My Robert Altman Review Thread

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Have you seen The Long Goodbye? It's my favorite Altman, would love to read your review
Yeah, there's no body mutilation in it

Looking at Altman's filmography, I'm counting 12 movies of his that I hands down love. Left over are a number I really like and some fascinating failures. And as I've so far to see any of his supposed dogs, I'm struggling to think of any director that has a better track record with me.

Hitchcock? Bergman? I think those are the only others that might come close (and I have definitely seem some of their dogs, so their record is not nearly as clean)

I forgot the opening line.
Have you seen The Long Goodbye? It's my favorite Altman, would love to read your review
Yeah, I've seen it quite a while ago, and I look forward to reexamining it in detail. As I'm now intent on reviewing his films in sequential order, it'll be coming up soon - film after next, which will be Images.

It's possible I've seen Beyond Therapy, and if my memory serves, that was maybe Altman isn't without his sins
It'll be interesting to see if going through his career in chronological order (I'll try to pick up a few biographical details as I go as well) will give me some idea as to how he reached such a nadir in that 1980s period.

So far, none of his films dip into great territory for me, but I imagine he's the kind of director who grows on you over time.
I think that's more true for Altman than for most other filmmakers.
My movie ratings often go up or down a point or two after more reflection, research and rewatches.

Latest Review : The Long Goodbye (1973)


McCabe & Mrs. Miller - 1971

I tried to watch this last week before it left the channel, because I had a busy week ahead of me. However, an hour in, I started to get bored and too tired to watch it so I turned off the movie, fell asleep, and never finished it.

It must have been what Matt72582 felt the first time he watched The Grand Illusion.

This one, Jackie Brown, Paris Belongs to Us, and Out 1 are 4 movies that I watched at least an hour of, but failed to finish them. Because the movie left the channel, I guess I will have to use to watch the movie or wait until it comes back to the channel. Like The Departed, it was a really good movie, but I just was not in the right mood to watch it when I saw it.

I think I was also disappointed as to how great Nashville and Three Women were, but did not get the same excitement out of this one. It still had a pretty cool main character in Warren Beatty and relaxing music by Leonard Cohen(Second film I saw since Exotica to feature his music).

As someone who love McCabe and Mrs Miller, it's an admittedly hard movie to crack. As are most Altman's. So many of the important moments in his films are ones which are pushed into the background, or have to do with connections between characters you need to watch the movie multiple times to pick up on. But once you understand the world he has created, they have endless rewards. You are never finished watching an Altman film (at least his best ones).

With the exception of Three Women and Images, both of which I adored immediately, pretty much everything else needed a second viewing for me to get a handle on. I actually think I had to watch Nashville about five times before I even knew what to do with it. It seemed like it spread itself to thin between all those characters, but when you begin to see how much he can say about a person in a fleeting moment he captures with his camera, the more and more clear it becomes that he undestands his characters so well he can distill their essence down to a single look they give. Or a throw away line of dialogue.

All of his greatest films are worth giving the time to. Hes a miracle director

I forgot the opening line.

Images - 1972

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Robert Altman & Susannah York

Starring Susannah York, René Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Cathryn Harrison
Hugh Millais & John Morley

Robert Altman had already touched on the theme of madness in That Cold Day in the Park when Images came along, but his thought processes and preparation for the latter went back as far as the mid-60s. With the likes of Persona, Psycho and Repulsion all being artistic triumphs in that decade, it stands to reason a filmmaker interested in exploring every theme and genre he could would want to see where this took him. What he ended up with was an extraordinary film buried by the sands of time - and while it was never one that would be universally accepted by all, it deserves consideration at least. If one is the least bit interested, they owe it to themselves to seek it out and decide for themselves. This is a psychological horror film that succeeds completely in putting you into the mind of it's central character, and unleashes hell - unrelenting, claustrophobic, tension-filled and lurking in every crevice. As per usual for this filmmaker, decisions that were especially adroit and enhanced this film were made on the fly, suggested by whomever had that moment of inspiration then and there.

