My Robert Altman Review Thread

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I forgot the opening line.
Robert Altman






Started : Extra in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
Screenplay for Christmas Eve (1947)
Story for Bodyguard (1948)
Screenplay and editor on short film Honeymoon for Harriet

Writer and director of short film (documentary) Modern Football (1951)



Writer and director of short film The Sound of Bells (1952)



Academy Award nominations/wins :
Directing - M*A*S*H (1971) - nom
Directing - Nashville (1975) - nom
Best Picture - Nashville (1975) - nom
Directing - The Player (1992) - nom
Directing - Short Cuts (1993) - nom
Directing - Gosford Park (2001) - nom
Best Picture - Gosford Park - nom
Won Special Oscar for - "a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike."
__________________
Remember - everything has an ending except hope, and sausages - they have two.
We miss you Takoma

Latest Review : Le Circle Rouge (1970)



I forgot the opening line.


The Player - 1992

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Michael Tolkin (based on his novel)

Starring Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward
Whoopi Goldberg & Peter Gallagher

This review contains spoilers

In The Graduate, Part II Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross would be back as Ben and Elaine - married and living together with Anne Bancroft's Mrs Robinson, who has had a stroke. Graduate screenwriter Buck Henry manages to insert Julia Roberts into his pitch, as the couple's daughter. It's 1992, and Julia Roberts is somehow being finagled into everybody's pitch in The Player - a watershed film for Robert Altman who had spent over a decade in big budget/big movie exile after a series of films that lacked commercial appeal. It must have seemed especially sweet that this popular success set about critiquing the Hollywood process - whereupon profit always seems to come at the expense of quality storytelling and novel ideas. It's a film that is absolutely as relevant today as it was back in the early 1990s.

It opens with a bravura 8 minute shot that zooms out from a painting, out of an office and through studio streets, stopping at intervals at the window to the office of Tim Robbin's Griffin Mill. Mill is an executive who spends his days listening to screenwriters pitch ideas to him, a job that puts him at odds with the artists of the filmmaking crowd - out of the thousands he listens to he can only greenlight but a few - so he'll rarely get back to many hopefuls out there who believe they have a great idea. One of these hopefuls is sending postcards to Griffin Mill, with spiteful death threats written on them. Under job pressure from newcomer Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) a stressed Mill hunts down the most likely suspect, David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) after speaking with his girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi). Mill and Kahane fight, and in a fit of rage Mill kills what turns out to be the wrong man.

It's the metaphorical battle between the creative and commercial, and later in the film a pitch is made to Griffin for a film called Habeas Corpus that will tell us in a somewhat comedic fashion who usually wins these battles - with even a screenwriter (played wonderfully by Richard E. Grant) swayed by avarice and gladly stepping all over his own artistic integrity in the end. Director Robert Altman points his finger at the greed responsible for the decay of soulful righteousness in the movie business. Griffin Mill is a sympathetic figure amongst all of this however - an especially difficult job for Tim Robbins to pull off. In this film it's not the person - it's the job. Intelligent, softly-spoken, good-natured and thoughtful, but also ruthless, he's no saint and he is guilty of murder but somehow we're always on his side. Robbins had shaken off appearances in horrible films such as Howard the Duck to appear in Jacob's Ladder (a critical, but not a financial success) and Bob Roberts (which he also wrote and directed) just before really making his mark here.

Griffin will go on to court June, which does himself no favours inasmuch as how guilty it makes him look - the police (led by Whoopi Goldberg as Detective Avery) are suspicious, but industry insider Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) is looking out for him. Surrounding all of this is the glamour and heady glitz of Hollywood - the celebrity cameos in this film are so numerous that it wouldn't be possible to mention them all here. Cher, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Andie MacDowell, Rod Steiger, Jeff Goldblum and Jack Lemmon all make an appearance, amongst many, many more. It gives the film a heightened sense of reality, not to mention that it's simply enjoyable to spot these faces in the crowd as if we're amongst all the celebrities - living vicariously through Griffin Mill. These stars were generous enough with their time to appear for little to no pay, probably because Altman, a popular figure as far as actors were concerned, was directing. Late in the film the 'movie within a movie' Habeas Corpus features Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Peter Falk and Louise Fletcher.

Altman would be nominated for an Oscar for directing this film, but surprisingly the film itself wasn't nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. He does a tremendous job, and I think there could have been nobody better at the helm of this particular film - Altman was "anti-Hollywood" and a non-conformist, a person this film really needed to guide the way. Geraldine Peroni was nominated for editing the film, and I have to remark that the editing in The Player is indeed exceptional, especially in a transitional sense - giving greater impact to foreshadowing and the multi-layered humour in the movie. It would be her only Oscar nomination, despite her putting together Brokeback Mountain. Cinematographer Jean Lépine was surprisingly left out of consideration, but perhaps I'm focusing too intently on that opening shot, which must have been horrendously difficult to rehearse and get just right (I think 15 takes were shot, with the 10th being used in the finished film.) I recognize Thomas Newman's score nowadays as having that kind of American Beauty signature - along with, in this case, small samples of the kind of music older films once had - sometimes sounding like two tunes, one layered over the top of the other.

Screenwriter Michael Tolkin was basing this on his own novel, first published in 1988, and was generous in allowing changes to be made although for the most part it follows along fairly true to the original source. In the novel Mill is less sympathetic, and of course readers are allowed into the main character's head (I hear he has a contempt for cinephiles!) His Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay rounded out The Player's three nomination, Tolkin losing to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptation of Howard's End. Robert Altman ended up losing to Clint Eastwood, who directed Unforgiven, and Geraldine Peroni to Joel Cox who edited that same Eastwood film, which probably would still have beat The Player for Best Picture if it had been nominated. The nominations as a whole were good for Robert Altman however, giving him long overdue recognition and the impetus to write and direct Short Cuts. The Player was an all-round success, faring well at the box office as well.

What I especially enjoyed in The Player were the references to certain films themselves. Mills initially meets David Kahane at a showing of Bicycle Thieves* - my favourite foreign language movie of all time. A detective played by Lyle Lovett talks about seeing Tod Browning's Freaks. The long opening shots of Absolute Beginners and Touch of Evil are discussed (during the long opening shot of this movie - in a very clever way, this film is referencing itself.) Posters for the likes of Casablanca and King Kong adorn walls. Films like D.O.A. are discussed and the likes of Sunset Blvd. are cleverly alluded to ("Anybody know who Joe Gillis is?") Like the celebrity cameos, it would be difficult to recall all of them here - but most of them are films I love very much, and they obviously also mean a lot to the filmmakers. They would also have known how much film lovers would enjoy seeing and hearing about all these references to their favourite films. It all adds to an already enjoyable story that has a mix of black comedy and film noir.

When the ending rolls up, I'm very much reminded of Adaptation, a film that would come along a decade later. Adaptation references it's own making, and in a sense so does The Player - The postcard sender calls Griffin Mill again, and gives him a pitch for a film which is basically everything that has happened so far - calling his film "The Player", and as long as Mill greenlights it, it will have a happy ending, which this film has. It's one of the more satisfying endings I've seen in mainstream moviemaking, and ties up the film very neatly (apparently this ending was Tim Robbins' idea.) It's the kind of film where the humour is sly, and where I don't laugh out loud but watch with a grin on my face - because I just know that not only is this silliness actually close to what Hollywood is really like, but in some cases it's probably even worse - and Robert Altman has said as much in interviews. It's one of the more interesting films to learn about, as there's always some new inside joke or cameo to discover, but it's story is just as engaging by itself. Before seeing it, I'd always assumed that it was a square-on comedy - but it's a lot more than that. The satire is more straight-faced than I thought it would be.

I haven't seen nearly enough Robert Altman films - but what I have seen I have a deep appreciation for, especially McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us and Brewster McCloud. I'll add The Player to that list, for there are many different ways to enjoy watching this again - from admiring it from a technical and filmmaking standpoint, noticing new little details and cameos in the background and just watching to enjoy the story. Altman hasn't created something here that's mean-spirited or depressing, instead he lets us be seduced by what is ever so seductive about Hollywood - giving us glimpses inside and showing us why we should all admit to ourselves that the machine cranking out soulless films for mass consumption are part of an obsessive quest to give "the audience" exactly what they want. At one stage Larry Levy ponders leaving the screenwriter out of the process altogether. It's a democratic process, and we vote with our money. If we want Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis with a happy ending then why even bother making an artistic statement? It makes so much sense that a producer kills a writer in this film, before getting his happy ending - something even studio executives watching the film must have got.



* A producer watching dailies thought that Altman and co had made Bicycle Thieves as a 'film within a film' - having never heard of it.



I forgot the opening line.


Nashville - 1975

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Joan Tewkesbury

Starring Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown
Geraldine Chaplin, Robert DoQui, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn
Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Allan F. Nicholls, Dave Peel
Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen, Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles & Keenan Wynn

Something I've become aware of lately is the fact that some films that seem to have been intricately constructed and those full of meaningful interpretative twists and turns are often constructed ad-hoc, which seems to point to the fact that a filmmaker's subconscious can be more powerful than any attempt to consciously create an artwork that means something in a deep sense. When Robert Altman's Nashville came to an end my mind was working overtime, for it's a film that seems to be saying a lot - and one that invites interpretation - so I was surprised to learn that Altman made it without having any of that on his mind. He set 24 characters up (unusual in itself for the sheer size of ensemble) - ones who would travail along this story in Nashville that involved music and politics - and let the actors play their characters freely, with specific events as a guideline. What comes out of it is as if a prism has been held up, and this story has delineated everything you could possibly say about American culture, celebrity, governance, people and history. Because of that, Nashville is considered in many circles as one of the greatest films ever made.

