Philip Marlowe has been asleep. Whether it’s been a literal and continuous Big Sleep that has lasted since we last saw the man in 1946 is unclear. But there are clues scattered about which suggest that it is. First off, genius screenwriter Leigh Brackett is back with another adaptation of a Raymond Chandler opus just as she was all those years earlier when she was Howard Hawks’s scribbler of choice. But regardless of the initial and obvious familiarity, things are markedly different than the last time we saw Marlowe. For the hope and exuberance of postwar 1946 has given way to the cultural malaise of 1973, a time where the fabric of the country was disintegrating under the twin stresses of Vietnam and Watergate and everything we thought we understood about America was turned upside down and was perpetually under audit.

Robert Altman’s masterful The Long Goodbye was the first in a wave of neo-noir films that flooded the American cinemas in the 1970’s. Along with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, and Robert Benton’s The Late Show (produced by Altman and both cast and crewed by many of his regulars), these films took the antique formula of the dogged private eye and turned it on its ear by examining the current culture through the newly-minted, cynical lenses of the Boomer Generation or making a contemporary allegory out of an old-fashioned period piece. In all of the cases, there was a strong, moralistic tone regarding right and wrong that would crack as the film unspooled and the hero found that he no longer recognized the world he was in, a theme that cut deeply with the intended audience.

This is strongest and most evident in The Long Goodbye, which, not coincidentally, was the first of the bunch. In it, private eye Philip Marlowe is juxtaposed immediately with a cinematic fantasy. As “Hooray For Hollywood” scratches its way over the soundtrack and we survey the lodgings of one of pop culture’s most indelible and toughest detectives, we immediately sense that something has gone directly to seed. Instead of clean-lined Humphrey Bogart, we get fuzzy, wrinkled, and unshaven Elliott Gould. And instead of having to jump into his car in the middle of the night to solve a hot mystery under the darkness of the Los Angeles night, Marlowe’s cat simply wakes him up because he’s hungry and wants some food.

While the trip to the grocery store for the cat food supplies the film with its most potent allegory about trust, it also serves to crosscut an escape from the Malibu Colony by one Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), lifelong buddy of Marlowe currently bruised and battle-scarred after a tussle with his wife, Sylvia. As he drives to Marlowe’s pad to request an emergency, middle of the night escort to Tijuana, Terry surveys the physical damage to his person; deep scratch on the face with a swollen and bruised hand. When Sylvia Lennox shows up beaten to death fifteen minutes into the film and Terry confesses to her murder in his own suicide note, Marlowe goes on a personal crusade to clear his friend’s name. In doing so, he mixes with an alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden), the writer’s icy blonde wife (Nina van Palllandt), an equal opportunity mafioso (Mark Rydell), and a quack doctor (Henry Giibson).

Clad in a cheap black suit that never comes off his corpus and prowling about in his 1948 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet with a bottomless supply of non-filtered Lucky Strikes, Marlowe stumbles through blanched, early 70’s L.A. in a total haze. Still smart enough to sniff out phony amateurs and bumbling hoods, Marlowe never seems to understand the gravity of his current situation or the physical stakes involved. And in direct opposition to Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep where Philip Marlowe seemed to glide through a studio-built Los Angeles with horny women throwing themselves at him without any effort on the part of Humphrey Bogart, Gould’s Marlowe can’t even negotiate a fruitful conversation with Mrs. Tewksbury, real estate agent to the rich and famous. “It’s ok with me,” a catchphrase he’ll employ throughout the film to signify his acceptance of any given situation without any shred of understanding, seems to fly out of his mouth with more frequency the closer the film gets to its conclusion.

What makes The Long Goodbye unique is that, like the other genre-blasting offerings by Altman, this is a detective film without much of a mystery at its center. Marlowe seems more intent on convincing himself of Lennox’s innocence than he really cares about clearing Lennox’s name and, like so many other Altman heroes, there is more than a touch of self-deception at play with Philip Marlowe. Lost in a landscape where ideals have become malleable, trust is transactional, and macaroni costs more than a quarter, Marlowe desperately builds a case out of the wildest of red herrings so he can continue to float along through life with his core values intact. Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes is gutted by the larger graft that has seared him very personally and Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby is frustrated at his inability to see three moves ahead of him but Philip Marlowe believes in a kind of idealistic clarity better suited for a time long since vanished, if it even ever really existed at all.

