Lesser-spotted Altmans: seven underrated films from Robert Altman

Inspired by the upcoming DVD release of Ron Mann's documentary on Robert Altman, The Skinny's film team suggest some of the maverick director's most undervalued films

Feature by Skinny Film Team | 12 May 2015
  • Altman

Canons – like cannons – can be dangerous. They boil artists’ oeuvres down to easily digestible chunks, leaving the non-canonical titles out in the cold. This is particularly hard on the most industrious of creatives, where only a few of their huge body of work receives significant appreciation.

Take, for example, Robert Altman. The maverick filmmaker made 36 feature films during his career, but only a handful, titles like M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye and The Player, have made it to classic status. Most of his films remain oddball and obscure. Received wisdom tells us Nashville and McCabe & Mrs Miller are his 70s masterpieces, and that he had a resurgence in form in the 90s and 00s with Short Cuts and Gosford Park. The 80s? They were a wasteland.

We reckon this is a simplistic assessment of one of the most fascinating American filmmakers. The man himself did too: in an archive interview included in Ron Mann’s recent documentary celebrating the director (out on DVD 18 May), Altman says of his perceived rollercoaster career, “Occasionally what I do becomes very successful, and then I'm a failure and a has-been, and then I cross back again. To me, I'm going in a straight line.”

Inspired by Mann's documentary, The Skinny's film team went hunting for the lesser-spotted Altman films; the underdogs that we think can stand shoulder to shoulder with the celebrated classics and deserve your attention too.

Underrated Altman

Brewster McCloud (1970)

Always one to confound expectations, Altman followed up 1970’s hugely successful war satire M*A*S*H with this oddball curiosity about a young man (Bud Cort) who lives in Houston’s Astrodome stadium and yearns to fly while his mysterious Svengali (Sally Kellerman) leaves a trail of dead bodies throughout town.

The film landed with something of a thud upon release, and that’s a shame – Brewster McCloud is devoutly weird but still offers plenty of Altman-esque idiosyncratic charm. It’s joyously playful and often hilarious, yet its frivolity belies the seriousness of its underlying theme: people long for freedom, but let fear and societal expectations rule their lives.

Absurdist, self-reflexive, and anti-authoritarian to its core, Brewster McCloud is admittedly a bit of a last gasp of 60s formalist excess (Altman’s next film would be arguably his greatest, the resolutely serious-minded McCabe & Mrs. Miller). But like similarly themed and constructed films of the time, its unabashed humanism feels even more daring considering today’s movie landscape, where only studio-backed superheroes are ever allowed to fly. [Michelle Devereaux]

Thieves Like Us (1974)

When Altman started work on this adaptation of Edward Anderson's novel, he was unaware of it having already been brought to the screen in Nicholas Ray's 1948 debut They Live by Night. As it happens both movies are knock-outs, but for very different reasons, their dual existence neatly illustrating the evolution of the anti-hero within mainstream Hollywood cinema.

While Ray's vision trades on the romanticism of gangster iconography, Thieves Like Us is a much wiser work, steeped in pathetic realism. It depicts Depression-era America as a consumerist wasteland, soundtracked by radio advertisements and littered with Coca Cola bottles. Star-crossed lovers Bowie and Keech aren't outsiders punished for their inability to conform, but ordinary dupes conned into pursuing a deadly capitalist dream. Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall command our sympathy with tender, career-best performances, their characters' lack of glamour lending the film an air of tawdry tragedy similar to that of Altman's earlier hit, the anti-western McCabe & Mrs Miller. [Lewis Porteous]

CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974)

California Split has one of the oddest historical pedigrees of Altman’s masterpieces: it was a project originally developed by Steven Spielberg, the first non-Cinerama film to use eight-channel stereo, a moderate box-office hit that was nonetheless pulled early from cinemas, and a release that’s been cut and underseen in various territories because of problems with music rights. Coming off the back of Altman’s serious, experimental Images, this one returns to the shambling, shaggy-dog comic tragedy of M*A*S*H, circling around the battleground of poker halls and race tracks.