Cathryn (Susannah York), a writer of children's fiction, waits alone at home for husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) to return from work. A friend calls, but it's not long before her friend's voice is interrupted by a stranger who makes disturbing implications about Hugh - and this stranger calls again, and again. When Hugh gets home, Cathryn has a moment when her husband turns into a completely different person. Obviously, Cathryn is very sick. The two decide to retire for relaxation to their country cottage, where Cathryn keeps on spotting herself in the distance - and keeps on having mental lapses, to Hugh's consternation. Soon Cathryn is being visited by an ex-lover who is long dead, Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi), and when Marcel (Hugh Millais) and his daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) come to visit real people begin to take on the visage of others. There's no telling who is really there, and who each person who is there really is. Cathryn can only live with this fear for so long, and she begins killing the people she's convinced aren't really there. At least, she'd better hope they're not really there.

We get into Cathryn's head in a number of ways. First of all, we hear her recite the book she's writing in her mind - "In Search of Unicorns", a children's fantasy that Susannah York wrote in real life. When Altman found out about this proclivity of York's, he suggested it be used in the film, and the end result is why you see her credited as one of the screenwriters. The hypnotic recitation she gives furthers the mood of the film - strange passages beyond our grasp float by, and it's hard to not feel a little creeped out by the way she softly speaks each passage, almost in a dreamy haze, but also as if she's enacting some kind of mystic spell. We hear her speak of strange creatures and a heroine often in peril, and the danger bleeds through into the story. This reading of her book comes and goes, often in the background and seemingly representing her thoughts when she's alone - it automatically puts me into Cathryn's mind, and since we see everything from her perspective that's where we stay for the film's entirety.

Another aspect of the film which underlines it's psychological tone, and does so in a brilliant manner, is John Williams' score. I can't emphasise enough how incredible this score is - and while it might be hyperbole to claim that this or that score is among the best I've ever heard, I can easily say with confidence that it sits within my top 100 film scores of all time. Freaky, discordant, atonal, frightening and fascinating, it's something that seems to take various musical instruments into unhappy places and misuse. We initially hear simple, easy piano melodies, but as we descend with Cathryn into madness strings, drums and all manner of sources cry out and pound in extreme and uneasy wailing. Added to it are sounds specifically made by Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta for Williams to add to the music - they consist of things like strange screams, and haunting instrumental wails. Williams was nominated for an Oscar - it would be only the third Oscar ceremony he'd go to being nominated for at least one, and he'd already won one for the Fiddler on the Roof score, one of five he's managed to win in his illustrious career. (The Oscar, strangely, went to 1952 Charlie Chaplin film Limelight - it had waited 20 years for release in the United States. Since Chaplin was credited as one of the composers, this represents Chaplin's only Oscar win.)

Adding to the sonic is the visual, and for Images Altman had cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond return to work for him again after McCabe & Mrs. Miller - once again making use of rapid movement and rapid zooms to convey shock and surprise. Altman was not stepping back at all from his desire to use the zoom function more than other filmmakers. There are some especially haunting shots, such as one where Cathryn spots a vision of herself down at her country estate while standing on a distant hilltop, and then in reverse we switch to Cathryn heading inside while we see a vision of Cathryn still standing on that same hill in the distance - she's seemingly split in two - though this isn't the first time she hallucinates. The Irish countryside, where this was filmed, was made great use of in it's verdant greens, but when the camera focuses on Susannah York it can be at angles that suggest the off-center nature of her fractured mind. It's a virtuoso piece of work that managed to snag Zsigmond a nomination for a BAFTA for Best Cinematography in 1973, in conjunction with his great work on Deliverance and McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Aided by excellence in sound and behind the camera, Susannah York stepped up in a difficult role, and she ended up winning Best Actress at Cannes when the film premiered there. Returning from M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud and McCabe & Mrs. Miller was René Auberjonois, playing Hugh, Cathryn's wife. A role that wasn't as challenging. Also returning from McCabe & Mrs. Miller was Hugh Millais in a more testing role that he seems to have done with ease, despite not really being an actor before appearing in these two Altman films. Cathryn Harrison debuted, and Marcel Bozzuffi plays his part without ease due to the fact that he wasn't a fluent speaker of English. The supporting roles don't matter too much though, as this film is rigidly focused on Cathryn, her relationships, and her hallucinations which increase in frequency as the film goes on. We're never absolutely sure if what we're seeing is real or not - even a dog, presumably long gone, surprises and scares Cathryn by showing up. Something might not be there at all, but at the same time it might be there and simply taking on a different form.