The film starts in a recording session, where country & western singer Haven Hamilton (played by Henry Gibson, who I've enjoyed watching in such films as The 'Burbs as the elder Klopek living next door to a skittish Tom Hanks) is recording a song. Watching on is Opal (played by Charlie Chaplin's daughter, Geraldine Chaplin) - a documentarian from England, Lady Pearl (played by Barbara Baxley) his companion, who has a John and Bobby Kennedy fixation, and his son Bud Hamilton (played by Dave Peel) who is softly spoken and reserved. Through the film we also meet Mr. Green (played by an ageing Keenan Wynn) who is preoccupied by his wife, who is in hospital and dying, his niece Martha (played by Robert Altman regular Shelley Duvall) who has changed her name to 'L.A. Jean', Delbert "Del" Reese (played by Ned Beatty), who is politically connected and has money, his wife Linnea Reese (played by Lily Tomlin) who is a gospel singer and raises two deaf children. Arriving at a Nashville airport is country and western star Barbara Jean (played by Ronee Blakley - most recognizable to me as Mrs. Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street) and among those waiting for her is a folk trio, Bill, Mary and Tom (played by Allan F. Nicholls, Cristina Raines and Keith Carradine) plus the man who is to be their driver, Norman (played by David Arkin).

Barbara Jean faints at the airport, and is taken to the same hospital as Mr. Green's wife by her husband and manager, Barnett (played by Allen Garfield) - those who follow along include Pfc. Glenn Kelly (played by Scott Glenn) who is a Vietnam war veteran. Replacing her at the Grand Old Oprey is country and western star, as well as Jean's rival, Connie White (Karen Black). Several characters often make their presence felt along the fringes of the goings on these people drive forward, and they include Sueleen Gay (played by Gwen Welles) - someone who has singing aspirations, but can't sing, Wade Cooley (played by Robert DoQui) - a cook who looks out for Sueleen and tries to protect her from being exploited, Winifred (played by Barbara Harris) a middle-aged woman who also has singing aspirations, despite her ragged appearance, and her husband, Star (played by Bert Remsen) who spends most of the film chasing after her. Not mentioned yet are Tommy Brown (played by Timothy Brown) - a rare African-American country singer, the Tricycle Man (played by Jeff Goldblum) - a magician who never speaks, Kenny Frasier (played by David Hayward) - a loner who carries a violin case around with him, and John Triplette (played by Michael Murphy) - a consultant for the presidential campaign of Hal Phillip Walker (voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips) - it's Walker's presidential campaign that knits the film together, and you often hear parts of his various speeches. Elliott Gould and Julie Christie appear briefly as themselves.

The fact that the film is split fairly evenly between these 24 characters is what makes it so unique, and these characters do things which often overlap with each other. Various recording sessions, concerts, performances and political rallies sees them moving from place to place - having discussions and running into each other. Politics, music and celebrity are the main issues the film revolves around, but it does this in a way that's both complex and captivatingly simple. Barbara Jean battles a nervous breakdown as Opal tries to record interviews and Delbert along with John Triplette organises a rally for Walker. Through all of this we eavesdrop on various conversations and make observations. Keith Carradine's Tom, meanwhile, beds a variety of the female characters while remaining emotionally distant from everyone. Sueleen Gay is roped into appearing at a strip club when all she wants is to do sing, which she can't and as such never will - and all the characters end up congregating together at the political rally where the film's denouement takes place with a very dramatic event which ties everything we've seen together into a meaningful and tragic way. It makes great use of the music, which ranges from great to awful in a very realistic and believable way.

The music was, very surprisingly, composed by the actors themselves, usually the ones who end up singing what they've composed. In this way, Carradine managed to garner an Oscar from the only time he was nominated for one - winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "I'm Easy" in 1976. The film did end up getting nominated for Best Picture (the year One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest won, competing with Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws and Barry Lyndon) with both Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley both being nominated for Best Supporting Actress. I find most of the performances in the film fairly even, but perhaps Blakley and Tomlin's did nudge ahead of the rest slightly. Dealing with a breakdown, having a loveless affair and looking after special needs kids brought out more emotion and complexity than other actors had to dig up. I enjoyed watching the entire ensemble, especially Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall after seeing them both as a couple in Altman's Thieves Like Us - making their brief union together in this something of a reunion. The singing from Carradine and Blekley was great, and I enjoyed it very much.

The story was pretty much mapped out by Joan Tewkesbury (who also had a hand in writing the screenplay for Thieves Like Us) after Altman sent her to Nashville to come up with ideas - many events, for example the accident on the freeway, actually happened to her while she was there. The dialogue itself was left up the the actors. You can hear Tewkesbury's voice when Tom talks to his lover on the phone, and again when Kenny Frasier talks to his mother on the phone. This method, and the way Robert Altman directed the film, was on a level of sublime filmmaking - and I would have liked to have seen him win the Oscar for Best Director he was nominated for, but this was the year of Milos Forman and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Robert Altman is one of my friend's number one favourite filmmakers, and I've seen many films of his that I rate very highly - one of the films of his I like the most, Brewster McCloud, has a very similar feel to Nashville in style, and another, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is without peer. He had a truly great decade in the 1970s, and came back into the mainstream in the 1990s with The Player. Those films of his I haven't seen, I look forward to seeing very much. Altman has said that Nashville was the first film of his in which he had 100% creative control.

Director of Photography Paul Lohmann handled the cinematography, but this film has the feel of one that isn't composed of many carefully mapped out shots - it has more of a documentary feel, with the camera capturing the most important of what is sometimes several events happening at the same time. There are sometimes interesting things going on in the background of shots, and a lot to take in through the film's packed 160 minute running time. It's said that the initial cut of the film ran much longer, and initially consideration was given to releasing Nashville as two or three films - but Altman has at times contradicted this. I can imagine that there was a lot of footage shot, but that there's a lot of overlap, with various characters performing the same events in different ways. Lohmann was cinematographer on Altman film California Split, but he wasn't a regular who teamed with the filmmaker - he also ended up as DOP on a couple of 1970s Mel Brooks films. Musically, Richard Baskin ended up supervising what the various actors didn't compose - he can be seen at the start of the film as piano player "Frog", who Haven Hamilton dismisses. Musically, Nashville is a very enjoyable film.

So, overall the impression I get is a film that was heavily influenced by the spate of assassinations blighting the American political scene at the time, the war in Vietnam, the political convulsions which Richard Nixon was sending through the entire country all mixed up into a music scene which had at it's time a few epicenters - Nashville being one. The scene in Nashville would have had patriotic overtones, as we see in the film's first scene, but also will have commented on and influenced American culture as a whole. Focusing on a presidential campaign in Nashville combined everything, and the unpredictable results of letting the actors guide themselves produced off-the-cuff lines that are revealing and interesting. Fed into that is the obviously scripted words of candidate Hal Phillip Walker - a populist telling the average American what he or she wants to hear. There are no overt comments overall, with the person who watches it left to put all of the pieces together as they listen to Barbara Harris sing Caradine's "It Don't Worry Me" - but there's a feeling of unease - and a feeling that nobody really controls or guides this cultural synergy - with music, advertising and our fellow man both influencing or inhibiting the direction the nation as a whole takes - but where one person alone can never make a difference, unless it's the assassin.

I had many different ideas about what Nashville was about, and as a whole it's a very stimulating film, along with being enjoyable to watch and listen to. The counterculture revolution of the 1960s had subsided, and what seems most noticeable about this mid-70s period, apart from it's cynicism, is the feeling that chaos is all that really rules, and it's given free reign in a cinematic kind of sense here. When characters in the film are superficial, it stands out from our point of view because we can see what's happening from every vantage point - and it's often one person's vanity that blinds them to what's really going on in a larger context. It's an amazing film because it's more visible with this kind of filmmaking, and anything more structured doesn't resemble how the world really works. For me, it's also very interesting to watch Kenny Frasier make his way through the film with his violin case - he's one person who's not at ease, but at the same time exhibiting no external sense of conflict. He's not influencing anyone, and not being influenced. He's not a part of this large co-functioning community at all - but simply the mystery at the heart of this American heartland.

On the film's surface however, it's not so heavy or intricate, but a lot of fun, and a very funny film with something amusing happening all the time. No character (except Tom perhaps) is above being shown up as a boob or the butt of some joke which takes away his or her dignity, because that's also what life is about, especially in a Robert Altman film. It thrills us with the unexpected, such as when Winifred reveals at the end just how well she can sing and how adept she ends up being in pacifying the crowd with her song. It's a little unnerving, how quickly everything reverts back to normality, but that's humanity as a whole - as resilient as we are - in spite of our lesser virtues. I don't know if Altman planned on capturing as much of us, and of American culture, as he did, but obviously this film has a lot to say - even though much of what the director had to say he ended up capturing subconsciously, guided by the chaotic events that occurred as his screenwriter travelled through Nashville to try and take the city on and get a feel for it. "The damndest thing you ever saw." That's the best the publicity people could get to a functioning tagline - and it is like that. Another unique film from the 1970s that was of it's time and place and of it's artist - the incomparable Robert Altman.




That's funny you post this today, since I just saw some people talking about it in a Discord server I'm in just now; is it okay with you if I share this with then, Phoenix?



I forgot the opening line.
That's funny you post this today, since I just saw some people talking about it in a Discord server I'm in just now; is it okay with you if I share this with then, Phoenix?
Sure, it's okay to share any reviews I post - I hope it's not to late, or else you did it anyway.



I forgot the opening line.
Well, I'd like to add any short films a director has made on his way, through his career, if I can - good or bad. This short film, The Dirty Look, was made by Altman as part of a series of short films he made for the Calvin Company - a Kansas City, Missouri-based advertising, educational and industrial film production company.

THE DIRTY LOOK (1954)


Here's another Calvin Company short Altman made. All up, he made 65 of them (obviously I won't include them all) and this is where he honed his filmmaking skills and gained much-needed experience. They're typical stuff, but I find it interesting how he improved as he went along - this is from 1955, and is about road safety.

THE PERFECT CRIME (1955)




I forgot the opening line.


The James Dean Story - 1957

Directed by Robert Altman & George W. George

Written by Stewart Stern

Narrated by Martin Gabel

Featuring James Dean, Charles Dean, Emma Dean, Lew Bracker, Marvin Carter, Patsy D'Amore & Louis de Liso

On September 30, 1955 actor James Dean died in an automobile crash in California - an actor of note already, despite only appearing in a handful of films with occasional appearances on television. His untimely death seems to have set off an even greater wave of fandom and devotion, with a generation wondering "what could have been" if this man, noted for his rebellious nature, had lived longer. The James Dean Story tells of his life through still photography, interviews with friends and relatives, a rare recording of Dean with his family, and an outtake from East of Eden - it purports to be a completely new and different kind of documentary, but the film's initial promises don't live up to anything astonishing - and in the end the feature-length documentary feels a little run-of-the-mill. It may have felt more radical back in it's day.

The film takes off with footage from the premiere of Giant, with celebrities and fans rejoycing at the gala event - James Dean already long gone. We then go back to his birth, the death of his mother at a young age, and his youth in the town of Fairmount, Indiana. We talk to his employers, teachers, family, fraternity brothers and people who worked at the restaurants and bars he liked to frequent. Through many still photographs we learn of his quietness and solitude. His constant self-questioning. His ambition and his first attempts at success on the stage - where he'd usually clash with directors. We hear about his going to New York, and then west to Hollywood where he managed to snare his first big role in East of Eden, with success following and his further roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. We're left with the impression that he was just discovering himself, and some peace when he died - never having married, or fully becoming his own person.

Narrator Martin Gabel has the right kind of deep-voiced tone, and intones Stewart Stern's heavy proclamations of the man's inner torment and genius with a little hyperbole and exaggeration - but this was fairly common to everything associated with James Dean, who quickly took on the status of icon after his death. It's the more personal discoveries that are more interesting, such as when we learn about an acting teacher presented with an orchid, which Dean went on to paint - he gave this painting to the teacher so that her orchid could live on forever, and she's treasured Dean's painting ever since. Fraternity brothers comment on his near $50 of outstanding dues, which "quite typically" they say he never paid. He could be troublesome, and the confines of a fraternity saw him fight his way out of it. It sounds like nobody ever really got too close to the man, who feared if someone did they'd not like what they found. Letters to his young cousin show a caring man who knew the value of what's beautiful and lasting.

This feature-length production happens to be one of Robert Altman's earliest directing efforts - sharing a credit here after directing his first feature, The Delinquents as a man for hire, well used to directing public service announcements, industrial films and short documentaries. Altman seems content to gain a mastery of the art of filmmaking, and slowly but surely gained confidence and expertise, with small artistic flourishes becoming more common as he went along. Altman seems to already have a fascination with people and their quirks, encouraging people to fully express them at every opportunity. Altman was about to embark on a long sojourn to television, helming some Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and many other varied programs. This period of Altman's career would last 10 years, when in 1967 he directed the moon-mission film, Countdown. The James Dean Story marks a crude, but significant and noteworthy, early credit for Altman in his early 30s.

As a whole I thought the documentary was okay, and I genuinely came away from it feeling as if I knew James Dean a little more intimately. There are a number of coups as far as interviews go, with people who really knew him, instead of people just on the periphery. Unfortunately, with a man like James Dean, there were quite a few people only on the periphery of his life, so even girlfriends and fraternity brothers never got to be close to him. There's a good load of stills, and he seemed to be a very photograph-happy man - and this is what the documentary is commending itself for I think - being an early documentary that used this kind of story-by-stills framework. It's something we're well used to now. All throughout we hear from people who knew him, and our God-like narrator preserving for himself judgement - at times going a little too deep into his psychoanalysis, and pronouncing verdicts nobody can really claim to be written in stone. Still, for James Dean fans it will have been something, and would have given them something more than the three films he's known for. There's only so much mythologizing can do though, before even that has reached it's outer limits.

The film sadly ends as it must - and one of the last clips we see is Dean's Public Service Announcement for Road Safety. James Dean always did seem to be in a hurry - success in good time would never do, and he seems to have raced through life as if he knew it wouldn't last long. On the one hand, you could see this film as exploiting his death, but in the end it seems more that this film is genuinely buying into the fact that this man deserved a kind of filmic eulogy in keeping with who he was. In it's day, this might have been a really great watch. It has dated a little in the interim, but I've seen much that is far worse.




I forgot the opening line.


The Delinquents - 1957

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Robert Altman

Starring Tom Laughlin, Peter Miller, Richard Bakalyan & Rosemary Howard

Real juvenile delinquents always have the advantage of being able to go all the way - swearing, sexually harassing and generally being as bad as you can be - with nobody to slap a ratings board 'X' on them. Delinquents in film are nasty - but cleaner. After a number of years writing and directing films for the Calvin Company, Robert Altman was hired by Kansas City businessman Elmer Rhoden Jr. to create a feature-length film about juvenile delinquency - an exploitation film that would end up posing as a community project that would be in his area of specialization. The difference would be that this would be Altman's first feature-length film - one that would get him noticed by Alfred Hitchcock (the question begs, what was Hitch watching this film for?) and as such get a new stage in his career underway. The Delinquents isn't a bad film per say, but it's focus and it's aims limit it in scope, and as such it's only really of interest as this famous director's first film.

The film involves a couple of good kids - Scotty White (Tom Laughlin - making his feature-film debut) and his girlfriend Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard) whose father thinks she's too young, at 17, to date one boy exclusively. Scotty comes across a group of young troublemakers, who have been introduced to us in the film's prologue. Bill Cholly (Peter Miller) and Eddy (Richard Bakalyan) are the gang's nominal leaders, and when they learn about Scotty's problem Cholly tells him he'd be glad to pick his girlfriend up for him, pretending to be another suitor. They invite both Scotty and Janice to a party they're having at a deserted house they've scouted out, but when the police arrive after Scotty and Janice leave, Scotty is blamed, and the gang decides to pay him back. Picking him up off the street, they take him to a gang leader's house, get him drunk, and take him to a service station robbery. To keep Scotty quiet, Cholly has his girlfriend picked up and held hostage, setting the scene for a battle between Scotty and Cholly where much is at stake.

Really, for the kind of film this is, it's not bad. Altman wanted this to be a real film, and he organized it thus, employing many of his Calvin Company cohorts as crew. Charles Paddock, who had worked with Altman on many of his CC short films served as director of photography. Chet Allen, Altman's brother in law and another frequent collaborator, was art director. Altman used many family members as part of his team - even including his eight-year-old daughter as one of the cast, along with his wife. There is a feeling of technical accomplishment about it that you wouldn't expect for a film of this budget - $63 thousand. The film's post-production and editing were done under professional standards in California (this was stipulated in Altman's contract) with Altman and assistant Reza Badiyi cutting it with Helene Turner. Noted sound editor and Oscar nominee Fred J. Brown contributed the sound effects. It all comes together as something slick, but all up it's still only one of those films about juvenile delinquency we saw a lot of in the 1950s.

The film starts on a controversial note, with a voice-over that was added by United Artists after they purchased the film for $150,000 - on the lookout for teenage exploitation fare. It gives the film a feel of "one of those" educational films instead of the professional, "real film" feel it would have otherwise had. It is a shame, because the film starts off in a manner that's very modern - it has a prologue, and then credits running over the teens driving in the busy streets. It all looks really nice - but that voice-over doesn't belong. It talks about "violence and immorality" and "spiritual values" telling us that this film is a cry from the delinquents to us all, about their attempt to find a place for themselves in this busy world. Of course, Altman was furious about this bit of tampering. It doesn't really amount to much now though, for those who have the ability to do a bit of research and find out that this voice-over wasn't meant to be there.

The acting isn't bad - certainly not as bad as you'd be expecting to see in a cheap teenage exploitation feature. Altman often found himself experimenting with what would be his signature style - telling the teens in the party scene to just go and party as if they were at the greatest party they'd ever been to in their lives. He'd then go through the house, room to room, and not tell the cast if he were recording them or not - trying to capture them as naturally as was possible. It's nice to see a little more of the filmmaker that would be in such an early film as this. Most, if not all, of the interiors were filmed at real locations inside real houses - and it included a real police station. He also used real police officers in the film, a method later favoured by the likes of Alexander Payne and others. He'd written the screenplay in a matter of days, and filmed all of the material he needed inside of three weeks. It all gels well together, and it appears that everyone working towards the end goal were really genuine.

In spite of all of that, this isn't exactly The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption. It's not Nashville or M*A*S*H either. It can be gripping at times, especially as our sympathies are with Scotty White and his girlfriend - the cast perform well enough to pull us in, and the story is tight and easy to follow. There's just not much here beyond an 'episode' - a story you'd be much more likely to see on television. The stakes are personal, and the message plain and simple. The Delinquents is no artistic statement, and the only inspiration to be gleaned comes from the can-do attitude of the filmmaking itself, which isn't immediately apparent but has to be researched. I don't think many people will come across The Delinquents without looking for it, knowing that this was only notable for being Robert Altman's first feature, along with Tom Laughlin's. It wasn't a miserable experience either - and it doesn't fall into that collection of films known as "Teenage Exploitation" that are nearly all terrible, some bad enough to be good. It's rises above itself and becomes uniquely average. Robert Altman wouldn't be back to features for another decade - and woudn't become a great for quite some time yet.




Victim of The Night
[center]

The Player - 1992

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Michael Tolkin (based on his novel)

Starring Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward
Whoopi Goldberg & Peter Gallagher

I haven't seen nearly enough Robert Altman films - but what I have seen I have a deep appreciation for, especially McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us and Brewster McCloud. I'll add The Player to that list, for there are many different ways to enjoy watching this again - from admiring it from a technical and filmmaking standpoint, noticing new little details and cameos in the background and just watching to enjoy the story. Altman hasn't created something here that's mean-spirited or depressing, instead he lets us be seduced by what is ever so seductive about Hollywood - giving us glimpses inside and showing us why we should all admit to ourselves that the machine cranking out soulless films for mass consumption are part of an obsessive quest to give "the audience" exactly what they want. At one stage Larry Levy ponders leaving the screenwriter out of the process altogether. It's a democratic process, and we vote with our money. If we want Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis with a happy ending then why even bother making an artistic statement? It makes so much sense that a producer kills a writer in this film, before getting his happy ending - something even studio executives watching the film must have got.



* A producer watching dailies thought that Altman and co had made Bicycle Thieves as a 'film within a film' - having never heard of it.
The Player has been a personal favorite of mine since its release. Me and a few friends were really into it and used to watch it all the time. A really smart film, IMO.



I forgot the opening line.
NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO - (1964)


I don't want to waste much time with this, but this 1964 television movie is something we have from Robert Altman that's half way between the television work he started doing with Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957, and his arrival on the big screen with Countdown in 1967 and the much more critically praised That Cold Day in the Park in 1969, which really put a stamp and signpost on his career as a major motion picture director.


