Suit Yourself: Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye

Newly released on collectable Blu-ray, The Long Goodbye (1973, directed by Robert Altman) is the kind of film you feel ashamed for not watching more often. Starring Elliot Gould as Raymond Chandler’s pulp private dick Phillip Marlowe, this is a quirky, very seventies re-imagining of the Humphrey Bogart man-in-a-trenchcoat myth. The film is contemporary set, yet Gould’s Marlowe is a man out of place and time. Everything from his car to apartment to clothes is indicative of the P.I’s golden age; a world of cocktails, dames and pinstripe suits, not cat food, hippies and polyester.

Hollywood’s effortless private detective was created in the post-Prohibition era of the 1930s-40s, and into the 50’s. The noir stories of The Thin Man (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and beyond were characterised by a hero – generally not an anti-hero despite the dark tone – who dressed and acted a certain way. Browse poster art from any of these decades and you can tell a P.I. movie by the fedora alone. These gentlemen were impeccably turned out for the seedy environment in which they operate, differentiated from the scruffy plain clothes cops and tweedy hoodlums around them. One would assume that to be a private detective you need to blend in, not stand out, but their sartorial template, largely popularised by William Powell as Nick Charles in The Thin Man, would claim otherwise.

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William Powell was a tall, athletic built man who could easily fill out a broad-shouldered ‘New Deal’ cut suit. Powell was just as debonair in real life too, and this may have had some bearing on what he wore in The Thin Man. In fact in line with male costuming for films at that time, he probably chose and sourced the ensembles himself. When Bogart’s era came in The Maltese Falcon, the style was a heavier pinstripe suit and trenchcoat, later echoed in The Big Sleep. Bogart played Sam Spade in Falcon then Marlowe in Big Sleep, both men essentially cut from the same cloth in terms of personality and overall look. They were not William Powell smart, but still clean shaven originators of the P.I. silhouette. Gould’s Marlowe on the other hand looks like he has slept under a mattress.

When Elliot Gould conducted an early screen test for The Long Goodbye with Nina Van Pallandt (who was cast as Eileen Wade, the woman who hires Marlowe), he was allowed to choose his own costume. He selected mismatched mid blue trousers with turn-ups; dark blue two-button, single vent jacket with wide notch lapels; generously cut plain white shirt, and what he describes as a “very special” red tie. Even though it barely registers on screen, Marlowe’s tie has a reoccurring pattern of tiny American flags, a sort of salute to the cultural heritage that inspired his character. This might seem a dandy touch for a man like Marlowe, but in Chandler’s novel of The Big Sleep he describes his attire as a powder blue suit, dark blue shirt and wool socks ‘with little clocks on them’. The 1940s was a finicky era for men, some of Bogart’s suits even featured two buttonholes, one for each lapel, the seventies likewise, although one could assume that tie with American flags had been rotated around Marlowe’s closet for twenty years or more.

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Paul Newman as Harper (1966) has something in common with Marlowe in terms of dress. He wears contemporary clothes, perhaps sharp suited by today’s standards, but at the time was just a few years off looking about as cool as a door-to-door salesmen. The age of the suit was dying in the sixties, for young people the vibe was laidback and indifferent. A suit represented conformity, yet this could still be subverted by the way it was worn. Marlowe is seen in only one ensemble throughout The Long Goodbye, harking back to a more elegant era even if he is far from an elegant man. His shirt is creased, tie loosened, shoes dusty and the suit itself, not even a suit at all but a separate jacket and slacks, and in need of a damn good press. Evidently there is a comparison to be made between Marlowe, the casual hooligans causing him trouble, and the maxi dress hippy wafting around her beach house. However Marlowe fits in more than he understands, and would probably care to admit; he wants to revel in nostalgia though deep down knows it does not define him. The controversial ending of The Long Goodbye is proof of that.

Robert Altman wanted Gould’s Marlowe to be a man that had been sleeping for twenty years and suddenly awake in a world he could not fathom, which the first scene of the film neatly demonstrates. Stylistically this would put him in the mid-1950s, like Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, tougher and tidier than Marlowe but just as lost. Marlowe is more like Jack Nicolson as J.J. Gittes in late 1930s set Chinatown (1974). If Gittes had been asleep since the thirties we could imagine him stumbling around in much the same way as Marlowe; used to be dapper now disheveled, once savvy now just a wise-ass. Yet how we read the competence of a private detective on film has altered considerably since the genre’s heyday. By the 1990s scruffy was no indication to a lack of skill. Take Bruce Willis as Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout (1991), a clever dick dressed like a hobo. Or Joseph Gordon Levitt as Brendan Frye in Brick (2005), a P.I high schooler in baggy jeans and t-shirt. Nowadays a private detective is not vain, he just does the job. Perhaps this is one reason why The Long Goodbye has seen such a fond reevaluation in recent years. In an era of denim and sneakers, Marlowe was the only one who bothered enough to still wear a shirt and slacks, even if he had literally been sleeping in them.

The Long Goodbye is released on special edition Blu-ray with a shed load of gorgeous extras on 14th December.

NOTE: Images have been screencapped from Blu-Ray and cropped to better highlight the costumes.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.