It isn’t until about the the middle of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, itself ostensibly a whodunit about a call girl killer, that the film’s mystery is lifted and the audience knows the identity of the murderer well before the titular cop figures it out. In The Long Goodbye, the detail of Terry Lennox’s bruised hand being concealed by the driving gloves is something told to the audience but not Marlowe and it is a reveal that occurs before the opening credits end. In essence, Altman wants us to know that Marlowe will spend the rest of the film being played for a sucker and expending a ton of shoe leather just to get his heart broken. In a world that’s gone all wrong, Marlowe is all right. Unfortunately for him, he’s all wrong in a world where, by his own constant admission, it’s all ok with him.


Robert Altman was once quoted as saying that, to him, his entire filmography was one whole movie with each individual film a chapter. If this is true, Images, the lone horror film in his career, is a very pivotal chapter in that string as it reflects backwards on characters already introduced while also projecting forward and allowing the audience to more clearly see how, in Altman’s cinematic world, trace elements of one project can seep into another.

In some ways Images is a re-examination of Frances Austen from That Cold Day in the Park but through the prism of Cathryn, a much more sexual and less socially awkward creature than Frances but one who likewise nurses a mysterious void in her life. In direct opposition to Frances’s hanging out with barely-sentient wax mummies to fill the time, Cathryn spends her days writing children’s novels and waiting around for her boorish jagoff of a husband, Hugh, who has business dinners that last until four in the morning and, like a complete asshole, wears driving gloves as if they’re a perfectly acceptable and fashionable addition to his fall ensemble.

Despite the obvious differences between herself and Frances, Cathryn is similarly and undeniably unwell, which is made quite obvious in the first five minutes of the movie. Mysterious and disturbing phone calls which may or may not be occurring give way to brief, shocking hallucinations which cause Cathryn and Hugh to beat retreat to Green Cove, a semi-isolated, two-story cottage where Cathryn lived with her grandfather during her childhood (shot in picturesque County Wicklow, Ireland). Once there, the hallucinatory nature of the visitations of former lover Rene blend with the shifting, confusing interactions with not only Hugh but also old friend and neighbor, Marcel, and his twelve-year old daughter, Susannah.

On top of employing a lot of methods of twinning, namely the utilization of mirrors and clever match cuts, Altman plays a deft and creative card by swapping all of the cast and characters’ names. Susannah York plays Cathryn, Cathryn Harrison plays Susannah (who, in a moment of perfect, unnerving realization later in the film, says “I think I’m going to be just like you” to York). In terms of the men in Cathryn’s life, Altman stalwart Rene Auberjonois portrays Hugh, Hugh Millais portrays Marcel, and Marcel Bozzuffi portrays Rene. Identity is all but annihilated which keeps the viewer off-balance and the tension ever-shifting.

Up to this point, Images would be Altman’s most intimate film which has perhaps lent to its relative obstructiveness in Altman’s oeuvre. Coming hot on the heels of the megacast and decidedly anti-authoritarian M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud but before the giant wave of films that would cement Altman’s style (namely The Long Goodbye and California Split), Images is a curious, lonely beast that, despite Susannah York’s Best Actress win at the Cannes Film Festival that year, is only beginning to gets its due almost fifty years after its release. This just a little more than unfortunate as Images uses the manifestation of madness through architecture and space in such a a way that puts it in the exact same company as Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary.

And Images is yet another exhibit in what was becoming Altman’s hobby, namely genre bending. In fact, this may be his very most successful. While every other movie seems to function within its respective genre while also obliterating the conventions, nobody doubts that, say, The Long Goodbye is a mystery or that Thieves Like Us is a crime picture. Yet despite the legitimate chills and shocks that come from Images (and there are plenty), it’s only been since until recently that it’s been accepted as a horror film even though it is almost explicitly so. However, this might also be more due to the arbitrary boundaries put on horror films in general which causes discussions surrounding them to devolve into qualifying nonsense where something gets described as “elevated horror.”

Images is also the first film since The Delinquents in which Altman takes full screenplay credit. That being said, all of Susannah York’s narration is hers as it incorporates In Search of Unicorns, an actual children’s book she authored and released in 1973 (and for which she is given full credit at the end). This detail in which Altman utilizes and injects elements of reality onto his cinematic canvas had already felt during the shooting of McCabe & Mrs. Miller where the cast had to choose and mend their own costumes throughout the entire production. But by incorporating York’s actual book as a double for Cathryn’s, Images takes on a multi-dimensioned life of its own which predated the kind of extraordinary hands-on approach to the country music that would be deployed by his cast in Nashville or the in-the-mix of media and politics that would give life to Tanner ‘88.