JOHN WILLIAMS
This movie is significant in a number of ways, one of which is who it uses as the composer of it's music - "Johnny Williams" is in fact the John Williams we've come to know and love. He was working on the Kraft Suspense Theatre show, from which this movie has been expanded from. Altman produced and directed this, which comes from the episode "Once Upon a Savage Night". It's about a serial killer on the run one night in Chicago, with the police in hot pursuit. On the same night, a convoy carrying a missile is causing a headache for the city, and the two events become entwined.

INSIDE THE MIND OF A KILLER
I really enjoyed the first 25 minutes, and thought it might have really been worth the effort to watch, but once we leave the bright confines of strip joints and offices and get onto the highway, the darkness and lack of clarity combine to make everything too confusing to make out. Altman really gives us a point of view from the killer's perspective, with his aversion to bright light, and insanity, portrayed in a variety of interesting ways. Echoes, voices, dizzying spinning, bright lights and other camera tricks lead us down the rabbit hole. Charles McGraw, Ted Knight and Philip Abbott lead the cast.

THE BIRTH OF THE TV-MOVIE
This movie also has the distinction of being one of the very first made-for-television movies that would go on to blight the landscape of moviedom - to the point where virtually nobody really looks upon them as "real" films. They're basically the audio-visual version of pulp, and cycle through a variety of constantly repeated storylines. This one feels different, but obviously lacks a film-level budget, and was further degraded by only being available as something recorded on video and uploaded to YouTube.

Based on the novel "Death on the Turnpike" by William P. McGivern, Nightmare in Chicago is a pit-stop on Altman's way to being the full package as far as filmmaking goes, and something I found really interesting and, for the most part, fun to watch in an analytical and nostalgic kind of way. It's obvious that the re-edit from episode-size to movie-size has just included a lot of pointless padding (people just standing around chatting, or doing nothing) but that's the kind of thing I was looking for, trying to puzzle how and why this was expanded into a movie. I doubt Altman himself, if he were still around, would like the fact that people can watch it today.





I forgot the opening line.


Countdown - 1967

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Loring Mandel
Based on a novel by Hank Searls

Starring James Caan, Robert Duvall & Joanna Moore

This review contains spoilers

1967 film Countdown is an interesting, almost forgotten film which marked another signpost on Robert Altman's way to 1970 and M*A*S*H - it was Altman's first proper feature since The Delinquents in 1957, but this was much more weighty - A William Conrad Production at Warner Brothers which saw him progress from his work on television to a proper budgeted studio film. It aimed at cashing in on the fervent interest in space exploration at the time, with the United States aiming to land people on the moon before the end of the decade. The experience must have shaken the young director, for before the film had made it's way through post-production Altman was fired and barred from entering the studio. The film was edited by somebody else, and was critically panned on release - soon being forgotten by most.

The film is based on the 1964 novel "The Pilgrim Project" by Hank Searls. A few years before the Apollo program has progressed far enough to land a man on the moon, the world is shocked to discover the Soviets have nearly got there - they've managed to get a manned flight into orbit around Earth's celestial neighbour. Obviously, if the United States doesn't act immediately their rival will beat them, but there exists a contingency plan for just this situation. Operation Pilgrim involves launching a one-manned Gemini spacecraft on a one-way journey - there, the landing astronaut will have to find a pre-launched and landed shelter to keep him alive for up to a year - when an Apollo craft will come and retrieve him. Charles "Chiz" Stewart (Robert Duvall) has trained for this, but the American government insist on sending a civilian instead of a military man, and as such Lee Stegler (James Caan) - a man who lacks Stewart's unflappable manner - must quickly train and familiarize himself with the mission. Stegler's wife Mickey (Joanna Moore) worries, as the mission encounters difficulties and Stegler must make life of death decisions on his perilous journey.

This production was given a huge boost when NASA agreed to cooperate and let Altman's crew film on location at places including their facilities at Cocoa Beach, Florida. It gives the film tremendous credibility, because everything we see looks perfectly real - and this feeling of authenticity continues throughout. The opening credits, which pan across launching facilities where a Saturn V rocket is poised for takeoff look gorgeous, and would be great to see on the big screen. That reality crosses over into parts of the screenplay as well, which is detailed and contains a lot of real and probable training methods and technical jargon. It was based on Searls' novel, and adapted by screenwriter Loring Mandel, who (interestingly) along with Altman, mainly worked in television at the time this was made. Mandel became an Emmy winner in 1968, for his writing on CBS Playhouse, and would go on to win another in 2001 for the television movie Conspiracy - something that is recommended viewing.

The film's score is from 2-time Oscar winner Leonard Rosenman (Barry Lyndon and Bound for Glory - nominated for Cross Creek and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) - his Oscar winning days were still a decade away, and the music in Countdown is so typical of what you'd get in a sci-fi thriller that you could possibly use it for a parody (Airplane! for example) - it's hackneyed, trite and does absolutely nothing for me. I would very much prefer some kind of musical accompaniment that isn't bombarding me with - DRAMA! - SUSPENSE! - SHOCK! I've never liked scores that overdo this kind of thing, and although this kind of accentuated noise fits in well with the credits and a moment or two, it's very much overused. The cinematography was handled by William W. Spencer, again a television specialist like Mangel and Altman at the time. The film looks really nice at times, even with it's lack of effects. Spencer had won a Best Cinematography Emmy for the TV series 12 O'Clock High and would go on to win one for an episode of Fame. It's something to ponder - the reason why so many television specialists were brought on board for a film like this.

Robert Altman was a man for experimenting, pushing boundaries and making films that were different - so he was always apt to find himself in trouble with studios, and this is what happened here. When characters argue in this film, their dialogue often overlaps, just like it does in real life. Altman did this very much on purpose, and the results work just fine - at least, the results we get to see do. Unfortunately, Jack Warner happened to look in one day and see one of the scenes which had overlapping dialogue - and he took it for incompetence rather than experimentation. Altman wasn't only taken away from his own film as far as editing goes - he was locked out of the studio altogether, and had to pick up a box of his personal effects at the gate. The editing was done by Gene Milford (who had won Oscars for his editing on Lost Horizon and On the Waterfront) with no input from Altman. I don't know how much this altered the film in the end - it is a little lifeless, despite it's feeling of authenticity. I do know that a lot can change depending on how films are cut, and so we never really got to see Altman's ultimate vision here, despite this being his film.

Another result of the studio's interference here is a very familiar story. Countdown is a film that has a heavy sense of doom hanging in the air - the rushed mission and the wrong choice of astronaut all combine to make this seem like a cautionary tale. Stegler is a frustrating character, and during his mission he's always on the verge of panic - which at times can get tiring and exasperating. He seems destined to mess this mission up, and when close to landing he tells mission control that he sees the habitat marker when really he can't. He should abort. So when we get to his ultimate fate, there are three ways the film could go. Either he finds the shelter and is saved, he runs out of oxygen and dies, or else the ending is left ambiguous. The ultimate plan, according to Altman himself, was to leave his fate as an ambiguous uncertainty - he probably didn't make it - but we don't find out. "I left it ambiguous--the guy was probably going to die on the moon...He goes off in one direction, and the camera pans back and reveals the beacon is in the opposite direction. That was how I ended it." The studio, of course, couldn't resist shooting and inserting a happy ending. It ruins the film's end, because it feels incongruous to everything we've seen to that point.

Overall, Countdown is a difficult film to judge - but I appreciate the dedication everyone had to make this as realistic as possible. We also get some sense of the personal drama, with the astronaut's wives (Barbara Baxley plays Jean, Stewart's wife) giving us the familiar stress that they were always under - their husband's lives on the line. Also adding something to the much-needed drama is the personal conflict between Duvall and Caan, one chosen over the other for being the first man on the moon, despite one of them being more trained and ready than the other. It simmers at the edges, and breaks out here and there over other things by proxy. Arguments between bureaucrats, who make up most of the rest of the characters in the film, might not be some people's idea of an action-packed film however. When we do get to the action - it's a little anticlimactic. There's a lack of effects showing what's really happening, and what the audience gets are descriptions of what's happening from Caan strapped to his spacecraft seat and Duvall in mission control. The film is a mix of stress, anxiety and anger - seemingly headed towards disaster in a rushed attempt to beat the Russians to a lunar landing.

Not many people like Countdown - it was critically panned on release, and the same holds for today. Only once did I read a positive review, and that came from Leonard Maltin's book of reviews where it gets 3˝ out of 4, praising the "excellent ensemble performances" and calling it an "early gem from Altman". I feel good about that, because I find myself really rooting for this film's success - but judging for myself, I can't help but feel this is a very average film on balance. There are some things I really like about it - it's realism, location cinematography, cautionary story - and things I really dislike - it's lack of special effects, it's score, it's lack of really strong drama and eventfulness. I'd suggest watching it to other people interested in this era of space travel, and NASA's history. It's interesting enough in that respect to be recommended viewing. Everyone else could very much get by without watching it. It's a little dry and technical, and stays true to reality in places where a little artistic license could have helped the film's pace and drama. I love that authentic stuff, but I feel most people will be turned off by it.

We have to be very thankful that Countdown didn't permanently kill Altman's feature film career. He did go back to television for a short time, but was soon after making another film, and after that came his breakout hit M*A*S*H. In any case - this was more a case of Altman being a director for hire, directing somebody else's movie instead of his own. Despite it not being a great film, it did show enough promise to prove that he had great skill as a director - an experimental filmmaker who wasn't afraid of making risky choices. This movie is only a nudge away from being really good - if only we had that ambiguous ending that fit the rest of the film, with a few special effects inserts and a better edit from the director. He might have even wanted a few reshoots, because we're close with the one we got. That's not the film I watched however, and as such it falls just short of really being something. I love watching Duvall and Caan this early in their careers, and it's fascinating following Altman on his unusual and long apprenticeship. Here's another movie Warner Brothers sabotaged - shooting themselves in the foot for the umpteenth time and wrecking a film that could have been great. This film still might not have found an audience, at least right away, but as it is, it falls just short of the moon.




I love Robert Altman and I specially love The Player and Nashville so its great to read you write so affectionately about them.