George Segal is a businessman, Elliot Gould a full-time but hardly professional hustler. They meet at a poker game, bond in getting beaten up, boozing and flopping out with hookers, and before they know it sink deeper into a co-dependent habit of looking for the score that will take them to a winning streak. Eventually, the winning streak comes, but when it does, they feel – what now? The film is beer-soaked, hazy, and in its bones a combination of the tones represented by Segal’s tense shoulders and Gould’s cartoonish rapscallion shuffle. Hilarious, desperate, human and deeply absorbing. [Ian Mantgani]

Popeye (1980)

You'd hesitate to call Popeye a misunderstood masterpiece; essentially a big, brash live-action cartoon (replete with 'boing' sound effects), it's more of a fascinating outlier, a brief and ultimately fruitless attempt at mainstream success. Demolished by critics upon release – who hated it almost as much as the cast and crew reportedly hated each other – it nonetheless does not deserve its bargain bin placement.

For a start, Popeye possesses an infectiously showy Broadway musical charm. Hammy, larger-than-life performances zip merrily around a vast wooden set (now a Maltese tourist attraction) in a surprisingly faithful recreation of the famous Fleischer shorts. Carrying the film on cartoonishly disproportionate shoulders is a then-rising star Robin Williams, who, within the parameters of a caricature, gives one of his more comparatively measured turns. Altman keeps things fast and funny, flitting between bouncy setpieces and eye-rolling one-liners, all peppered with Harry Nilsson’s beguiling soundtrack. M*A*S*H meets Hook? Pass the spinach. [John Nugent]

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Of all the members of the New Hollywood boy's club, Robert Altman was the most gender equal. Unlike Scorsese, Coppola, et al, female characters and stories interested him just as much as male ones. This 1982 oddity, based on a play centred around a James Dean fan club who are reuniting 20 years after the stars untimely death, is bursting at the seams with female talent, including Karen Black, Sandy Dennis and a never better Cher. The melodrama is humdrum, but, like all Altman films, it’s the moods, tones and textures that resonate – and his effervescent ensemble bring these qualities vividly to the surface as they uncover uncomfortable memories from their heady teenage days.

Jimmy Dean also shows off Altman’s artistry. He creates cinema out of theatre by embracing the material’s theatricality. Other directors might have been tempted to open the play out; Altman keeps it bound to its single, Woolworth's five-and-dime location – but it’s never stagey. There’s a dynamism as his trademark zoom explores the cluttered store and his cast's faces. A two-way mirror and a second set is used to typically inventive effect to create flashbacks within a single shot, a simple trick that seems almost magical in execution. With Altman, the camera was always expressive: through its gaze, he turns this corny play into a balletic comic wonder. [Jamie Dunn]

Secret Honour (1984)

After the catastrophic double failure of HealtH and Popeye, Robert Altman was exiled from Hollywood and forced to sell his studio Lion's Gate, but he didn't let any of these setbacks stop him from working. In fact, he used the money he got from the Lion's Gate sale to fund Secret Honour, a film production of a one-man play in which Richard Nixon spends a long dark night of the soul in his office, with only a bottle of scotch, a tape recorder and a loaded gun at his disposal.

A 90-minute monologue directed at ghosts of the past and an imaginary jury, the film rests entirely on a truly sensational performance from Philip Baker Hall, who expresses Tricky Dick's arrogance, paranoia, frustration and delusion as he explores his past misdeeds and contemplates his legacy. There was no love lost between Altman and Nixon, but Secret Honour is not simply an attack on the disgraced president; there's a sadness and perhaps even a hint of sympathy evident here in its portrait of a complex and once powerful man brought low by his own flaws. [Philip Concannon]

The Company (2003)

How typical of Robert Altman to follow the widespread acclaim and success of his murder-mystery Gosford Park with an almost narrative-free study of a niche art form. While The Company does contain a few recognisable faces, such as Neve Campbell (a young dancer), James Franco (her boyfriend) and Malcolm McDowell (the director), the real star of the movie is the collective Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

Altman observes them at work, fascinated by the skill, artistry and above all the dedication of these young performers for whom dance is everything. These are people who put their careers and their bodies on the line every time they step out onto the stage, and it should come as no surprise that a director like Altman would be inspired by such spirit. The Company is one of the great dance films, with Altman eschewing conventional plot points to construct his film around fleeting but resonant moments, and to immerse us in a world where euphoria and pain often go hand-in-hand. [Philip Concannon]

Let us know your own favourite lesser-spotted Altman films in the comments below...


More from The Skinny:


Ron Mann and Kathryn Reed Altman discuss the Nashville director

Louder than Words: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy on The Tribe

Altman is out on DVD 18 May from Soda pictures