On a technical level, Images is a stunner. Masterfully dressed by production designer Leon Ericksen, the film has an almost tactile quality and is enormously clever. From Hugh’s complicated folding glasses to the numerous cameras, lenses, stereopticons, and the ocular designs in her headboard, Cathryn lives a life overloaded with optical tchotchke and bric-a-brac where she always feels seen. The subtle details that seem to appear in both Cathryn and Hugh’s home in town and in Green Cove gives off the impression that the film may not take place anywhere outside of Cathryn’s mind. Every detail seems to have a match and every thread seems to be tied.

Pulling off some fluid camerawork alongside more static moments that reveal exquisite, painterly compositions which come alive with York’s beautifully tempered narration of passages from her book, Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is just achingly gorgeous and it gives Images the sheen of a dark fairy tale set in a haunted, mystical land. John Williams garnered an Oscar nomination for his stately and creepy score which is often and effectively punctuated by sharp and discordant sounds by Japanese composer Stomu Yamashta.

In the beginning of Altman’s next film, The Long Gooodbye, driving gloves are introduced in a key moment, offering a visual clue to the film’s mystery to the audience without also revealing it to Philip Marlowe. Five years later, the shared DNA of Cathryn and Frances would most certainly find its way into Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek’s characters in 3 Women. And while these seem like trivial details that might even be described as wild reaches, if we were to take Altman at his word in that all of his movies served as one continuous film, it’s hard to argue that these things that floated downstream and lodged themselves explicitly in Altman’s future projects weren’t the consciously laid soft-tissue connections that joined his entire cinema together like a massive, gorgeous tapestry.


Into the impossibly soggy, Pacific Northwestern frontier “town” of Presbyterian Church rides John McCabe. Call him a “gambler” and he’ll gently correct you (“Businessman… businessman,” he’ll say in an attempt to convince himself more than you). Call him a gunfighter and he’ll avoid the subject altogether but only after you believe he very well could be. Before hitting the heart of the ramshackle huts and rickety structures that seem to be constructed on top of one another in the town, McCabe stops and does a quick wardrobe change while muttering some mostly inaudible, solitary grievances. But once clad in his best gambling duds, John McCabe enters the central meeting point that is Patrick Sheehan’s Restaurant and Boarding House and, within ten minutes of screen time, he will have charmed most everyone in the town and planted his flag with dollar signs in his eyes. For it is here that he will get wealthy by operating a saloon and whorehouse. After all, men like to drink, gamble, and screw so building a grand sporting house would be almost like having a machine that printed money.

Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a poetic ode to the kind of moronic, Friday-rich, American choade whose long vision is stunted and for whom aiming higher always leads to disaster. Warren Beatty’s John McCabe is almost like a distant, frontier relative of George Roundy, the lothario hairdresser character Beatty and screenwriter Robert Towne would create for Hal Ashby’s Shampoo a few years later. Businessmen who seem to understand only their clientele’s most basic of needs without any real plan for personal or professional growth, Roundy and McCabe both manage to make it to the precipice of success before plummeting into the abyss due to their own foolishness. At the end of Shampoo, Roundy stands cliffside in Beverly Hills the morning after Richard Nixon’s inauguration and watches his future roll away in a luxury car into the hazy hills of Southern California. At the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, McCabe sits mortally wounded in the snow, caught between death and frozen contemplation. And in both films, Julie Christie has become mournfully fed up with him and what he’ll never be able to give her.

You see, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film adapted from the Edmund Naughton novel simply titled McCabe. Altman knew that to understand the tragedy of John McCabe, Mrs. Constance Miller would have to be given an equal importance in the equation. And so Julie Christie’s brusque, whip-smart prostitute-cum-madam enters into the scene early and joins McCabe at the hip, steering his business into more profitable waters merely by paying attention to the cleanliness of the house and catering to its employees’ personal concerns. But with an elevated awareness of her position in a rapidly changing America, Mrs. Miller is also the one in the partnership who is smart enough to understand that there often comes a time to pack it in and cut your losses. And though she’s addicted to opium which helps keeps her emotionally at an arm’s length (McCabe always pays for it), she isn’t hampered with the kind of artificial courage afforded to McCabe via the copious amount of whiskey he ingests while trying to deal with a couple of mining representatives charged with buying his holdings in the town from him.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is to the western what M*A*S*H was to the war film. And while the films of Sam Peckinpah had already done their best to demystify the west and pretty much put a period on the western itself, Altman couldn’t help but use the most American of the genres to completely drain the accepted iconography and themes and to elevate contemporary meditations on independence, ruthless business practices, the hypocrisy of the church, and the impossible predicament of women in our society. And to the last point, Altman makes amends for any misogyny that might have still been in the air after M*A*S*H by giving the gaggle of prostitutes who swagger into Presbyterian Church something more to work with than garish rouge work and frilly lounging clothes, most recognizable in countless westerns of the time. Here, they have missing teeth, might defend themselves with a knife if the client gets a little out of hand, explicitly need to take bathroom breaks, and otherwise act in a manner needing a more human touch than McCabe. Constance Miller becomes the advocate for the women who quite literally helped settle the west and built the foundation of the society which we take for granted today. In short, if you’re living in an established community, prostitutes helped establish it.