The Player is definitely a very smart film and one I need to revisit. It stayed with me a long time after I first watched it and it's partly inspired me to knock up my own film screenplay set in the dark, murderous word of Hollywood. Hopefully one day it will see the light of day

The way you describe Nashville is spot on too in terms of how it attempts to encapsulate (and question?) American culture. A really beautiful, mystery, engrossing film.

This thread is a reminder that I still have many of his film's to get round too. I've seen most of his major works and nice to see Brewster McCloud get a mention, not surprising with Harold and Maude on your favourites list.
__________________



I forgot the opening line.
Worth including here, for it's whimsical and flippant nature that helps to illustrate the way Altman was changing as a filmmaker is Pot au feu, a play on words and a short film about smoking weed, which preceded the filmmaker's first really good film.

Pot au feu - (1967)




I forgot the opening line.


That Cold Day in the Park - 1969

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Gillian Freeman
Based on a novel by Richard Miles

Starring Sandy Dennis & Michael Burns

I find that I wrap myself in knots trying to explain why I like That Cold Day in the Park a great deal, so the solution to that might be simplicity. The factual before the analytical - and then it might become apparent. This film could be considered Robert Altman's first real feature debut, but the funny thing about Altman is that this can be said for 5 of his films. The James Dean Story was literally the first, but it was co-directed and a documentary. The Delinquents was his first solo effort, but that was a low-budget project for hire. Countdown was his first big studio effort - but it wasn't really his film, and he was removed from it before it was even edited. This film actually feels like a Robert Altman movie - one you'd come to expect from him, so it probably deserves the title of "first" more than the others. (I add M*A*S*H to the group of 'firsts' because it was his big breakout hit - the film that finally announced his arrival as a filmmaker of note.) This is a forgotten little gem - one that was absolutely trashed by the critics when it was released, and even though I've read some of the reviews I still don't understand why.

This is essentially a play-like film (the way it's shot, and the way the sets are designed, reminds me a lot of the BBC's Play For Today - and episodes like Brimstone and Treacle which was filmed in 1976, but not aired until 1987 due to certain unsavoury aspects to it) - the plot concerns itself with two main characters. Sandy Dennis plays Frances Austen, a 32-year-old spinster who strangely regards the elderly as her peers, hosting dinner parties and joining them in games of lawn bowls. Frances is a virgin, introverted, naďve, uptight and old fashioned. She has a streak of innocence about her, and her general psychiatric condition means she's completely out of touch with her sexuality. Michael Burns plays "The Boy" - someone Frances spies on a park bench one day, and feels empathy and a little longing for. When it rains, she invites him in to dry his clothes and have a bath - the sexual tension in the air is almost immediate, but she never acts on it, and the boy stays mute through the entire encounter. From this moment on, Frances assumes that he is mute - but he's not really. Invited to stay the night, he's locked in one of her bedrooms, but eventually escapes through the window to go visit his family - paying especial attention to his sister.

Frances treats The Boy like an animal she's caught, a pet to be played with - and his continued presence awakens something sexual inside of her. The boy however, is too well acquainted with sex for it to be anything other than a simple pleasure to him. The difference between them, and the hidden dangers - unpredictable and possibly disastrous - is what the film explores. The sexual revolution was at it's peak in 1969, but not every single person on the planet had been sexually liberated. For Frances, inhibitions and a lack of progression has turned the act into something psychologically dangerous - and it seems that surrounding herself with the elderly has kept this at bay for a long time. She rebuffs one man from her group, who is unattractive and old enough to be her father, but she hints at a sexual awakening by nervously seeing her Gynaecologist, in what feels like one more step in a drawn out ceremony that differs greatly from the more liberated. The Boy, meanwhile, is at one stage propositioned by his own sister, although we never learn whether this incestuous invitation is taken up. The very hint of it completes more of the picture - he treats sex as a very ordinary thing, and for Frances it has almost religious importance. Her expectations are building. In the shadows, cataclysm lurks.

Altman had the good fortune to be able to work with a noted cinematographer behind the camera - László Kovács, who had just been director of photography on Easy Rider, and would go on to work on great films such as Five Easy Pieces (an aside - Jack Nicholson wanted, but failed to get the part of the boy in this - he was considered too old), Paper Moon, Ghostbusters and Shampoo. For the first time in his own films, the cinematography has a feeling about it that's very Robert Altman-like with a lot of interesting slow Altmanesque zooms and experimentation. We look through windows, as if trying to capture Frances unawares, and often the camera finds itself looking through something. The camera peeks and crawls and there's a wonderful sense of unbounded voyeuristic liberation, and no set rules or static convention. Sometimes we see by way of reflection, and sometimes our view is obscured. It's very different from what we got in Altman's Countdown and seems to signify the first time he had experienced enough freedom to influence the visual style of a story - making as much drama from the camera, as if the camera was one of the performers in the film. I found this aspect of the film extremely enjoyable.

The score is very light and easy on the ears - a lot of the instrumentation you hear coming from only a few sources. A piano here, strings there - slow and very easy. The absolute opposite of the overpowering crescendos you hear in films like Countdown, and one that obviously fits this film very neatly and is very interestingly inventive and fun to listen to. One moment you're listening to a flute, and the next guitar strings are being lightly strummed as a piano might quietly sneak in and take over. I loved the crazy way it leaned when we get to the film's more crazy moments. Responsible for all this is Oscar winner Johnny Mandel (Best Original Song, "The Shadow of Your Smile", which is heard in the 1966 film The Sandpiper. He was also nominated for the song "A Time for Love" in An American Dream the year after.) All of these elements contributed by talented artists fit very neatly together and add up to a much more enjoyable cinematic experience for those who enjoy Robert Altman films - you look through a window, or past something obscuring your attempted voyeurism while an uneasy keyboard disturbs your usual sense of ease - only to be suddenly confronted with silence and your thoughts.

Editing the film was Danford B. Greene, who would find himself nominated for an Oscar the year after this for his work on Altman's M*A*S*H - this as well is more accomplished than it was in Countdown. Art director Leon Ericksen would go on to work on other Altman films and eventually Star Wars. Overall a great crew, and they put together a fine film I enjoyed - I talked to a friend who's an Altman fan to tell him how much I enjoyed That Cold Day in the Park and he was very glad to hear that I felt the same way he did. So why was this film shouted down and given such poor treatment from the critics? Ebert called it a "torturous essay on abnormal psychology" and said Altman should have made this a horror movie. Maltin (who praised Countdown) called it "bizarre and unmoving". Perhaps it was too unusual for people in 1969, who really wouldn't have known what to expect from Robert Altman. Perhaps some critics were made too uncomfortable, thinking that they weren't meant to be feeling that way. Perhaps the film's pace was too slow for what were the norms at the time.

There's the possibility that this film is just something that happened to fall into a specific zone of mine, with all the elements combining to make this a film that suits my own tastes. I'd just seen Sandy Dennis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? An Oscar winning performance in that really geared me to look at her in an admiring fashion - but I still think her performance in this holds up just as well, and that she should have gained more recognition from it than she did. Michael Burns is more of an unknown element for me (in a role Jack Nicholson would have been manifestly wrong for) and I can't say that I've seen him in much. He'd leave the profession altogether and become a scholar in later years. This film is mostly about Frances, so Burns doesn't need to really shine, and he performs his role adequately, without covering himself in glory. When I watch the film most of my attention is stolen by Dennis, and my feeling for her character is one of sadness and empathy. Of course, sadness and empathy only go so far, but to say more would be to ruin the surprises the film has in store.

Altman would follow That Cold Day in the Park with a series of films that have become classics - some of the greatest films of all time. I knew that this would be far better than the films he served his 'apprenticeship' on, but I wasn't expecting something this good - a film worthy in my eyes of being included in that group of films. Although this is generally well regarded, I think I'm still fighting against the grain in praising it as much as I am, but the movie strikes me as something of a buried classic and a future favourite. I never would have come near it if I hadn't have been exploring the early career of this filmmaker, for I'd never heard of it before - probably thanks to the critical reception it got when released. I again have to wonder at how demoralized Robert Altman was by this stage of his career. His career read like a series of disasters with no respite, and when he finally made a really good film the critics dismissed it and it sunk without a trace. I'm surprised he still had enough enthusiasm to make M*A*S*H. This went on to be considered the first of three films Altman would make about female psychosis - the next two being 3 Women and Images.

I had a great deal of fun looking at and watching this film, full of surprises and an excellent end to the prologue of a great artist's catalogue of cinematic works - I hope it's a film that undergoes a critical reevaluation as time goes on, and gains a new audience in the future. The great thing about the modern age is the avenues a film has for rediscovery. But if it just happens to be a connection limited to a few enthusiasts, I have a feeling my thoughts won't diminish over time and I'll never be persuaded otherwise. Sandy Dennis and That Cold Day in the Park completely won me over. For Robert Altman freaks - there's a scene mid-way that takes place at the birth control clinic that marks one of the most familiar styles identifiable to him, with many voices talking over each other in general (but pointed and meaningful) chit-chat. It's the first moment it appeared in his films, but I can't say if it had ever appeared on television. In general, it has his high standard of cinematic artistry and I consider it among his best films - a home run at his 4th, 3rd, 2nd or 1st time at bat, whichever way you look at it.




I forgot the opening line.


MASH - 1970

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Ring Lardner Jr.
Based on a novel by Richard Hooker

Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Sally Kellerman & Robert Duvall

Like many people, I grew up getting to know M*A*S*H as a television show that regularly haunted weekday evenings with a never ending series of reruns, specials and spin-offs. Nobody ever stopped to inform me that it had originally started life as a novel, which was adapted to the big screen, marking Robert Altman's breakthrough in feature films - lastly transmogrifying into the series I was so used to. Even the fact that my parents saw it on the big screen when they were courting was never assumed to be information worthy of passing on to me. It's a film that I had to slowly work my way into, because Alan Alda and company really clouded my ability to just take it on as a lone entity - I happened not to be a huge fan of that show, which unfortunately gave me preconceptions I took into the film. Robert Altman's attempt to make films that weren't mutated into soulless commercial product, and turn MASH into a scolding yet funny antiwar feature which highlighted the madness and crass obscenity of war, wasn't initially as clear as it should have been.

