O.C. and Stiggs aside (and we’ll get to that later), if there is another movie in the canon of Robert Altman that has been as torched and reviled as Quintet, first in a pair of films Altman released in 1979, I know it not. Laughed out of the theaters and dismissed upon its initial release, Quintet now camps comfortably at the precise halfway mark between maligned masterpiece and deserved disaster though, in the end, it will likely never amount to anything other than being a nobly interesting film that pleases exactly nobody.
Stepping about as far away as he could from the crowded canvasses that had served him well throughout the decade, Quintet tells the story of Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter living in the final, frozen days of civilization who, with his pregnant traveling companion, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), returns to his iced-over and ruined city after a decade-long sojourn/hunt in the south. Upon his return, he rejoins his brother, Francha (Thomas Hill), and learns that there is no longer any employment or hope in the civilized world and that people mostly pass the time playing Quintet, a backgammon-like game played on a pentagonal board. When a pipe bomb is slipped through the doorway to Francha’s apartment while Essex is away and kills all of the inhabitants within, Vivia included, Essex becomes embroiled in an enigmatic search to unravel the reason for their murders and the numerous deaths that occur soon afterward.
This summation makes this all sound terribly exciting and, to be sure, there’s probably a better film to be made from the elements that make up Quintet, but, as released, it’s readily apparent that there was just simply nobody around to tell Altman “no.” What began life as a star-studded meditation on the unknown ended up looking more like a yarn someone heard while huddled around a water pipe with some friends in a dorm room. As a contemporary piece of entertainment in 1979, it’s unclear who this movie would be for and its audacity is as equally admirable as it is peculiar. But it also shows just how far away Altman was from the pulse of America he so keenly tracked during the first half of the 70’s as popular entertainment, and Altman himself, had been rocked by bubblegum films such as Superman: The Movie, Star Wars, and Grease.
Quintet is designed to be an intellectual mystery film (though it’s more a whydunit than a whodunit) crossed with some trace elements of science fiction and it succeeds far more in the latter than it does the former. In creating a location as unique as Presbyterian Church in McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Sweethaven in Popeye, the utilization of the derelict portions of Montreal’s Expo 67 was a stroke of genius as both the art direction of Wolf Kroger and production design Leon Ericksen help create a believable, ice-encased metropolis. Likewise, Altman is 100% committed to the frozen world he builds in Quintet which seeps into the smallest parts of the film. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, there is a mad genius to cinematographer Jean Boffety, returning from Thieves Like Us, smearing Vaseline around the outer edge of his lenses, giving the visuals a patina of translucent frost that contributes to the perpetual and uncomfortably frigid atmosphere that blows off the screen.
Also impressive is the assemblage of Altman’s top tier, globe-spanning cast which also helps sell the illusion that the inhabitable world which remains is a frozen coagulation of run-off from the four corners of the earth. American Paul Newman and Swedish Andersson mingle with Spanish Fernando Rey, French Brigitte Fossey, Danish Nina Von Pallandt, and Italian Vittorio Gassman, the latter two exchanging their marriage license in the previous year’s A Wedding for opposing sides in the deadly tournament of Quintet. All of these performances are very unique and mix in a way that is sometimes tin-eared and jarring but probably comes close to fully realizing a world where language is being boxed up and only the physical actions and gestures in the service of all-encompassing gamesmanship matter.
But allowing Altman to take the audience on a joyride to the edge of extinction couldn’t help but give audiences of the time a case of the grumps. For this is a film Altman wants everyone to Take Very Seriously and, as such, it is completely without joy and utterly faithful to its hopelessness. Staking its claim in this grim territory early by killing off the pregnant Fossey, the film’s one beacon of life, Altman presents a world so bleak that wild dogs are devouring the bodies of the dead within thirty seconds of them hitting the ground; a civilization so dark, the word “friend” has been replaced with “alliance.” Perhaps Altman felt the world was coming to a place that was so pained and depressed that a post-coital embrace would be met with a flood of sadness at the remembrance of what’s been lost. And maybe it was (and is). But to think that anyone in 1979 would pay hard-earned money and burn a Friday or Saturday night to be told these truths was just as mad as the pulpit rankings of Gassman’s St. Christopher, telling his flock of frigid miserables that the unknown blackness that awaits after death is so completely terrifying and all-consuming that they should be happy with the disconsolate lives they lead even as they slowly starve and freeze to death.
As an unearthed relic that is slowly becoming lost to time, Quintet is a kind of fascinating curio. An outlier in his filmography, there still remains through-lines to his work both past and future. The opening mostly resembles California Split as it moves the poker club to the end of the earth, people huddling around frozen gameboards and fighting off boredom instead of feeding their gambling addictions. Likewise, the whole idea of the sixth man, a player position in the game of Quintet that’s festooned with all kinds of allegorical meaning, is something Altman first toyed with in 3 Women, specifically with the character of Willie Hart (Janice Rule). Representing the silent watcher on the margins of the frame, Willie Hart was the unknowable-known; a creature filled with middle-aged emptiness that can only fully understood when it’s too late to change the course of destiny.
In the end, Altman does find a kind of hope as Newman refuses conventional wisdom and marches (for five straight minutes of screen time) into the great white north, following a goose he spied with wonder in the opening minutes of the film. But ending on an opaque note of hopeless bravery just wasn’t what a lot of people who had just watched John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John fly away in a car wanted to put up with. And while a lofty piece of nonsense dialogue such as “You’ll never understand the scheme until you are part of the scheme” seems ponderously risible and ultimately head-scratching when deployed in the film, I can’t help but think it would have been better served as the Orson Welles-voiced tagline to the (non-existent) board game adaptation of Quintet by Parker Brothers.
“One Man Against the World” screamed the tagline on the Quintet one-sheet, plastered under the contemplative mug of Paul Newman and his mid-distance stare. Replace his face with that of Robert Altman and you were probably closer to the truth as the seventies began to sputter to an unfortunate close.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain