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10 Robert Altman Films You May Not Know

Features
by The Playlist Staff
March 21, 2013 1:05 PM
30 Comments
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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.

“Countdown” (1968)
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.

"Brewster McCloud" (1970)
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.

"Images" (1972)
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.

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30 Comments

  • Marty S | February 27, 2014 5:23 PMReply

    There is so much confidence and artistry in a not so great Altman film, it is hard to select just one of these overlooked gems. My personal choice, and the best of the films in this article is 3 WOMEN. It is a mesmerizing and brilliant work. I also have to mention COME BACK TO THE FIVE & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN, a work of art that functions much better as cinema than as theatre. Also, H.E.A.L.T.H. was completely misunderstood. It is a hilarious, biting, political satire.

  • Eric Robert Wilkinson | June 12, 2013 1:44 PMReply

    Love Robert Altman - my second favorite film of all time is NASHVILLE (1975) and it's possible my favorite Altman film that isn't that is A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006) - that was underrated by everyone but Ebert :)

  • Jonathan Woollen | April 10, 2013 4:58 PMReply

    California Split is unimpeachable and definitely overlooked nowadays.

  • bob hawk | March 28, 2013 2:27 AMReply

    THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK! SANDY DENNIS!! JOHNNY MANDEL!!!

  • Movieram | March 27, 2013 4:25 PMReply

    Beyond Therapy is a true mess, but a highly watchable one. So is Dr. T and the Women. I'm also a big fan of Come Back to the five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

    Ironically, Paul Newman, one of my very favorite actors, stars in my two least-favorite Altman films. I also don't like Ready to Wear.

    I still have several A.tman films to catch. Thanks for the reminder!

  • waynebeau | March 26, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    I love BREWSTER McCLOUD but BUFFALLO BILL...is one of the worst films ever allowed to escape into theatres.

  • Bob Strauss | March 25, 2013 8:29 PMReply

    You left out HEALTH. I was in HEALTH. I was a featured vegetable.

    He shot it in my hometwon. Same place Korine shot Korine shot Spring Breakers. Altman's movie is nowhere near as good as Korine's.

    Never thought I'd write those words. St. Petersburg has that effect on people, though.

  • Eric Robert Wilkinson | June 12, 2013 1:47 PM

    And for what it's worth, SPRING BREAKERS (Korine) is my favorite film so far of 2013 :)

  • Eric Robert Wilkinson | June 12, 2013 1:46 PM

    HEALTH is extremely underrated. Unfortunately barring the opening credit sequence (which is presented in Panavision widescreen), the DVD-R I rented from my local indie video store a few years ago is recorded unofficially from a FOX Movie Channel presentation in 1.33:1 Pan & Scan. Still: quite decent.

  • pj | March 26, 2013 1:20 AM

    ...and on vegetables as well it seems.

  • pj | March 25, 2013 7:02 PMReply

    You may not know a television production Altman directed in 1964, called "Once Upon a Savage Night". It was part of the Kraft Suspense Theater series. Altman later filmed it for theatrical release, as "Nightmare in Chicago".

    The 1964 TV show is on You Tube, complete with Miracle Whip commercials.

    It is terrific!

  • Phil Kolar | March 25, 2013 6:10 PMReply

    A big Altman fan(I once worked for a courier company and was unable to bluff my way into his room with a delivery)Cookies Fortune,The Company,California Split and especially 3 Women(one of the only two movies I sat thru twice consecutively in the theater.Why no mention of The Gingerbread Man:great acting and a sense of menace as weather becomes another character in the film.

  • Bob Strauss | March 25, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    You left out HEALTH. I was in HEALTH. I was a featured vegetable.

    He shot it in my hometwon. Same place Korine shot Korine shot Spring Breakers. Altman's movie is nowhere near as good as Korine's.

    Never thought I'd write those words. St. Petersburg has that effect on people, though.

  • Bob Strauss | March 25, 2013 5:35 PMReply

    You left out HEALTH. I was in HEALTH. I was a featured vegetable.

    He shot it in my hometwon. Same place Korine shot Korine shot Spring Breakers. Altman's movie is nowhere near as good as Korine's.

    Never thought I'd write those words. St. Petersburg has that effect on people, though.

  • Bob Strauss | March 25, 2013 5:34 PMReply

    You left out HEALTH. I was in HEALTH. I was a featured vegetable.

    He shot it in my hometwon. Same place Korine shot Spring Breakers. Altman's movie is nowhere near as good as Korine's.

    Never thought I'd write those words. St. Petersburg has that effect on people, though.

  • David Ehrenstein | March 25, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    You forgot "O.C. & Stiggs" How could you POSSIBLY forget "O.C. & Stiggs" ?

  • David Ehrenstein | March 25, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    You forgot "O.C. & Stiggs" How could you POSSIBLY forget "O.C. & Stiggs" ?