Images is one of the great mood films - with only a rough screenplay, Altman once again encouraged the actors and crew to add their own ideas and direction to it while it was being made. His enjoyment of filmmaking seems to have been a desire to experiment with the ways they can be enhanced by this cooperative approach, and once again he created a spellbinding motion picture - albeit one with limited appeal. It was this difficulty in even imagining what it's audience might be that led to the film being very quietly released in few places - which is a pity. It left Images a film to slowly find an audience when other avenues were available to see it, and an underseen Robert Altman gem from his 1970s period of explosive creativity and amazing filmmaking skill and invention. It's mood is reminiscent of his 1969 film That Cold Day in the Park, which also had a tighter focus on one woman and her perspective. It's a film made with complete artistic integrity, for it's immediately obvious that it's mainstream commercial appeal is limited, and that this is really a thinking person's cinematic odyssey. To say that it's flown under the radar is an understatement.

Graeme Clifford, 2nd unit director and assistant to Altman on That Cold Day in the Park and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is credited as editor, and his input into the making of Images was a large step-up in his career. He'd end up editing a film with a very similar vibe - 1973 Nicolas Roeg film Don't Look Now, before moving on to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Man Who Fell to Earth. He became a fully-fledged director himself when he made 1982 film Frances. On the production design side of matters, long-time stalwart Leon Ericksen once again helped Altman transform is ideas into reality, and played a large part in this phase of Altman's career. Images ended up being nominated for Best English-Language Foreign Film at the Golden Globes and Altman himself received a Writers Guild of America nomination for the screenplay, even though it was loosely followed, and improved upon by many outside contributors. The reviews it received were mostly positive, but none of them had the stamp of approval that the likes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller got from Pauline Kael.

I think that Images is the kind of film you need to see several times to get the most out of. The pace and mood take a little getting used to, and we're thrown in at the deep end almost immediately, almost before we're ready and have adjusted ourselves to Cathryn's reality. You also have to be prepared for never being really comfortable - as far as Cathryn's break with reality is concerned, this film is relentless. From her phone interruptions at the start to her killing spree in the film's last act, you feel the tension she carries around with her to a large degree. Even her laughter seems laced with tightness and strain. Cathryn is surrounded by characters who don't really seem to care enough to see how much she's suffering. Even though she has several moments that point to her condition, they all seem to be brushed off by Hugh and forgotten. That lack of adequate caring increases the feeling of isolation and fear which she transmits so well to the audience. In this respect, Images really is a horror film that burrows under your skin in this fashion.

All up, with this film's score, cinematography by Zsigmond, sound, acting from York and direction from Altman you get a first-rate, psychologically-pounding film which seeps with tension-filled disorientation. When you consider this film in comparison with others of it's era, it sits right next to the likes of Don't Look Now, Repulsion and Persona with an elemental richness that's hard to fault, no matter how hard you look at it. Everything works in this, as long as you're not expecting a narrative journey with twists and turns, and instead tune into a feature that will creep on your nerves and perhaps lead to an unexpected nightmare or two. For me, it's up there as one of those Altman films like That Cold Day in the Park which just passed by unnoticed, but which I rate as something quite special made by a fearless filmmaker who wasn't going to bend to the mainstream despite his newfound success. If you decide not to watch the film, I still advise you to look up that film score and listen to it. Such a strange and wonderful accompaniment to this film. Strange and wonderful all up, this film is. A forgotten Altman classic.

