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10 Robert Altman Films You May Not Know

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist March 21, 2013 at 1:05PM

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).
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Thieves Like Us
"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 & The Indians
“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
“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
“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.

This article is related to: Features, The Essentials, Robert Altman


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