10 Robert Altman Films You May Not Know

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by The Playlist Staff
March 21, 2013 1:05 PM
30 Comments
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“Quintet” (1979)

As we said above, the eclectic and uneven career of Robert Altman saw the filmmaker tackle practically every genre under the sun, (westerns, noirs, ‘30s gangster movies, mysteries, gumshoe dick movies). But Altman was never interested in genre much, always placing the emphasis on more human behavior and interaction, so it's not a surprise his ill-fated attempt at sci-fi, "Quintet," didn't exactly work. Set in a wintry, post-apocalyptic future where a new ice age has ravaged Earth, "Quintet" stars Paul Newman, in the second collaboration between the pair, as a man named Essex, a survivor in a barren, unflaggingly frozen wasteland, who gets drawn into a mysterious game called "Quintet" after being attacked and nearly killed by a gambler. And as Essex finds out, the role-playing game has some deadly consequences -- if you're killed in the game, you're also murdered in real life. While Altman does a great job of sustaining an atmosphere and mood of dreadful unpredictability (though arguably this just means smearing the camera lens with vaseline for a gauzy effect the entire time), there are long, quiet, arguably agonizing stretches of "Quintet" where nothing really happens (released two years after "Star Wars," and the same year as "Alien," you can see why genre fans were also unresponsive). Co-starring some fantastic international stars that probably asked themselves what they were doing in this film (Fernando Rey, Vittorio Gassman, Bibi Andersson), "Quintet" is undeniably a fascinating blip on Altman's filmography, and a precursor to films like "Battle Royale" and "The Hunger Games." Newman's performance, too, is a tightly coiled one, all wild nerves and raw instinct. Too bad about the languid, polar-ice-cap pace, though. Bonus points go to the film's weirdly futuristic shooting location: the site of the Montreal Expo '67 World's Fair.

"Streamers" (1983)

After the excesses of "Popeye," Altman stripped things right down again, spending most of the 1980s (with the exception of ill-fated comedies "O.C. & Stiggs") on a series of adaptations of stage plays, some ("Secret Honor") more successful than others ("Beyond Therapy"). But "Streamers," one of the rawest and most claustrophobic of this period, stands as a pretty good representation of this curious tangent in Altman's career. Based on the Tony-nominated play by "Hurlyburly" author David Rabe, it's set in an army barracks just before the war in Vietnam kicks off, with four soldiers awaiting deployment. They are Billy (Matthew Modine, anticipating his later casting in "Full Metal Jacket"), Roger (David Alan Grier), Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein, who'd later star in Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet") and the visiting Carlyle (Michael Wright), and their good-natured banter becomes closer to a powder keg as they become more and more aware of Richie's homosexuality, especially as Carlyle does his best to light it up. It's far from Rabe's best play, now somewhat dated and a bit crude in its depiction of race and sexuality. It probably doesn't help that Altman keeps the action, as he did for most of this period, resolutely stagey, never leaving the room in which it's set. But the film's worth seeing purely for the performances. The cast, which also includes George Dzunda, are uniformly superb, and in a virtually unprecedented move, they all rightly shared Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival that year. Grier, now best known as a comic actor, is a particular revelation, but everyone does sterling work, and it's truly the actors that keep the film afloat when the material and direction falters.

"Vincent and Theo" (1990)

“An obsessive vision. A desperate dream. A world that didn't understand... And a brother that did.” Originally meant to be a four-hour BBC miniseries, Robert Altman trimmed the Julian Mitchell-written script about Vincent van Gogh and his brother down to 2 ½ hours. “Vincent and Theo” is a traditional biopic in many ways, probably closer to the previous work of Mitchell (the screenwriter behind “Another Country,” “Wilde,” and episodes from various 1970s British mini-series including “Elizabeth R” and “Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill”), than it was to Altman's. The film centers on Tim Roth as Vincent and Paul Rhys as his art dealer brother Theodore, proving to be virtually a two-hander rather than featuring the usual Altman ensemble and multiple plot lines. All the true story beats are there -- from Theo supporting Vincent’s art to Theo’s marriage to Vincent’s infamous ear episode -- but what makes it stand out from other tortured artist biopics is the mastery behind Altman’s camera in capturing van Gogh from his madness to his genius, Jean Lepine's camera proving to be painterly, bringing the artist's work to life. Considered by many to be one of Altman’s most accessible films, “Vincent and Theo” is an outlier in the director’s filmography, but very much a worthwhile one. Interesting factoid: art students painted the van Gogh reproductions in the film, saving on production costs.

Honorable Mentions: Let's face it, there's a lot of Altman pictures worth seeking out that are often overlooked, including: "California Split" (which we wrote about here) that reteams him with Elliott Gould; "Secret Honor" (which is Criterion-approved, but very polarizing to some of us) gives a star turn to PTA fave Philip Baker Hall; "Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"; "Popeye" starring Robin Williams is an interesting oddity/failure (we wrote about it here); TV series "Tanner '88" gives Altman troupe member Michael Murphy a terrific lead opportunity; plus there's "Kansas City," "Cookie's Fortune" and "The Company." Fight the corner for your favorite in the comments section below.

-- Rodrigo Perez, Diana Drumm, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor

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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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