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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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Quintet
“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
"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
"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

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


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