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.
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.
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.“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.“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.
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