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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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"Thieves Like Us" (1974)
Considering Robert Altman tackled pretty much every existing genre in his 36-film-deep career (ok, he never tackled horror, though as we've just seen, "Images" came close, and his sci-fi contribution was the fairly obtuse "Quintet," but still), it seems inevitable that he broached the "Bonnie & Clyde"-like lovers-on-the-lam trope with "Thieves Like Us." (The source novel also inspired Nicholas Ray's 1948 film "They Live By Night"). Starring Keith Carradine and a young Shelley Duvall, the depression-era film sticks close to the script and what was already seen in Ray's picture, centering on three bank robbers who take refuge in a small town, with the youngest (Carradine) injured on the job, but falling in love with a girl he meets at their hideout (Duvall). But unlike “Bonnie & Clyde,” Altman’s take on the honor (or lack thereof) among thieves is much less dynamic, more unglamorous and emotionally distant (not to mention physically distant; the camera seems to be far away from the heist action at times, creating a quiet introspection not seen in most bank robberies on screen). Ultimately, Carrardine is no Farley Grainger, whose angst and anguish makes “They Live By Night” so tremendously engaging, and there’s a reason this Altman picture isn’t as recognized as his other '70s classics. But as laid back and matter-of-fact as “Thieves Like Us” is -- there’s no score for example, just diegetic sound -- it’s still a fascinating piece of work in Altman’s not-always-perfect, still-interesting ouevre. 

“Buffalo Bill And The Indians, Or Sitting Bull's History Lesson” (1976)
“Robert Altman's Absolutely Unique And Heroic Enterprise Of Inimitable Lustre!!” promises the opening credits of the director’s largely unseen and mostly forgotten “Buffalo Bill And The Indians, Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson,” but it’s the first sardonic note in a sour, uneven, scathing, but no less compelling (yet overlong), two-hour-plus screed on the false idols of American history. While 1971’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is rightfully regarded as one of the seminal anti-Westerns, Altman clearly wasn’t done with the genre, but instead of gritty realism, he turns the camera’s attention to artifice. Set in the late 1800s, as the days of the Wild West are coming to a close, the film takes place entirely on the compound of the titular show (anticipating his stage-based output of the early 1980s), headlined by an aging Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman) who relives his famous exploits for paying audiences. But it’s quickly established that he’s a fraud, and Buffalo Bill was never anything more than an invention by a writer with a way with words, and yet the man himself -- and the public at large -- have come to embrace the stories anyway. But this is put to the test when the producer (Joel Grey) manages to hire famed Native American leader Sitting Bull to join the show. But things are rocky from the start, and only get worse, with Sitting Bull refusing to portray the Sioux as cowards during Custer’s Last Stand, while making various demands to keep him from leaving the show altogether. Utilizing the loose episodic narrative approach, and overlapping dialogue from the previous year’s celebrated “Nashville,” Altman’s meta film is very much about how the myth of the American West is nothing more than an empty shell of outsized, constantly reinvented stories. Featuring a sprawling cast including a hilariously dimwitted Harvey Keitel, a charming Geraldine Chaplin, a solid Burt Lancaster and more, it’s all anchored by Newman’s blazing turn. His Buffalo Bill is alcoholic, selfish and full of ego, but also tremendously charming, the actor’s blue eyes transmitting an effortless magnetism. (It makes one wonder if the Coens and Jeff Bridges watched his performance before making “True Grit”). Producer Dino DiLaurentiis was clearly expecting something far different and more mainstream (arriving during America’s bicentennial year didn’t help either; ‘Buffalo Bill’ was perceived as being mean-spirited). But overseas, they got it, with the Berlin Film Festival giving it the Golden Bear. But, perhaps signalling a troubled production, Altman refused the prize, saying the producer messed with his cut. It certainly is shaggy in its current form, with the picture establishing its thematic route, hammering it home and not really elaborating much beyond that. But that's hardly out of character for an Altman film, and thanks to Newman, it’s still worth a watch. After a shaky first 30 minutes, the movie glides along quickly.

“3 Women” (1977)
An strikingly fascinating and unusual, dreamlike character study that slowly unwraps itself, Robert Altman’s overlooked 1977 picture “3 Women” blends comedy and his loose “whatever happens” laissez-faire attitude with eerie surrealism and mysterious notes, and has become a cinephile favorite ever since Criterion dug it up from DVD exile in 2011. Starring Sissy Spacek, Altman muse Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule, “3 Women” could arguably be described as Altman’s most opaque film, comparable in some ways to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” with the director exploring the blurred lines of identity. Spacek stars as Pinky, an impressionable and meek young girl who comes to work in a nursing home spa center in Dallas, Texas. Tentative and unsure of herself, she eventually gloms onto Millie (Duvall), a loquacious, personable and more experienced co-worker with a cynical edge that she soon dominates. This anchoring friendship soon turns a little queer for Pinky as she follows Millie's every move, tries to adopt her personality and eventually insinuates herself into becoming her roommate. Introduced to a third woman, the more enigmatic artist and bartender Willie (Rule), Pinky and Millie’s friendship begins to sour and even take on sinister tenors. Unnerving in its later half, “3 Women” includes a type of surreal, psychedelic dream sequence which completes the film's slowburn evolution into something more eerie and disquieting. Influenced by a dream Altman never fully understood, the film reads similarly (one must assume PTA also took some cues from it with “The Master”), but is transformative and arresting in its elusive power.

“A Wedding” (1978)
A Wedding” has become a bit of a cult classic, arguably one of the better known films on this list, thanks to its similarities to the classic Altman style of multiple plots, overlapping dialogue, and a cast extensive enough to make any game of Six Degrees of Separation much more interesting. Starring Amy Stryker, Desi Arnaz, Jr., Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin, Mia Farrow, Lillian Gish, Viveca Lindfors, and Lauren Hutton, and set during a single day, the film follows the society wedding of “Muffin” Brenner (Stryker) and Dino Sloan Corelli (Arnaz, Jr.). The couple, their families, and their guests unravel as mishaps occur (e.g. the Bishop forgets his lines) and skeletons tumble out of the two families’ closets (almost literally when the groom’s grandmother dies), with Farrow playing a key, albeit brief, role as “Bunny” Brenner, the bride’s secretly pregnant sister who is possibly carrying the groom’s child. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “This is the sort of material that easily lends itself to farce, and, when it does, Altman cheerfully follows.” Not to say that this is strictly a comedy -- like other Altman films “A Wedding” oscillates between laughs and tears. Touching on topics ranging from drug addiction to sexual deviancy to radical politics, this satire of the Chicago upper crust leaves all of us to ponder our own lives and family secrets. In his signature fashion, Altman manages to find an overarching meaning by the end, even if we don’t.

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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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