It's easy to forget that Robert Altman didn't have his breakthrough until he was well into his 40s, with 1970's "M*A*S*H." The filmmaker proved to be so prolific -- and continued to be piled with acclaim and critical plaudits well into his '80s -- that it feels like his career in feature cinema lasted for much longer than the 35 years he's known for (Altman made a few features prior to "M*A*S*H," but mostly worked in TV during the 1950s and 1960s).
And the breadth and depth of that career means that some of his movies were bound to be overlooked. Even casual cinema fans are aware of the likes of "M*A*S*H," "McCabe & Mrs Miller," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts" and "Gosford Park." But for every one of his films that's an acknowledged classic, there are three that have passed into obscurity, sometimes justifiably, sometimes unfairly so.
We've been dying to write about Altman for a long time, and with this month marking the 40th anniversary of "The Long Goodbye," one of our favorite films by the director, we thought it seemed like the perfect opportunity. But rather than going through the films you know best, we've picked out ten pictures from the director's career that you might not be familiar with, and are (for the most part) worth seeking out. Sometimes missing for decades, they've mostly resurfaced thanks to DVD reissues and streaming services, so if you're looking to dig a little deeper into Altman's oeuvre, they could be the perfect place to start. Take a look at our picks below, and let us know which Altman picture you think is most underrated in the comments section.
Years before Robert Altman would be known for auteur-driven work like "M*A*S*H," "Nashville," and "The Long Goodbye," the filmmaker was more of a gun for hire as he tried to establish his voice. Evidence of this is abundantly clear in the filmmaker’s third feature-length effort, the astronaut drama, "Countdown," a largely anonymous outing from Altman featuring few traces of his wit or inventiveness -- indeed, he was reportedly fired from the film after production wrapped. Starring James Caan and Robert Duvall, with supporting turns from Ted Knight, Joanna Moore and Michael Murphy (who would appear in numerous Altman projects, including seven features and the “Tanner on Tanner” TV series), "Countdown" centers on the American/Russian race to be first in everything, manifesting in this case with a desperate and premature moon-landing mission (the real deal happened the year after). Duvall plays a hot-headed astronaut with an ego who gets passed over as the lead on his mission in favor of his much less experienced junior, Caan. But they eventually put their differences aside for the risky, against-the-odds mission. Made a decade before Tom Wolfe first published "The Right Stuff" (which Philip Kaufman would make into a movie in the early ‘80s), "Countdown" is prescient, but dated, hardly dynamic and lacking in true suspense, thrills or tension. Little to no traces of Altman’s distinctive tendencies are present, and its flat, TV-like lighting and score don't help things either. The Warner Archive has plenty of incredible overlooked gems in its collection, but "Countdown" never really achieves lift-off. The film is more of a mildly interesting curio for the Altman completist than anything else.
Part odd-duck, shaggy dog '70s movie, part murder mystery and part quirky aviation fantasy, Altman's anarchaic "Brewster McCloud" was out of DVD circulation for years and was regarded as the black sheep of the director's oeuvre for quite some time. However curious, random and askew as it is, 'McCloud' is far more entertaining and watchable than its reputation ever suggested. Starring Bud Cort, Altman muse Shelley Duvall (in her debut role), mainstay troupe member Michael Murphy and "M*A*S*H" star Sally Kellerman, this left-of-center curio centers on an peculiar boy (McCort) so obsessed with flying he constructs a life-size pair of mechanical wings in his hidden bomb shelter home in the Houston Astrodome. A mysterious seraphic woman (Kellerman) encourages his path and also might be his guardian angel. Meanwhile, mysterious deaths are occurring all over Houston, somehow tied to toxic bird poop, so a San Francisco super detective (Murphy) is flown in to solve the case. A romantic paramour (Duvall) suggests an Icarus theme as Brewster may have flown too high with his now jealous celestial protector, defying her “no sex” mandate. Rene Auberjonois plays the narrator/Greek chorus who becomes more avian with each passing update, and Jennifer Salt plays a girl who just comes around to masturbate every time Cort takes his shirt off. Themes of non-conformity, freedom, rebellion and how we unravel for love peek through, but it all comes off like a semi-nonsensical episode of "Scooby-Doo" that's been hanging out with Hal Ashby while getting stoned. That said, as mildly shambolic and unkempt as "Brewster McCloud" is, it's also absorbingly diverting and an entertaining little bauble of the sort they just don't make any more.
Sandwiched between two of his most celebrated artistic triumphs ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller" on one side, "The Long Goodbye" on the other), "Images" is something of a doodle – an intense, psychosexual thriller in the vein of "Repulsion" or "Don't Look Now" (released the following year) – but a wildly entertaining, impressively acted doodle nonetheless. The movie centers around (and is narrated by, in some of Altman's very best writing) Cathryn (Susannah York), a wealthy children's book author. One night at their home (which looks like a quasi-futuristic hobbit hole, in the way only '70s architecture and design can), Cathryn receives a series of disturbing phone calls indicating that her husband (Rene Auberjonois) is having an affair. When he returns home she confronts him, and he seemingly changes into another man altogether. (In one dizzyingly impressive shot the camera starts on York talking to the other man, played by Marcel Bozzuffi, who suddenly transforms into Auberjonois. The choreography boggles the mind.) Her husband suggests that they retreat to a cabin in the countryside, which is never a great idea, and the madness and intensity only escalates, with Cathryn tempted by adultery and plagued with visions of the mystery man and her own devilish doppelganger. "Images" is embroidered with pervasive weirdness – everything from the driving gloves Auberjonois is always wearing to sequences later in the movie when a rotting corpse lies on the kitchen floor, more a nuisance than anything else. In many ways a kind of companion piece to the similarly dreamlike "3 Women," "Images" is anchored by an utterly fearless, compulsively watchable performance by York (she bares body and soul) and Altman's razor-sharp screenplay. Scary, funny, and totally nightmarish, "Images" (the title refers to the images York is seeing and a heavy old camera that features predominantly in the plot) is definitely an Altman oddity worth seeking out.