  • Michael R. | March 25, 2013 5:20 PMReply

    Netflix take note of the titles you do not have on the lesser known films of Robert Altman (i.e. Brewster McCloud)

  • philip | March 25, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    A wedding and brewster are my two alltime favourite altman's

  • GERARD KENNELLY | March 25, 2013 5:11 PMReply

    i think The Gingerbread Man is very good

    robert downey jr playing a scumbag private eye stole the show

  • GERARD KENNELLY | March 25, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    i think The Gingerbread Man is very good

    robert downey jr playing a scumbag private eye stole the show

  • joey slate | March 24, 2013 9:18 PMReply

    Buffalo Bill is an unwatchable mess. I don't know why anyone would pretend otherwise. (Altman is one of my favorite directors, but there is a lot of his work that's plain dreadful.)

  • MFD | March 24, 2013 4:29 PMReply

    Altman's last film, "A Prairie Home Companion," shouldn't be overlooked. It's both razor-sharp hilarious and piercingly melancholy -- an unflinching, never self-pitying reflextion on our common fate that, though it wasn't meant to be, is a fitting conclusion to an illustrious career.

  • Bob Roberts | March 21, 2013 11:23 PMReply

    Totally glad you are doing this. Altman, of course, is a director I admire. But I gotta say that the list is a little off. First, 3 Women is one of his most well known movies. And putting "Quintet" (which really is so-so) on list over "Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean" (which is really a masterpiece) is pretty weird. "Secret Honor" has got to be on there too. "California Split" is one of his greats too. Much more deserving than "A Wedding" ....But I won't complain. Good job highlighting this greatly missed talent and his greatly missed works.

  • Rufus Wilson | March 21, 2013 6:06 PMReply

    HEALTH is totally underrated. I can see why some people would not like it but I thought it was an interesting little film, and a funny interesting little film at that. No OC and Stiggs? That one actually has a tie to both Nashville, HEALTH and by extension Tanner 88, plus it's a great take on teen comedies that were so popular at the time. Come Back To The Five and Dime should be at the top of your list. That film kicks all kinds of ass. As a casual Altman fan I find this article to be lacking. Sorry.

  • tristan eldritch | March 21, 2013 3:52 PMReply

    A lot of these are new to me, but I think California Split is classic Altman, Brewster McCloud is awesome (love its weird, sardonic obsession with McQueen's Bullitt character) and Images is a fucking masterpiece - remarkable cinematography, very intricately constructed, holds its head high with the best of Polanski and Lynch.

  • Duddi | March 21, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    Altman's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson" is a really underrated "anti-western" and it is a classy, brave and well acted film, same as "Killing Them Softly" was this year... in other words it is a "Rebel Movie"... It really starts slow, but once you connect with it it becomes haunting and you never want it to end... and that's all thanks to Altman and Newman's performance... It's that kind of movie that never works for mainstream audience, it's for someone who "really" likes movies... while "Quintet" is a very well photographed movie with a story and a screenplay that never works, from the start to the end...

  • THOR | March 21, 2013 2:53 PMReply

    I can see how The Company is not for everyone. But I don't understand why it's so obscure.

  • rebar | March 21, 2013 2:09 PMReply

    The first two Altman movies I saw were 'Popeye' and 'Cookie's Fortune' when I was a kid before I knew who Robert Altman was. 'Popeye' both bored and fascinated me. It's story was lame, the pacing too slow, and it just wasn't funny. However, the sets, costumes, large cast, seaside atmosphere, and even some songs, always kept my attention whenever the movie would air on TV. There was just so much detail on screen, I couldn't help but notice something new each time I've watched it.

    I'm pretty sure I liked 'Cookie's Fortune' so much as a youngin' because it's probably Altman's campiest film, with Glenn Close chewing scenery (and suicide notes) while Julianne Moore plays a convincing idiot. As a kid I really liked the criss-crossing plotlines, the wide range of characters played by recognizable faces, the dark humor, and a hot southern atmosphere. I realize that it's not a masterpiece, but 'Cookie's Fortune' made me remember Robert Altman's name, and I've loved exploring his filmography ever since.

  • spassky | March 21, 2013 1:53 PMReply

    Where is "That Cold Day in the Park"...? technically his second feature length narrative film. Weird little film, that one. Somewhat similar to "Images" ... kind of (trying desperately to find parallels with this film in his career)

    RE: "Countdown": the film was taken away from Altman at the end because of an ambiguous ending when they're on the moon (something a little more, em, pro-Russian). His directorial flourishes aren't in the film because they were edited out. James Caan has some choice quotes in the oral biography-- at the first screening for execs, he screamed "you edited Altman out of the picture!" and when referring to it later in the oral biography he says "you know how they say 'fuck you' in Hollywood? 'Trust me.'"

    Also: I'm pretty sure "3 Women" is considered a classic of American surrealism by most...

    Also PS: "HealtH" pretty underrated, but of those below-the-line ones you mention at the end, I'll choose "Secret Honor" followed closely by "Tanner '88" (though not all good, very interesting experiment).

    fun fact: Michael Murphy first appeared in a Robert Altman directed production when he was on the tv series "Combat!"

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