In the traditional western (and even those of Peckinpah), the church is almost the central point of the town and the one place that everyone congregates. But while the town is called Presbyterian Church, the actual Presbyterian church in the town is a slow construction and nobody seems in a big hurry to complete it. We only ever see Reverend Elliott (Corey Fischer) toiling away at it which is juxtaposed with the remainder of the able-bodied men in the town who, like a bunch of monkeys on a jungle gym, clamor all over the frame of what will become John McCabe’s little slice of paradise once its been completed. The only time we ever see anyone engaged in anything remotely non-secular is at the funeral of Bart Coyle which is executed in a perfunctory and rushed manner with Rev. Elliott moving through the eulogy if he were dispassionately reading the ingredients for a stew. So it is the film’s most jaw-dropping moment of irony that, in the film’s finale, the entire town braves a brutal (and 100% authentic) snowstorm to save the burning church about which they’ve previously shown zero interest while John McCabe, the guy who arguably made their life more immediately fulfilling, fights for his life all by his lonesome in the other side of the town. I can think of nothing that is more representative of America’s lopsided lip-service to faith and religion than the film’s final twenty minutes.

It’s a cinch that, along with the following year’s Images, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of Altman’s most gorgeous pictures. By indulging in a process called flashing (slightly exposing the negative before actually using it) cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond gives McCabe & Mrs. Miller a distressed, leathery look in its interiors that looks like vintage photographs come to life. Weaved into the dreamy atmosphere are the indelible original songs by Leonard Cohen which seem to work in tandem to the narrative in such a way to suggest the film is some kind of ballad that exists in the grey matter of the American consciousness.

All of this works to create a film that feels at once nostalgic and also like nothing you’ve ever seen, the cinematic equivalent of what hearing The Band must have been like in 1968. And it also further illustrates what Altman ultimately thought about formulas, situations, and tropes that were routinely the stuff of genre films. Instead of seeing the hard lines in which he was to keep his colors, he saw a whole new opportunity to be endlessly creative that would lead to one of the richest resumes in modern cinematic history.


By Patrick Crain

When M*A*S*H became an unexpected monster hit that would allow Robert Altman to more or less write his own ticket for the next ten years, he came face to face with a stark decision. He could continue down the road of commercialism and give mass audiences what he thought they might have wanted or he could continue being an iconoclast who would blow apart any good will he may have previously accrued by prospectively indulging in projects that meant the most to an audience of one, namely Robert Altman. Within nine months of the release of M*A*S*H, this question would be answered very clearly with the release of Brewster McCloud.

Continuing his trend of doing unwelcome prostate exams on the studio suits, Brewster McCloud may have been even more damning and reprobate than M*A*S*H and it’s evident within the first three minutes. Though MGM’s Leo the Lion title card had been sent up before, never had his maw opened to reveal a mistake (specifically, Rene Auberjonois sheepishly saying “I forgot the opening line” is laid over the roar), announcing the artificiality of the movies before we even see a frame of the actual film. Soon after that, Altman takes center aim at opening credit sequences by calling attention to it while setting up the players in this mad, modern fairy tale (and if audiences thought the verbalized roll call of actors that posed as the closing credits M*A*S*H was audacious, they were likely to be just as delighted at the end of Brewster McCloud and, perhaps, even more so).