I forgot the opening line.

The Long Goodbye - 1973

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Leigh Brackett
Based on the novel "The Long Goodbye" by Raymond Chandler

Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell
Henry Gibson & Jim Bouton

The longer you look at The Long Goodbye the more remarkable it seems, and the better sense you get of what you should be focusing on. In a neo-noir film based on a 1953 Raymond Chandler novel you'd think it would be the mystery - but this is more Robert Altman movie than Raymond Chandler story - character, atmosphere and a heady blend of themes create a work of art far from your typical noir story. Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe becomes a private investigator from the 1950s trapped in the 1970s - and many questions remain ambiguously unanswered. Chandler's Long Goodbye has been infected by a different time, with different moralities. The ever-smoking, wisecrack-master washes through a world where topless, acid-dropping yoga enthusiasts work out opposite his apartment, hoodlums scar their lovers to make a point and truth becomes harder and harder to grasp. It's a world so changed that Marlowe has become a kind of child-like, innocent spectator - loyal to his friends and pets to the last, at a time when loyalty has gone extinct.

During a sleepless night, after trying to please his fussy cat, Philip Marlowe is visited by his only friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) who is sporting some impressive wounds on his cheek. Lennox speaks of having had a massive fight with his wife, and asks to be driven to Tijuana. The next day the police come looking for Marlowe - it seems that Terry has actually murdered his wife, and until Marlowe gives the cops information they'll hold him as an accessory. When Terry's body is found in an apparent suicide, they let Marlowe go - but the private investigator is sure that Terry is innocent - he knows him too well. In the meantime, he gets a job offer from an Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) whose husband, Roger (Sterling Hayden) has gone on another bender and is missing. Marlowe tracks down a Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson) who is trying to extort money from Roger, and brings him home. He's also visited by gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who threatens to kill Marlowe unless he recovers the $350,000 that Terry took with him the night he went to Tijuana. When Roger commits suicide, and Marlowe finds out that he may have killed Terry Lennox's wife, he begins to suspect that Terry's suicide is not what it seems, and heads to Tijuana to chase down the truth.

Many questions remain unanswered, even after the big, dramatic reveal at the end of the film. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett really made the story her own - she'd previously written the screenplay for The Big Sleep, which featured Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, and her surprise ending along with other quirks caught Altman's eye and imagination. He made sure that he wouldn't be forced to change these aspects of her screenplay, and this is how we got the Long Goodbye we have - a film which simply grows and grows in stature as the decades pass. On it's initial screenings, touted as being a straight noir/mystery/detective story, audiences were mystified and upset - it was then that the studio executives and distributors realised they had something different on their hands. It wasn't straightforward. That's the crux of this movie - you can't approach it like that, because the heart and soul of the film is in what it captures thematically onscreen. The loyal and bewildered Marlowe, the world he inhabits and the characters that contribute to the concoction of a strange Los Angeles society where morals and mores have shifted. For this, Elliott Gould gives what is perhaps the greatest performance of his career - for good reason, for his career was nearly over and he needed this.

Behind the lens, once again, Altman had cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond doing the director of photography work. Zsigmond had been with Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Images - Altman once again taking advantage of Zsigmond's proclivity to "flash" the negatives he'd use - exposing them to sunlight so they'd fade a little and turn bright colours into more subdued pastels, darkening the image. It creates the kind of atmosphere that seems to send 1970s L.A. back into the 40s and 50s in visual feel. He also demanded that the camera never rest or be static - it doesn't mean that we're careening all over the place or constantly in motion, but you'll notice that we're never completely still, and even static shots have a little bit of sway and movement to them - along with a little zoom, which shows up often. It does give the impression of being inside the picture. There's also a lot of reflectino and obfuscation. Altman has his own, recognizable visual style by this point in his filmmaking career, and The Long Goodbye is very much a part of his 1970s free-flowing technique. Zsigmond won a National Society of Film Critics Award for his work on this film.

