The Long Goodbye on DVD

Elliot Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Henry Gibson. Directed by Robert Altman. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1. Dolby Digital (English, French). 112 minutes. 1973. MGM Home Entertainment 1003775. R. $19.90.

Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye is a curious creation. This 1973 cult favorite is partly an homage to the film noir detective stories of the 1930s and '40s, and partly a jab at life in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. How well it succeeds as either is something that movie fans can debate anew when viewing this DVD from MGM Home Entertainment.

The script, by Leigh Brackett, adheres to the Raymond Chandler story on which it's based, and to the conventions of the hard-boiled detective genre: a chain-smoking shamus (Phillip Marlowe, the character Humphrey Bogart made his own for all time); a murdered adulteress; a missing friend; betrayal and extortion among the rich; a mobster in search of missing cash; and flabby police investigators making up in bravado what they lack in substance.

The Long Goodbye was star Elliot Gould's comeback vehicle—the golden boy of late-'60s Hollywood had been out of work for a year and a half when approached to take the Marlowe role. Altman's concept, explained in an excellent director's commentary, was to treat the character as if he'd been asleep for 20 years and had awakened in the early '70s.

Gould's uneven portrayal of the detective was infused with the actor's stock-in-trade goofiness, a quality he shared with many performers of the period. For entertainers, naturalness—whatever that means—was valued over professional polish attained by rigorous rehearsal.

The amateur, independent-film aspect of The Long Goodbye isn't due to one actor, of course. Everyone involved in an Altman film is encouraged to push his creativity to the maximum. Actors, cinematographers, and set designers flock to his productions—he not only allows them to improvise but encourages it, and the results are often mixed. Several scenes in The Long Goodbye are clearly improvised—some are silly, as when Marlowe rubs ink on his face during a police interrogation, but others are riveting.

The DVD will be difficult for video fans with technical obsessions. It's frequently out of focus—I watched it on two different, highly tweaked Runco projectors to verify this—and, like many films of the period, extremely grainy. In keeping with Altman's desire to make the film "look like an old postcard," it's also very dark, with low contrast and muted colors. Only a few outdoor scenes really come to life. Even so, much of the camerawork is brilliant, with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond at the top of his game.

The film's sound crew was given equal freedom to experiment, with disappointing results: The monophonic sound varies from adequate to terrible within the space of a few seconds.

Altman fans will want to include a copy of The Long Goodbye in their libraries. Students of film and casual movie fans will find a rental worthwhile. If nothing else, this film will fuel some profound discussions about what works and what doesn't in the screen art.