The film begins by introducing us to Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce Jr. (Donald Sutherland) as he arrives to take on duty at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. He immediately meets Capt. Augustus Bedford "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and steals a jeep to take him to where they'll be operating on young war casualties. The two come across a taciturn, misanthropic fellow-surgeon Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) whose focus on being religiously pious seems to be hypocritical in view of some of his behaviour - so when Major Margaret Houlihan arrives as Head Nurse and the two become intimately acquainted both Hawkeye and Duke make sure they push Burns to the point where he breaks - and is carted away in a straight-jacket. In the meantime Capt. John Francis Xavier "Trapper John" McIntyre (Elliott Gould) arrives, and the three doctors play pranks and are involved in escapades that mostly go to show the lengths these surgeons take to alleviate the horrors of the situations they face in their operating tent. The film follows them and strides forth in an episodic nature, with the emphasis on humour and light-hearted rebellion against authority.

By the time he was offered the chance to direct MASH, Robert Altman had been in the business for a considerable amount of time, had spent 10 years doing television work and had directed 4 features - he was the ultimate experienced novice, and was well aware of what studios could do after his experiences directing Countdown. Many more experienced directors had already been offered the screenplay, and rejected it - but the spirit of anarchy it represented must have made the film very attractive to such a maverick. Producer Ingo Preminger met with the renegade director, and Altman, for his part, showed him the short film he'd made some time earlier in '67 - Pot au feu which amused and encouraged Preminger enough to give the job to him. From that moment on, Altman carefully set out to attract as little attention as he could so that he could have the freedom to do the film his way (bringing the film in under-budget and on time) - in a manner that was fairly revolutionary in those days. Ad-libbing from the cast was encouraged, and actors could speak over each other's lines with creative freedom - the camera itself having a likewise freedom to catch incidental moments. Stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland thought Altman was mad, and at many stages tried to get him fired - fearing the resulting film would ruin their reputation.

The emergent film plays a little rough today, for although much of the misogyny and racism had been scaled back from the novel, it still chafes a little to watch what these doctors do. Altman defends this by saying he intentionally had his characters do these bad things so what they did could be compared to the carnage going on during a war - explicitly demonstrating just how obscene and awful war really is. Worse than any kind of sexism, racism or crude behaviour you can imagine. The film's only black character is called "spearchucker" and the women in the film are treated purely as sexual objects, their work as nurses receding into the background. In a situation like that, it's more difficult to lighten my mood to the point where I'd laugh at their antics - but at the same time I still appreciate the illumination all of this does. The naturalism of the actors also helps the film a great deal, and instantly date any other film (war film or otherwise) from the year MASH was released - while MASH itself doesn't seem dated at all. Like Apocalypse Now would at the end of the decade, this film was a direct illustration of the insanity of war - something Altman came to realise more and more as the production continued.

Screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. initially felt burned by Altman's process and what that had done to his screenplay. Most of the dialogue from it had been completely transformed - to the point where he complained that "not one word" he'd written had managed to make it to the screen. Compounding this was the irony of him winning an Oscar for his screenplay for MASH. Over the years people (including a conciliatory Lardner Jr. himself) have argued that the basic structure and story remained very much intact, and that some dialogue had indeed made it into the finished product. At first glance it might seem like an undeserved Oscar win, but on closer examination it seems less so. The film also managed to garner an Oscar nomination for Robert Altman himself - a dizzying achievement when you consider just how abused and mistreated he'd been by studios and critics for his work (his previous film, That Cold Day in the Park deserved far more recognition.) The film's box office success, coupled with those nominations assured that MASH would be nominated for Best Picture at the 1971 Academy Awards - but it ended up losing to another war film 20th Century Fox had made, Patton, and Altman likewise lost to Franklin J. Schaffner who directed that film.

Altman dragged cinematographer Harold E. Stine along with him to be cinematographer on this film - he knew him from his days directing television, and The D.P. was up to speed with Altman's fast-paced style. Stine would need to keep up with that pace and almost had to be as improvisational as the actors were. Those praising the inventiveness of many of the shots wouldn't have been fully aware just how improvised many of them were. Visually, the muddy brown and verdant greens dominate the film to the extent that when Hawkeye and Trapper John put on golfing clothes the burst of colour is shocking and incongruent to the entire film. Of course, the surgical scenes have their fair share of many different toned reds - and were lucky to escape the cutting room floor. Stine would soon be nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Poseidon Adventure, but missed out here. It's a good-looking film, and I'd say the cinematography is a definite success. More egg on the face of 20th Century Fox who at first demanded that Harold E. Stine not be used on the film - but Altman was adamant, because he knew Stine was a director of photography who would do what he wanted.

Scoring the film was Johnny Mandel, who had worked on Altman's previous film That Cold Day in the Park. It's Mandel who composed the tune of the now famous "Suicide is Painless", with Altman's son Mike Altman who was only a teenager at the time (around 13 or 14) - the director only wanted some cheap, improvised lyrics and everywhere he turned he got greater lyrics than he really wanted for this seemingly invented song. The most interesting result from this is that Robert Altman's young son ended up earning millions of dollars from the royalties from that song while the director himself only ever earned $75 grand for directing the film. Mandel also found various Japanese songs to use during radio and loudspeaker moments (usually better than the "bad ones" Altman was really looking for.) These musical interludes, including sung songs and various other tunes make up the eclectic sound of the film - giving a kind of army-regulated radio feel to everything that happens. Mandel had been an Oscar winner for the song "The Shadow of Your Smile" in 1966 but overlooked for a nomination when it came to "Suicide is Painless" - which is strange considering just how big the song became.

Forbidden Planet's art director, Arthur Lonergan, was officially an art director for MASH, but Robert Altman recalls that Leon Eriksen was the man responsible for the art direction in this film. Eriksen was non-union, and so in the credits he's an "associate producer" - thus escaping any of the official ramifications he would have had being officially credited for the job he did. If you check out his credits on the IMDb, you'll see he's always an art director or production designer except for this one "associate producer" credit. It's another crew member Altman carried over from That Cold Day in the Park and an innovator over how dirty he made the costumes and set decoration look - not to mention the ways he coloured and created blood for the operating scenes. This immediately made MASH look better and much more realistic than other 20th Century Fox war films being produced at the same time like Patton (which, ironically won the Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - go figure) and Tora! Tora! Tora! Perhaps the Academy had the last laugh there, for Eriksen couldn't be nominated at all due to his union predicament. He did a great job on MASH though.

Sally Kellerman is great in the film, and although it's very much an ensemble movie she was the lone Oscar nominee acting-wise, beaten by the elderly Helen Hayes for her comedic moments as the old biddy Ada in Airport for Best Supporting Actress, but neither should have won. The award should have gone to Karen Black for her amazing performance in Five Easy Pieces. Editor Danford B. Greene did a marvelous job as well, and received a deserved Oscar nomination. He was beaten by Hugh S. Fowler and his fancied work on the favoured film at Oscar time, Patton. In any case, you have to take into account the fact that Altman was along for the ride in the editing suite, and had significant say over the direction it took - not that 20th Century Fox would have been very pleased about that. The studio kept on insisting on changes that would have dampened the film's impact and made it just your average run-of-the-mill comedy. They wanted the bloody operating theatre scenes gone, bad language out, and various other cuts and adjustments. The pace of the film and cuts from the action just as something funny has occurred are part of it's grace - and editing should not be subject to the demands of non-artists or non-professionals.

That Cold Day in the Park was a great film - but MASH was the first film that Robert Altman practiced and experimented with, creating a new style - one that would come to be associated with his films. If you watch the movie closely, you'll notice that there is as much going on in the background as there is in the foreground - and that if you alter your perspective you notice actions that you completely missed the first few times you watch the film. Altman also created an 8-track system for audio, then a 16 track system, because he wanted to record more than the principals. The feel the film gets is something approaching real life - where people rarely stand still and stay quiet while other people command an imaginary audience. Altman had been locked out of the studio in the past for even daring to attempt a scene where two people talk over each other, but in MASH he doggedly tried this again, and it became something of a signature. Not only did it come off, but he had the last laugh when MASH became the third-highest grossing film of the year and a critical success on top of that. The film won the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes, won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical - with Robert Altman himself winning a Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award. He'd arrived, and would finally have enough clout to make films he wanted, the way he wanted.

I really like and admire this film, and find parts of it really funny - though perhaps not as funny as other people find it. I like it more for it's style, thematic meaning and merit than the comedy. I do appreciate the "hot lips" moment, and the way the characters find a way to survive - fair enough that their way is through disobedience, pranks, jokes and crass rejection of anything that denotes an "army" way of doing things. You can sense that they're acting this way in response to the senseless horrors they're subjected to. Obviously they're surgeons, and would see injury every day - but for people to be ordered to be doing this to each other, only for them to try and put things right by operating on them - this must really grind away at a person's sense of the military machine they're a part of. So they find outlets in casual sex and poking fun at everything you or I might find sacred. I don't laugh along all that much, but that doesn't mean I'm not on their side, or don't understand why they're doing what they're doing. When they're part of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, their work must feel like trying to fix horrible damage that their own leaders are senselessly creating for them. If they weren't the way they are - then they'd lose their minds. This is perhaps why the simpler pure comedy of the television series irked Altman, especially when it became much more famous than his film.

I love MASH most for what it did - the way it elevated so many actors who didn't have a career yet - with Altman surreptitiously hiring them, because studios would never take such a chance. One of these young people is Bud Cort - who would go on to be the lead in Altman's next film, Brewster McCloud, and find fame in Harold and Maude. I love the way it opted for realism over "more of the same" from major studios, and it's sheer irreverence. I love the way it kick-started the careers of Donald Sutherland (struggling to build a career on his great role in Kelly's Heroes), Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt and Sally Kellerman. I love this film for setting Robert Altman free and allowing him to make films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye and Nashville over the ensuing decade, along with other noteworthy and immensely enjoyable gems. It was 1970 and Altman had a period of sustained excellence ahead of him - outrageously great creations that only grow in stature over time. That all started with MASH (it really started with That Cold Day in the Park) and recognition that this "crazy" and rebellious filmmaker had served his nearly two decade apprenticeship and was ready to create works of art - his first a cream pie in the face of authority and rules-based order.




I forgot the opening line.

