You known how it is with some movies: Even if they're not very good, they can get under your skin, sort of like, well - like a dame. Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" is one of those movies. Sure you could pull it apart. You could call it a cross between catatonia and delirium. But there was something about that picture . . .

On ABC Sunday night, "The Long Goodbye" got shorter. There was something less about that picture. It's not that it was more severly mangled than other movies cut for TV, nor even that it's an untouchable master-piece. But with less than 40 whacks, ABC managed to subvert the whole intention of the film.

Network censors operate on two principles: fear and money. The fear is that a viewer will complain to a station about something offensive, and the station complains to the network, and if the complaints start adding up, it's Maalox time along Sixth Avenue. After all, the combined revenue of American broadcasting Companies, Inc. increased by only $270 million last year.

Altman's film was an update of the Raymond Chandler novel about detective Phillip Marlowe and his betrayal at the hands of an unscrupulous friend named Terry Lennox. Marlowe proves a myopic private eye until the last reel when, realizing he's been used, he lurches out of his amoral lethargy long enough to confront Lennox, shoot him and kill him.

That is, he would have shot and killed him - just what the dirty little rat deserved - if the ABC censor hadn't stepped in first and stabbed the film in the back. The gunshots were removed and so was the body. All we saw was Elliot Gould as Marlowe raise his gun slightly then quick "freeze frames" that moved in on his face. The end.

At least this was confusing; what were viewers who'd stuck with this thing for two hours supposed to think? At worst it was another betrayal; Altman had kept Marlowe passive and groggy until this final cathartic, last-straw, ironic act of conscience. Without that act, the whole idea crumbles.

ABC censor Richard Gitter - a reasonable man; they are all reasonable men (or women) - says the killing had to go because there was "a lack of retribution" for it. Gould just shoots the lug and walks off (the walk was also removed). He gets away with it, and even though the victim had been clearly shown to be a murderer himself, and a thief to boot, the TV code says crime must be punished.

"Gould was taking the law into his own hands," says Gitter. "So we had this freeze frame of him apprehending the other guy." Apprehending him? He didn't get near him. "That's a perception problem. At least he didn't kill him."

You won't get to first base with a network censor trying to argue that he has violated the intentions of a filmmaker. "Is there a substantial difference," Gitter asks, "between the implication that a man was apprehended and brought to trial and showing Gould take the law into his own hands and mete out the ultimate punishment without due process?"

Maybe that's a perception problem, too.

The notion that wrongdoing must be punished in TV dramas goes way back to the first movie code drawn up in Hollywood in 1930. This was the scripture that began. "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it." We'll never know what would have become of the nation if such pictures had ever been made.

Movie standards changed, and though today's TV code isn't as idealistically strict as the old movie code, it still contains the retribution clause. In real life, of course, lots of crimes go unpunished and lots of sinners get off scot-free. This is an aspect of real life television largely distorts.

People who clings to fanciful visions of TV being a reality medium may be peeved at this, but there is a conflicting popular view that TV should show things as they ought to be, not as they are, and that virtually everything on television is potentially instructional.

By this logic, if we saw Elliot Gould pump his friend full of lead on TV, some of us might be stricken with the urge to run riot killing off old pals.

Consistent with this idea of TV as teacher, ABC Entertainment chief Fred Silverman took great pains to assure affiliates last week that the upcoming and prematurely controversial comedy "Soap" will have a "redeeming social aspect" and that "no character in 'Soap' is ever rewarded for immoral behavior."

Silverman went so far as to promise that "Soap" will be a cleansing experience for us all. The characters may sin, but "the clear message is not 'do what they do,' but, 'laugh, enjoy and learn what not to do.'"

Among the things we will learn not to do is have affairs with tennis pros, try to seduce priests and contemplate sex-change operations. Until "Soap" premieres in the fall, we will apparently just have to rely on Ann Landers for guidance in such matters.

Censors deny that they are touchier now than at any other time, but in fact, pressure groups protesting the high violence content of prime-time TV have made the networks very sensitive to the issue, especially since the National PTA and others advocate hitting below the money belt and appealing directly to sponsors. An unfortunate byproduct of this new sensitivity is that the networks, rarely what you'd call courageous, seem to be getting more squeamish and diffident about anything that might possibly discomfort a viewer.

Except, of course, for commercials.

And so the whacks dealt "The Long Goodbye" are more interesting as signs of the times than for the actual damage done the movie. They tend to support natural fears that television will in the future be getting even further - if this is possible - from the truth. Like, maybe, two or three more light years.

Terry Lennox had it coming, but "The Long Goodbye" didn't.