Music-wise, The Long Goodbye is very eccentric. It opens and closes with the old Richard A. Whiting song "Hooray for Hollywood" - and you could probably go mad trying to figure out why, which is possibly (considering Altman) the reason it's there. The rest of the film either features or is scored with the same song, played over and over again in differing styles, with different instruments and/or with different singers. Written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, "The Long Goodbye" is a jazz-like slow number that fits the noir style of the film, although at different times it morphs into whatever situation it's needed in. You'll hear the same song and tune over and over again - and it's something that's pushed to the forefront of the film. It's an attention-getting method of creating the musical accompaniment to the film, and very Robert Altman-like in it's experimental nature and in the way it absolutely fits. It almost feels as if the changes in tune relate to the changes in society, mood, character and meaning we see in the film. The same song, but a different tune - it's an actual saying which takes on a literal form here, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that this is very deliberate.

Lou Lombardo, editor of Brewster McCloud and McCabe & Mrs. Miller returned to edit this film, doing excellent work yet again. Tommy Thompson, who had been assistant director on Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller along with being a producer on Images was assistant again and would work with Altman on countless other films. Acting-wise, there wasn't any return of the Altman ensemble we'd see in so many films, though of course Elliott Gould had featured in M*A*S*H, as had David Arkin, who plays Augustine underling Harry. Stephen Coit, who plays a police detective, featured in Altman film Countdown, and Jack Riley, who has a very small role, was in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. All in all, the film wasn't a big hit when it was released, but caught on like a cinematic snowball over the years as it accumulated more and more fans - until it became the much talked about staple of film lovers today - often reissued and broadcast, shown again at theaters and becoming a classic. Pauline Kael gave it a long, positive review in The New Yorker, and Roger Ebert praised it. Gene Siskel gave it three and a half out of four stars - calling it "a most satisfying motion picture" - but box office success wasn't in the offing, for The Long Goodbye was still far from being mainstream entertainment.

The Long Goodbye is packed with little pieces of trivia, and has an assortment of surprise guest performers on it's margins. David Carradine turns up in a jail cell, espousing hippie wisdom in a casual, measured fashion - a delightful surprise for those unprepared. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an even bigger surprise, appearing nearly a decade before his breakout starring roles in Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator - he has no lines, but draws all of our attention as a heavy in Augustine's office, at one point undressing to his underwear. Elliott Gould glances at him and laughs - and that probably wasn't in the screenplay, for as per usual the cast were encouraged to ad-lib and many of the scenes were improvised in this way. It was the way Altman liked to work, and it gave him naturalistic results. The film overflows with extra touches - Zsigmond captures a lot of action in reflections, sometimes showing us two images at once, and he sometimes shoots through things, distorting and interrupting the flow of what we can see. All of this is what makes Altman films so enjoyable to watch - and he's at his peak working on The Long Goodbye.

This film can't be fully encapsulated in one review. It's one of a thousand little touches, half a dozen great performances (including a couple from a baseball player and film director) and an Altman/Zsigmond peak of visual acuity. It's less a neo-noir as it is a film about the neo-noir genre and Marlowe character. However, it's more than that, and it's always misleading to pin one label on The Long Goodbye. The film's beginning features a protracted lesson to us on how loyal Marlowe is to his cat, and a frivolous illustration of a funny story Altman heard about a friend trying to mislead his fussy feline by switching cat food and cans - so you never know where it might lead. Instead of a mystery that starts out muddied and becomes clear - everything starts out perfectly clear and by the end of the film we have a million questions. It's not only endlessly rewatchable, but improves on every subsequent watch as you notice more and more detail you missed the first, second and third time around. What more could you ask for from a film? Any more doesn't seem possible. What seems on the surface perfectly suited to it's genre, is something that's anarchic, rebellious and of a piece with Altman's other films. It's Altman's noir - there's never been anything like it, and there never will be again.