Tom Laughlin mixes with Peter Miller, Richard Bakalyan and co in The Delinquents (1957)


James Caan is ready to go to the moon, in Countdown (1967)


Something wicked lurks in the heart of Sandy Dennis, in That Cold Day in the Park (1969)


Fun and games fit the playful idea of life in The Boy (Michael Burns) in That Cold Day in the Park (1969)


Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt and Donald Sutherland confer in MASH (1970)


Robert Altman surveys the scene during the filming of MASH (1970)



I forgot the opening line.


Brewster Mccloud - 1970

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Doran William Cannon

Starring Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Shelley Duvall
Michael Murphy & René Auberjonois

Robert Altman followed up his smash-hit MASH with a film of incredible invention, imagination and eccentric panache. That it was a film with no real popular mainstream credentials goes to credit his bravery, and his one-minded determination to make films that were artistically satisfying to himself - over and above their ability to make money. Brewster McCloud is a film that's both easy and very hard to explain, because it messes so playfully with feature film conventions that it almost splinters and breaks apart as you're watching it. MGM's Leo the Lion doesn't roar - and instead we hear Rene Auberjonois (who played Father John Mulcahy in MASH) state "I forgot the opening line," and the film continues on this shambolic course when Margaret Hamilton (who once played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz) interrupts herself singing the American national anthem to criticize the band backing her - sending us back to watch the start of the opening credits again. It's that kind of film - one which eventually find's a focus on birds - and specifically on one boy who is building a contraption that will enable him to fly like them.

Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) lives in a room inside the bowels of the Houston Astrodome, a domed sports stadium built in 1965, nominally for the Houston Astros baseball team and the Houston Oilers NFL side. As we see him plan and construct his flying machine, we are also treated to a lecture by an unnamed man (played by Rene Auberjonois) about birds, and man's relation to them - with his words often conveying a certain meaning for a scene that we're watching. McCloud is assisted and protected by Louise (Sally Kellerman) who appears to have scars where she once had wings - appearing angelic, and behaving in a chaste manner, despite her occasional nudity. Whenever the two come up against a problematic person, that person usually ends up dead - strangled and covered in bird droppings. The string of dead bodies they have left behind ignites a furious investigation by the authorities, who have "Shaft" (Michael Murphy) - a "San Francisco super cop" - brought in to investigate. McCloud's only other pressing problem is the lure of earthly pleasures in the form of the seductive Suzanne (Shelley Duvall) - who is more tempting than his otherwise helpful girl Hope (Jennifer Salt).

Much of the early part of the film is devoted to seeing some disagreeable characters earn their comeuppance in satisfyingly interesting ways - and these scenes are often more devoted to our intellectual enjoyment than narrative coherence or sense. Margaret Hamilton, who harangues her all-negro band to the point where they burst into a beautiful rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing (Black National Hymn)" in protest, ends up cursing the black birds around her aviary as 'n-word' birds and getting crushed when it collapses on her. She's wearing red ruby slippers of course, and we hear a moment of "Over the Rainbow" in the score. Stacy Keach plays an ancient, greedy landlord - Abraham Wright - in such an over-the-top manner that he becomes a whimsical novelty at once - one who ends up flying down a freeway in his wheelchair to his doom when his limo driver - Brewster - loses patience with him. Interesting editing choices, unusual pace and strangeness - it's incredible that any of it fits together, but the parts compliment each other, and so it makes perfect sense when we fly in into the clouds, free from any expectation that we would be before it happens. The film lives in the 'now' to such an extent it becomes almost impossible to describe it's structure - and if it has one, it's one that changes and evolves as the film goes on anyway.

Altman stuck to his MASH formula in one regard - he took Doran William Cannon's screenplay and threw it in the trash - instead guiding his actors through the film, and giving them the freedom to create their own dialogue as they saw fit. He didn't believe that filming exactly what was on paper would make for a very good film. He also started on his journey of collecting a troupe of players who would generally journey with him from film to film, with some either being added or dropping out. In Brewster McCloud we have 7 actors who had major roles in MASH - Bud Cort as Brewster (who was Pvt. Boone), Sally Kellerman as Louise (Maj. Margaret 'Hot Lips' O'Houlihan), Michael Murphy as Shaft ('Me Lay' Marston, and also as 'The Rounder' in That Cold Day in the Park), Rene Auberjonois as The Lecturer (Father John Mulcahy), John Schuck as Johnson (Capt. 'Painless' Waldowski), Corey Fischer as Hines (Capt. Bandini) and G. Wood as Crandall (Brig. Gen. Hammond). He used the power being the director of such a hit gave him, and used it to make a film he wanted to make with less interference that would usually come his way while shooting and putting his film together. As such, this feels like the first truly Altman-esque film ever released.

The film had two cinematographers - Altman apparently replaced director of photography Jordan Cronenweth (responsible for such films as Blade Runner, a significant film for him, and Cutter's Way later in his career) with the slightly more experienced Lamar Boren, who had done technical work on the Sean Connery James Bond films previously. I find that the cinematography isn't as revolutionary as the editing by Lou Lombardo - a change for Altman who had Danford B. Greene help edit his previous two films. Lombardo would go on to became an Altman regular - and here he's always cutting to and from moments you'd never expect him to. Even the sound seems to be working at odds with it, and very deliberately. The last thing Altman wants is for us to be comfortable with this film, and it makes for a piece of cinema that always has discoveries in store for me every time I watch it. This disorientation that Altman helps to foster is the subject of many an analysis and review of Brewster McCloud - Billy Stevenson goes into it in depth in Cinematelevisionmusic, and this film marks the beginning of a high-concept artistic partnership between the likes of Altman and Lombardo, along with other post-production collaborators.

Music-wise, Brewster McCloud relies on a soundtrack with stirring and differentiated songs which grow organically from what we're watching and play in the background - driving the emotional resonance of the movie. Robert Altman teamed up with John Phillips (from the Mamas & the Papas) in this regard, and the songs work particularly well in anchoring the loose narrative at times when we need a little certainty from what we're seeing and where we are. These moments are most dramatic and effective with songs like 'I Promise Not To Tell' and 'Last of the Unnatural Acts' towards the film's latter stages. At the same time, offering a counterpoint when we're soaring in the clouds Phillips makes way for Merry Clayton to belt out 'White Feather Wings' which melds beautifully with the idea of flight, and fits the theme in the most perfect way I could imagine (not to mention making the Brewster McCloud soundtrack a necessity for many people who have seen the film.) Peggy Lipton drops in for a few moments to add to the orchestral vibe that's so in tune with the whole film, and as mentioned earlier, a fantastic rendition of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' is performed.

Altman must also have been particularly pleased to have enough clout to rely on art direction from old Preston Ames (a two-time Oscar winner for Gigi and An American in Paris) and George W. Davis (Oscars for The Robe and The Diary of Anne Frank) although in keeping with how Altman was molding the film as a whole, there isn't a lot that's imposed on the film from outside influences. Everything is allowed to grow organically. If you're quick you'll spot little MASH references - but one item of interest that gnaws away at your brain is how much Brewster McCloud looks like Wally/Waldo in Martin Handford's "Where's Wally/Waldo?" books with his red and white striped polo top and big thick rimmed dark glasses. There are times you'd have to swear that this is where the idea germinated as you watch Brewster walk and run through crowds in his attention-grabbing garb - even though by all accounts the similarity is just one of those coincidences. Someone with glasses had to have worn red and white striped tops every so often (perhaps until those books came out, whereupon they'd constantly be pointed at by people telling them they'd found Waldo.) Also memorable for influencing the film's look is the new Houston Astrodome and surrounds, and Shaft's Bullitt garb - down to the blue contact lenses he wears.

Of course, being a comedy there's a lot of humour - but not so much in an attempt to get an audience laughing with joy. Altman's targets at times make for a dark kind of fun, and with racism, police corruption, earthly pleasures, suicide, murder and greed - it's a long way from a comedy you can enjoy with your kids with the whole family on board. There's the wry observations that characters make, and rampant dementia that seems to be affecting all of those unhappily at odds with the world. Shaft's "How tall was he?" dialogue with Abraham Wright's butler is laugh-out-loud funny though, and Rene Auberjonois seems to be aiming for the ridiculously comic with his out-of-control bird obsession - the rest is the undoubted fun you have when you have birds crap on those you hate. Bird droppings are to be expected of course - something that birds have always had over us. I mean, how often do birds get hit with our droppings? With this, Altman can immediately take a corrupt narcotics officer who threatens Brewster and bring him down in stature - both alive and as a murder victim. I'm struck by this film's cleverness, and agree with every detour we unexpectedly go on - but in real life I'd stop short of applauding any serial killer. In Brewster McCloud, the dark comedy is skewed enough that this is more Punch and Judy than Bone Collector.

Also targeted is the cinema Altman founded himself surrounded by in this era - Bullitt the most glaringly obvious, with not only the character of Shaft, but an epic car chase of his own, featuring 4 different cars and varied surprises and twists. Art director Leon Ericksen - with Altman through That Cold Day in the Park and MASH continued his collaboration with him by designing the iconic bird contraption Bud Cort flies in at the film's end. It seems a strangely mainstream idea to have the Astrodome as the film's setting and location - and even stranger was the idea to premiere the film at the Astrodome itself in front of tens of thousands of spectators (apparently this didn't come off so well, with sound problems contributing to the night being a big flop.) Once the film was ready for distribution, MGM had no idea how to market it - and I certainly understand how they must have felt. It's an odd bird. In the end they took all of the 'police investigation' scenes and melded them together, giving them inappropriate representation in the trailer. They then went along the lines of "You saw what Robert Altman did with the army in MASH - now see what he does with the police in Brewster McCloud!" The whole trailer plays like a different film, and is very deceptive and misleading.

So, how do I feel about Brewster McCloud? It's unlike any other film I've ever seen, and also works perfectly in what it's trying to do - and goes further to work in what were probably many unintended ways. I love it. I still discover new meaning, and many smaller things in it all the time, for it's working at so many levels all at once, with action, sound, music and emotion that does the same. Shelley Duvall shines in her cinematic (and indeed acting) debut, and Bud Cort shows that he has enough charisma to lead a feature film, even if he then went on to squander that potential in the years after he appeared in Harold and Maude. I think the film is just as funny as it was intended to be, and was one of the most daring cinematic experiments ever conceived. Altman had only just tasted success, and most people would be hell-bent on following that up with something much along the same lines. He didn't. He used what he had and went for broke in constructing Brewster McCloud - the behaviour of a real maverick who was true to his own sense of what he wanted to become after his many years working for others.

