Bearing their fates: The Long Goodbye's incredible film noir casting
(Clockwise from top left): Sterling Hayden, Henry Gibson, Nina van Pallant
This summer, I read for the first time Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, the late masterpiece from perhaps the most celebrated mystery writer. Alongside the trademark pulp dialogue was the (semi-autobiographical) running themes of hangovers - with the characters waylaid by alcoholism and the rippling trauma of WW2, with the latter perhaps as the reason for many turning to the former.
I followed up reading the novel with re-watching Robert Altman's loose, hazy 1973 adaption, starring Elliot Gould. Whilst Gould is great, it was really the supporting cast that were especially striking to me. Roger Ebert, in adding the Altman take on the story to his Great Movies series, wrote that 'casting is crucial in film noir, because the actors have to arrive already bearing their fates. Altman’s actors are as unexpected as they are inevitable.'1
Sterling Hayden, never better, brings a restless energy and melancholy to the part of Roger Wade - it's hard not to picture Hayden when reading Chandler's novel. The year before The Long Goodbye, Hayden had been equally well-cast as the corrupt Capt. McCluskey in The Godfather, trading in on audience awareness of the actor's involvement in the Hollywood Blacklist. Having been briefly involved with the Communist Party he became a 'friendly witness' to the FBI, with the aim of winning custody of his children - a case then in the balance. He named names, and began increasingly turning to drink. He later reflected that 'I was a rat, a stoolie, and the names I named of those close friends were blacklisted and deprived of their livelihood.'2 On-screen, Roger Wade drinks himself into a stupor for having sold out, for being a hack. With the setting of Altman's filmed moved forward to 1973, it's interesting to imagine that Wade is a character that would have named names given the opportunity? Then reflected on his choice for the rest of his life in his beach house, surrounded by sunlight and water.
Roger Wade tries to kick his alcohol dependency with the help of his wife Eileen, played by Nina van Pallandt and also his physician - Henry Gibson's Dr Verringer. They both fit perfectly into the early-1970's Californian milieu. Eileen Wade has the ennui of displaced royalty now without a compass in the secure-access beach community in which she resides with an ageing drunk. Reviewing the movie on it's release, Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote that the film contained 'high-amplitude performances...at that, the most exciting performance belongs to van Pallandt...she exudes a real-woman vitality which seems refreshingly out of place amidst these mannered and artificial events.'3
Gibson, better known at the time for comic performances, perfectly modulates his latent aggression in his brief appearances, with his small stature contrasting ironically to Hayden's bear-like Wade, especially given that Dr Verringer has the authority and control in the relationship between the two.
Finally, director Mark Rydell makes a scene-stealing appearance as the gangster Marty Augestine. In name and hyper-speak he puts in mind Martin Scorsese - was this an Hollywood in-joke by Altman and Rydell? Either way, Rydell is both responsible for the most violent scene in the movie and frantic humour, which is what we expect from an Altman film. Special mention as well to his particularly dumb henchman Harry (played by David Arkin) who shares a fantastic scene with the beach community security guard after being set up by Gould's Marlowe that Harry, following in the car behind, wants to hear a Walter Brennan impression.
Hollywood becomes a running theme to the Altman version, with 'Hooray for Hollywood' ringing out on the soundtrack at a crucial point, shrill yet low on the soundtrack mix. Extending this, Gould's Marlowe is self-aware of his role in police interrogation - and therefore movie scene - etiquette. Rydell, if not a director, could be a producer with Wade as the writer. Eileen Wade is the distracted muse to the key male characters, and she wisely moves away from centre stage by choice leaving Marlowe to tie up the mystery tagged at the start and walk away with a hop and skip to the afore-mentioned celebration of tinseltown. As a hired screenwriter, Chandler's had infamously clashed with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity and Alfred Hitchcock during Strangers on a Train's journey to screen. His wry take on the Hollywood culture expresses itself in a moment in The Long Goodbye in which George Peters, an acquaintance of Marlowe, gives instructions for their meeting at Romanoff's, one of Hollywood's most popular restaurants:
'See you about seven o'clock in the bar at Romanoff's. Tell the head thief you're waiting for Colonel Carne. He'll clear a space around you so you don't get elbowed by any riff-raff like screenwriters or television actors.'4
1 Ebert, Roger Great Movie - The Long Goodbye 1973 (RogerEbert.com, 2006), found at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-long-goodbye-1973.
2 Buhle, Paul and Wagner, David Blacklisted: The Film Lover's Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 251.
3 Champlin, Charles, 'The Long Goodbye', Los Angeles Times (March 8, 1973) quoted in Film 73/74 (Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), Jay Cocks and David Denby (eds), p. 44.
4 Chandler, Raymond The Long Goodbye (Penguin, 2010), p.341.