar, Tony...I may have missed one in that line-up.

What I like about reading his quotes on directing film and plays is that his words apply to writing, too.

A Few Favorite Nichols' Quotes

Here's a few of my favorite Mike Nichols' quotes. As I mentioned above, he was talking about film-making, but his thoughts on technique and process apply to crafting stories and characters as well.

"There are only three kinds of scenes: a fight, a seduction or a negotiation." 

"A movie is like a person. You either trust it or you don't."

"I've always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another, and wishing they were doing a third. The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That's what interests me the most." 

"I think the audience asks the question, 'Why are you telling me this?'...there must be a specific answer."

DOUBLE INDEMNITY: Making an Audience Love a Killer

 Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Image is in public domain)

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Image is in public domain)

Noir at Its Darkest and Finest

Some view Double Indemnity (1944), the dark, suspenseful adaptation of the James M. Cain story, as one of the best, if not perfect, noir film. A June 1944 film review in Time magazine called it the "nattiest, nastiest, most satisfying melodrama."

Chandler and Wilder: A Tumultuous Writing Team

Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay over approximately 12 weeks, a volatile writing partnership that Wilder thought drove Chandler back to drinking. However, Wilder believed their discord enhanced their collaboration. "If two people think alike," he said, "it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off."

Billy Wilder also wrote and directed other film classics such as NinotchkaThe Lost WeekendSunset BoulevardSome Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch.   

Stanwyck and MacMurray Turned Down the Roles

Barbara Stanwyck, at the time the highest paid actress in Hollywood as well as the highest paid woman in America, at first turned down the role of the psychopathic killer Phyllis Dietrichson. In a later interview, she said after reading the script: "I went to his office, and I said to him, I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid, after all these years of playing heroines to play the part of an out–and–out cold–blooded killer." Wilder responded, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" She answered that she hoped she were an actress. He said, "Then take the part." Years later she said she had been grateful ever since for taking the role.

Numerous actors turned down the role of Walter Neff, the bored insurance salesman tempted to commit murder: Alan Ladd, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and others. Eventually Wilder realized he needed an actor who could play a cynic and a nice guy. In 1943 Fred MacMurray was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, known for playing easy-going, happy-go-lucky characters. When Wilder asked him to play Neff, MacMurray said, "You're making the biggest mistake of your life!" Later MacMurray said, "I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made."

Wilder Changed the Sweet Boy-Meets-Girl Situations

Wilder broke the mold early on with the standard, sweet boy-meets-girl situations. In the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn, the suave French actor Charles Boyer played a refugee who marries a woman so he can enter the United States. He wrote a sweet-sour romance in The Apartment, where a young woman (Shirley MacLaine) has an ongoing tryst with an executive at her office, where a young man (Jack Lemmon) also works. He has a crush on the Shirley MacLaine character, and has no idea she's the one warming his bed with his boss. Critics called it a "dirty fairy tale," and audiences loved it.

Double Indemnity: Making an Audience Love a Killer

 Billy Wilder chose a cheap wig to emphasis Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson's, "sleazy phoniness" (Image is in public domain)

Billy Wilder chose a cheap wig to emphasis Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson's, "sleazy phoniness" (Image is in public domain)

How did Wilder make the mysterious, deceiving, insidious Phyllis sympathetic to viewers? He added a dash of sympathy, offered deeper glimpses into her character, and cranked up the heat:

  • Phyllis is trapped, unprotected in a marriage where her emotionally-distant husband prefers the well-being of his blood-family daughter over his trophy wife.
     
  • She is more than a one-dimensional cold, calculating murderer. She is driven, at times charming, tarnished yet eerily beautiful and diabolically shrewd.  If she had only been cold and calculating, viewers would have been bored.
     
  • Phyllis and Walter have a complicated, compelling chemistry that drives the story.

A Film About Relationships

The late film critic Roger Ebert had an interesting take on Wilder's characterizations in Double Indemnity:

[Wilder] doesn't go for the obvious [character] arc. He isn't interested in the same thing the characters are interested in. He wants to know what happens to them after they do what they think is so important. He doesn't want truth, but consequences. 

Wilder showed us how a couple of psychologically shallow people betray, cheat and murder, but he fascinated us by revealing the repercussions of their acts.

He also made sure Phyllis and Walter didn't come across as one-dimensional by such techniques as:

 Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, confessing into Dictaphone (Image is in public domain)

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, confessing into Dictaphone (Image is in public domain)

  • A nasty spin on dialogue. Don't forget we have Chandler co-writing this story, and if anybody can write cynical, sharp, memorable dialogue, it's Chandler. Roger Ebert wrote: "Chandler turned up drunk, smoked a smelly pipe, didn't know anything about screenplay construction, but could put a nasty spin on dialogue."
     
  • High stakes conflict of emotions. This film pits the fixation of passion versus the enticement of evil.  
     
  • The probing of human weaknesses. Neff and Dietrichson are driven by the dark side of their weaknesses: greed, desire, even helplessness.

Other Articles About Billy Wilder and Double Indemnity

The Paris Review: "Billy Wilder, the Art of Screenwriting No. 1"

An Analysis of Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" by Kathryn Blakeney

10 Tips from Billy Wilder on How to Write a Good ScreenPlay (Open Culture)

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins) requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy/distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images noted as in the public domain are copyright-free and yours to steal.

