The Long Goodbye

RIP Jack Sheldon, an important jazz and studio musician for at least half a century. Some people know his pleasing West Coast trumpet, others know his vocals for Schoolhouse Rock.

In my personal pantheon, Sheldon is there simply for his great vocal on “The Long Goodbye” from the John Williams soundtrack to the Robert Altman movie.

Williams is now omnipresent for Star Wars and many other orchestral scores in the grand Hollywood tradition of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner. However, Williams began as a jazz pianist before evolving into a somewhat experimental composer for film. The Long Goodbye is an early peak for Williams: indeed, for my money, this remains his best score (at least of the ones I’ve heard). It’s hard to write a good “standard,” and Williams knocked it out of the park with “The Long Goodbye.”

I wrote in my survey of all the Raymond Chandler adaptations, “Marlowe’s Music”:

John Williams’s monothematic score has nothing to do with his later blockbuster work for George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg. Again, I suspect the “theme on the car radio” moment in Marlowe is an influence. Other possible inspirations: Laura has one piece by David Raskin throughout. For Beat the Devil, Franco Mannino put the same melody on the ship’s player piano and in the square’s military band as well in his non-diegetic music. The score to The Third Man is mostly Anton Karas’s famous zither tune. 

There must be other examples, but surely The Long Goodbye is the most extreme use of one tune in varied fashion for the entire film.

At the very top of Long Goodbye we hear a bit of an old-timey rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood” before fading into Marlowe being woken up by his cat. The music for his apartment is a Dave Grusin’s jazzy trio playing an ornamented version of Williams’s lovely ballad “The Long Goodbye.” This seems non-diegetic, but Marlowe also hums a few snatches. We cut to a title card and Jack Sheldon croons Johnny Mercer’s lyrics as Terry Lennox interacts with a guard initiating Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. (Mercer also wrote the lyrics to “Hooray for Hollywood.”) Back to Gould, and the soundtrack is a straight female version. 

Continuing on here’s a partial list of all the different versions, both diegetic and non-diegetic: Muzak in the supermarket — Spanish guitar when entering Tijuana — Entertainer in bar sings and fumbles out-of-tune upright piano (saying, “I’ve got to learn this damn thing”) — Doorbell to Wade residence in Malibu Colony — Trumpet with strings for Eileen Wade — Sitar music for yoga neighbors — Marching band in funeral procession — Rock vamp at Wade party — Informally sung by gangster Marty Augustine — Hummed by Eileen Wade in car while Marlowe is chasing on foot — Short hallucinatory orchestra + guitar cue after final murder…

Finally, in perhaps a nod to the end of The Third Man, Marlowe improvises some silly harmonica (sounds like Karas’s zither?) when walking into the distance. The harmonica blends into a non-diegetic full rendition of old-time “Hooray for Hollywood.”

It’s an impressive movie with an impressive score. The Long Goodbye is also the most interesting Marlowe movie for film students, who these days delight in unpacking the metatextual themes.

Jack Sheldon absolutely sells the beautiful Mercer lyric in his vocal performance. On the full take on the soundtrack (we only hear the opening chorus in the movie), there’s a trumpet solo, that must be Sheldon as well, and I believe that is still Dave Grusin playing the accompanying suave jazz piano. (I’ve never seen a personnel listing for the bass and drums.) (UPDATE: Franco Vailati tells me that according to David Meeker’s Jazz on the Screen, the rhythm section is Carol Kaye and Nick Ceroli.)

Jacob Garchik sent along something else of Sheldon, an item centered on one of Chandler’s greatest admirers, Ian Fleming. This very early (1965) parody of James Bond begins with Sheldon reciting the novel Goldfinger verbatim before heading into fantasy, dropping some names like “Red Norvo” along the way. Those were the days…