I first came to watch this film after going to the cinema to watch a documentary about Hal Ashby, and after commenting on the odd actor who played Harold in Harold and Maude a friend sat me down and had me watch Brewster McCloud with him. I was immediately delighted with it - a breath of fresh air in an industry that is loathe to experiment on scales like that. Some student might give his ideas a try with some help and a few thousand dollars - but major directors don't usually do it with major releases. There are familiar beats from MASH - in the place of the speakers making announcements as cutaways to break up scenes, Altman has Auberjonois do it with his lecture - but then goes one step further to make the lecturer's dialogue make a thematic and metaphorical statement on the scene his sound is overlapping with - Altman was still making progress on ideas and previous experiments. Brewster McCloud is a cult film now, and not many people are aware of it's existence. The one hope it has is it's place amongst the films of one of the most noted directors of the 21st Century - with many a film fan coming across it when tracing Altman's career. I hope it proves to be a wonderful surprise for those who watch it, just as it was for me.




I forgot the opening line.


McCabe & Mrs. Miller - 1971

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Brian McKay & Robert Altman
Based on the novel "McCabe" by Edmund Naughton

Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, René Auberjonois
& William Devane

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is no ordinary film, and stands as the kind of masterpiece that only comes around once in a while. Robert Altman, who had already shown a certain consistency in the quality of films he made, topped them all to this point while staying true to his non-commercial artistic interests. I first came across the film when reading Danny Peary's "Alternate Oscars", where he'd awarded the 1971 statuette to a film that hadn't even been nominated for Best Picture - this one. In the years since, my appreciation for McCabe & Mrs. Miller has grown every time I've watched it, culminating in a kind of reverence that one has for the special works of art that do something profound to their souls - it's such a beautiful piece of filmmaking that it stands as a kind of testament to the craft itself. Altman himself called it a kind of "anti-Western", but only because it simply defies any attempt to classify it genre-wise. It's a western narrative, but every aspect of the classical western to that point was turned on it's head - and the result was a kind of true representation of it's time, full of honest, bitter-sweet pain.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) shows up in the small settlement of Presbyterian Church with the impression of being a man of some standing. Rumours are he's a deadly gunfighter, and his worldly manner allows him to ingratiate himself with the locals, holding poker games and later bringing prostitutes for a whorehouse and gambling saloon he hopes to build. As Presbyterian Church and his business ventures grow, a Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) shows up, and immediately points out to McCabe the various flaws in the way he's set everything up. It's not long until Miller is in a partnership with McCabe, the madam of his brothel and a high-priced prostitute herself bringing clean and safe practices to the establishment, despite her opium habit. Before long, a couple of businessmen representing powerful interests offer to buy McCabe's holdings - he refuses them twice, hoping to negotiate a good deal, but they leave, insulted and done with negotiating. These people are known to solve problems through murder - and low men are on their way to Presbyterian Church to settle the manner through violence.

It's a simple story, and with McCabe & Mrs. Miller it's mood, character, setting and tension that dominate the film from the first reel. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, working in close conjunction with Robert Altman, creates a very unique and atmospheric tone from the start - primarily by "flashing" (slightly exposing) the film negative before printing, which helps bleed the light and clarity from the picture, making the film look as if it has aged and is coming to us from yesteryear. It was a daring gamble, but gives this film a look that is very much it's own. There is also an overwhelming preponderance of shots that use the zoom feature, something most cinematographers and filmmakers generally avoid, but something Altman often used in an experimental way - sometimes in a very rapid fashion, as if the camera itself has suddenly locked on to something, and sometimes very drawn out, as when we zoom into Mrs. Miller's eye and seemingly her mind. Zsigmond would eventually end up winning an Oscar for being Director of Photography on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and would be nominated a further three times (for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia.) He has created a visually rich and winsomely eccentric visual tapestry for this great film.

For the soundtrack, which is as perfect as this film's visuals, we have Leonard Cohen to thank - and McCabe & Mrs. Miller manages to stretch only three Cohen songs in various ways across the entire film. The lyrical and musical beauty of these tracks are wonderful by themselves, but the way they match the wistful, haunting film is perfect - so much so you'd swear they were written for the film itself - not lyrics-wise but in the emotional tone they set. Altman had been listening to one of Cohen's albums while he was helping edit the film (with Lou Lombardo) and contacted him when he realised the connection. Fortunately, Cohen was already a fan of Brewster McCloud and readily agreed with letting the director use his songs for the film. The songs used were "The Stranger Song", "Sisters of Mercy" and "Winter Lady" - they all came from Cohen's "Songs of Leonard Cohen" album. It was just happenstance, but at the same time feels anything but random that these songs ended up providing the musical background to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The songs are evocative and powerful in the way they create a kind of romantic despair, and a poignant, stirring kind of charm and dreamy enchantment.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were wonderful in their roles, with Christie being nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress (losing to Jane Fonda in Klute.) Along with them were many of the regular Altman troupe. Michael Murphy (from That Cold Day in the Park, M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud), Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck and Corey Fischer (from M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud), Bert Remsen and Shelley Duvall (from Brewster McCloud) and Linda Sorensen (from The Cold Day in the Park). Keith Carradine made his feature debut, was quite solid as a young, inexperienced cowboy, and would feature in many future Altman films. While various carpenters and builders were creating the town of Presbyterian Church, as it slowly grows in the film, they were given period costumes and allowed to work as filming was underway, becoming the various tradesmen you see in the background of the film. Duvall is a real standout, though not having much screen time, she's memorable in only her second feature film after McCloud. Beatty's perfectionism clashed with Altman's freewheeling ways, but both actor and director can be proud of the end product regardless.

Of the three characters who come to town in the film's last stretch intent on killing McCabe, Hugh Millais (Butler) and Manfred Schulz (Kid) were making their debuts, and weren't really actors - but it's a testament to Altman's method that this isn't in the least bit noticeable. The production was lucky, with non-stop snow over numerous days giving the "chase" section of the film a certain ambiance that suits it so well. As McCabe - a "hero" who is not above winning a duel by shooting his opponent in the back - fights it out the townspeople try to save their church from fire. I really enjoyed this, for it completely isolates McCabe, and his aloneness becomes literal as well as symbolic. McCabe is afraid, and trying to hide. It's a refreshing and distinctive climax that sets this "western" apart from most others, even the likes of High Noon, where the knight in shining armor in the visage of Gary Cooper bravely faces his foes in the open. Also, unlike Grace Kelly, Julie Christie's Mrs. Miller is not there to face the reality of the situation - losing herself chasing the dragon, lost in her own world - a world like our own where the powerful and rich get to dictate their own happy endings.

Leon Ericksen, art director for That Cold Day in the Park, co-producer of M*A*S*H and involved with the makeup and art departments of Brewster McCloud returned again for Altman on this film, this time in the guise of production designer. The film was made in West Vancouver and Squamish, B.C on hilly terrain surrounded by forest. The look is very authentic, and Altman obviously had a close relationship with Ericksen and knew he could count on him. Ericksen would eventually be involved with the making of Star Wars, so his career was involved with making films at the very height of the industry, especially during the 1970s. Altman's second unit director, Lou Lombardo, had handled the editing of Brewster McCloud and this film as well - all of this seems typical of the ad hoc style Altman so successfully used to create his films - a kind of style that would bring most other filmmakers undone.

A review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller wouldn't be complete without one final major talking point - Altman's very unique way of recording and using conversation, with only snippets audible from here or there as characters move around, and at times people talking over each other at the same time. It was a kind of realism that Altman loved to experiment with, and he hoped that audiences would understand that they were only hearing what they needed to hear. That hearing every word of every conversation wasn't important in and of itself. It was something not all film reviewers realised, although many were already hailing this as a masterpiece. It is so different from other films that it can, at first, feel as though something is amiss with the film's sound. Often sound effects like footsteps will drown out what a character is saying - but it's all deliberate. Altman infused his film with a kind of realism, for in our day to day life, we sometimes only hear snippets of conversation, and not every word directed at us. We glean meaning from it regardless, and he didn't feel his film should be so clean in an auditory sense as to distance itself from how reality feels. It was a distinctive trademark of this director, and went back to the reason he was fired while Countdown was in the editing phase. He'd stuck to it, confident in his method.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller wasn't an immediate success. Pauline Kael was one of it's first champions, but it took time for it's audience to find it. I'm another one who is totally on board with how important and brilliant the film is. I loved it the first time I saw it, but when you watch it over you find many new things you missed the first time, and when you watch it after that, you'll find more that will surprise you. There is so much happening, and such beauty in it, that it never fails to completely steal all of my attention each and every time. There doesn't seem to be any familiarity building, despite the number of times I've watched it. It's so layered and textured, in so many senses, that it's a sure desert island film - if I were stranded I could still get lost in it, and just sit there admiring it's haunting and melancholic aura. I could never read Edmund Naughton's McCabe, for fear of contaminating what I love about the film so much - even though Altman has made many changes.

I hope I get the chance some time in the future to see this film at a cinema, as with all the films I hold in the greatest esteem. This one is sheer brilliance - in it's performances, filming, sound, screenplay and direction. In it's design, and execution. There was something magical about the way Altman guided projects - allowing all the contributors to contribute to the artistic side of filmmaking, making their own decisions, and listening to their ideas. It was a perfect balance, and the proof of that is in the results. It was the fourth film in a row (three for most) from Altman that I think was absolutely incredible, and worthy of championing to everyone who loves film and hasn't seen them yet. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an ode to all the hustlers and hucksters who managed to swim too far out, and get in far above their heads - to all the pretenders who became a little too cocky, and should have listened to those close to them. It's a portrait of life on the frontier, big business, the little man, spirit and industry. Capitalism. One of the all-time great movies.




I have been able to see McCabe & Mrs. Miller in the cinema several times. Always worth it. One of the titles I always keep an eye out for in the revival houses.
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"Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It bosses the enzymes, directs the pineal gland, plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to Film is more Film." - Frank Capra