    Christmas Day Fun for Homebodies, from Mel Brooks Movies to Decadent Desserts

    What are you doing for Christmas? My husband and I plan to be homebodies and take it easy. Watch movies. Read. Eat Christmas Eve leftovers (that's our big holiday blow-out meal). I have a book due February 1, so I'll probably spend a few hours writing, too.

    For any fellow homebodies, below are some fun things to watch/read/bake on Christmas Day

    Mel Brooks Movie Marathon

    TCM is throwing a Mel Brooks movie party on Christmas evening and will be showing five of his movies in a row, starting with High Anxiety (1977), which starred Brooks, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman. Check out the movies at the below link:

    Mel Brooks movie schedule

    Ever Wonder Who First Realized that No Two Snowflakes are Alike?

    The GIF on the right side of this screen is comprised of hundreds of snowflakes that were photographed by a self-educated farmer named Wilson Bentley who combined his camera with a microscope to take the first picture of a snowflake in 1885.

    Ever hear the comment that no two snowflakes are alike? That stems from a report by Bentley who noted that "Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost." Scientists of his time didn't take Bentley seriously, and his father thought his study of snowflakes was silly, but today he is recognized as breaking new ground in meteorology and microscopic photography.

    Story link: The Snowflake Man of Vermont

    Radio Detective Story Hour

    This old-time radio show podcast is the Christmas-themed "Broadway Is My Beat."  Click here to download the podcast.

    Pecan Pie Bread Pudding

    Christmas is a time for festive meals...and decadent, delicious desserts. The creator of this dessert, Ashton, is the owner/author of Something Swanky Desserts and Designs, and swears that this recipe is phenomenal (italics are hers). Check it out here: Pecan Pie Bread Pudding.

    Sarah Millican Hosts Twitter #joinin on Xmas Day

    For the fourth year, writer/comedian Sarah Millican is hosting an all-day drop-in chat-a-thon on Christmas for those in need of company. She was tweeting and retweeting so many messages last year at her #joinin, that Twitter blocked her account (they thought it was some kind of spam, but this year they're aware that she's hosting a Christmas Twitter party,and are wholeheartedly supporting it). Click here to read an article about how she started #joinin.

    Merry Christmas, everyone! Colleen



    I love this GIF, which I call "Deadline Dog." Lillie Le Dorre, who hails from Wellington, New Zealand, created the GIF from a 1919 postcard. 

    What Can Writers Learn From the 1979 film AND JUSTICE FOR ALL?

    Book excerpt from A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms by defense lawyer Shaun Kaufman and PI-writer Colleen Collins.

    Ten of Our Favorite Legal Films: And Justice for All

    And Justice for All (1979): Starring Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe and Christine Lahti; directed by Norman Jewison. In the story, Pacino plays jaundiced lawyer Arthur Kirkland, who openly deplores the lack of justice in the law. Pacino received an Oscar nomination for best actor, and the writers, Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, received a nomination for best original screenplay.

    Shouldn’t one be concerned that our criminal justice system seems more intent and efficient in locking up drug offenders than in prosecuting complex, white-collar, corporate crime?
    — Defense lawyer Arthur Kirkland, "And Justice for All"

    Kirkland’s grim view of justice increases after he’s forced to represent a judge he despises (played by Forsythe) who has been charged with rape. Their mutual dislike provides an ongoing strong, compelling conflict in the story.

    So how did Kirkland get forced to defend a judge he despises? Seems the judge blackmailed Kirkland by threatening to report him for disclosing a client’s confidentiality. This premise is somewhat questionable as it is not entirely clear if Kirkland really committed an ethical violation, but it is also plausible enough to shift the story into a higher gear.

    Cast of Quirky Characters

    There’s also a cast of quirky characters in And Justice for All, including a nutso judge, played brilliantly by Jack Warden, who acts out his suicidal impulses by eating his lunch on a high-up window ledge and testing how far he can fly his helicopter on a near-empty tank of gas. Too eccentric? Possibly. However, if the agency overseeing judicial conduct for that jurisdiction were informed about a ledge-eating, empty-tank flying judge, and it validated that this was true, his days sitting on the bench would come to an abrupt end.

     A judge once stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom

    A judge once stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom

    On the other hand, as long as this whacky judge isn’t reported, his eccentricities could continue for a while. Trust us on this one. Shaun, a criminal lawyer for several decades, once had a judge who stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom.

    And then there was the time in a high-profile, tension-filled trial, where the judge kept checking out a Playboy magazine that no one saw except the defense (Shaun) and prosecutor whenever they approached the bench to discuss a legal point.

    Law vs. Justice

    And Justice for All is an incisive examination of corruption and ethics within the justice system. It is also a story about the disparity between following the word of the law versus justice being served. Maybe one of these issues sparks an idea for your legal character or story.

    At the end of And Justice For All, Kirkland (Pacino) delivers a mild-melding, no-holds-barred opening statement that is a masterful display of honesty and an indictment of the folly of the legal system that every lawyer wants to give, and what no ethics board would ever allow. That alone is a reason to watch this movie.

    -End of Excerpt-