Brewster McCloud, on the surface, is a social observation wrapped up in a narrative regarding a bizarre murder mystery. The town of Houston is suddenly plagued by the mass stranglings of some of society’s upper crust, including a wealthy miser who owns a string of rest homes (an unrecognizable, hilarious Stacey Keach) and a gaudily spangled, tone deaf, and miserably loud Marge Schott-like matron all things white in her beloved city (a fabulous Margaret Hamilton). To help solve these murders, hotshot San Francisco detective Frank Shaft (Altman day-player Michael Murphy in his first plum role) and his glorious assortment of turtlenecks are called in to assist and he immediately runs afoul of the local police investigation headed up by acerbic Captain Crandall (G Wood, pretty much playing the same character he did in M*A*S*H). Weaving in and out off this mystery is Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort, charming audiences a year before he really made an impression in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude), a lonely and shy young man who lives in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome and is in the process of building a massive set of wings so one day he can fly far far away. Also, mixed into the craziness is a subplot regarding the widow of a dirty cop (Bert Remsen in his Altman debut), a dizzy yet radiant Astrodome tour guide (Shelley Duvall, an absolute doll in her film debut), a local political bigwig (William Windom), and a great deal of bird shit.

There are a great deal of elements in this very specific stew that makes it such an enticing curiosity and quite unlike anything else in Altman’s filmography. Along with its relentless torching of everything stupid and ugly about American culture (racism, corruption, sleazy politicians), the film takes some pretty hip weed humor out for a stroll along with more than a few homages to the Wizard of Oz and cop films of the day (most especially Bullitt and Shaft). Likewise clever and curiously amusing is the film’s continuous monologue by the lecturer (Auberjonois) whose theories on man and bird prove to be so potent, he slowly transforms into an overstuffed winged creature as the movie unfolds.

But, amid the almost surreal, carnival atmosphere that perfumes the film, there are deeper and more serious themes at play in Brewster McCloud. Bud Cort is not unlike his character in Harold and Maude in that he’s engaged in a strange relationship with an older woman and is also unable to connect to the real world. But in Brewster McCloud, the audience doesn’t much know what has caused him to give up on humanity to the point he would retreat into such a cockeyed fantasy. Sally Kellerman’s mysterious, trench-coated, doting, mama bird/angel of death character of Louise hangs about in the background and cuts a figure that Altman would return to with just a little less amusement in the last hour of his career when mortality was watching his every move. And not unlike Sandy Dennis’s Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park, Brewster is a sexual cripple. Taught to believe that the closest experience to flying at man’s disposal is the pleasure of sex and that, once one has been deflowered, man settles and loses his desire for flight, his sex life is relegated to him doing an insane amount of chin-ups while his girlfriend (a hilarious Jennifer Salt) masturbates under the covers.

Brewster McCloud is a very singular, madcap moment in Altman’s career that feels something like a palate cleanser that was splashed into the audience’s face to repel the squares who had hitched onto M*A*S*H for all the wrong reasons. Where he would give flesh to some bottom shelf National Lampoon characters some fifteen years later with his underrated O.C. and Stiggs, Altman here looks to be crafting something that feels like it escaped from a movie parody right out of MAD Magazine. And while the final moments of the film drive home just what an actor’s movie the film is, the real star of Brewster McCloud may very well be the Astrodome itself. A scant five years after it was completed, Altman saw it as one of the best metaphors for the day; a monument to the fact that the human race eventually became far more risk-adverse and less adventurous and would opt to nest in the reliable creature comforts one got from living in a cage. And it was a cage Altman would continue to rattle as if doing so were a personality trait.


By Patrick Crain

And then there was M*A*S*H.

Once upon a time, fifty one years ago to be exact, long before the block programming of post-Carson syndication would lull my generation to sleep with the overly familiar, brassy theme song “Suicide is Painless” before drifting into the recorder-driven opening for Taxi, M*A*S*H was a third-priority Korean War film about which the suits at 20th Century Fox barely cared. For their eyes were collectively on both Tora! Tora! Tora!, a multi-helmed, transcontinental production and Patton, a star vehicle for George C. Scott. Over the hill in Calabasas, California and amongst the knotty hills of brown and olive was Robert Altman and a ragtag bunch of nobody actors making a picture about a war that was already mostly forgotten. He brought it in on time and under-budget so the suits were happy.

Well, they were happy until they saw what Robert Altman had done to Ring Lardner Jr’s adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel about Army surgeons. A structureless mess of anarchy one would have to have been a detective to recognize as “not Vietnam,” M*A*S*H was everything the aging brass at Fox would have rather avoided. In fact, to drive home the point that it was set in Korea, the suits demanded Altman include a post-credit crawl making explicit that THIS was a film about a PREVIOUS war, implying that this was not at all to be misconstrued as to be sending up the current administration and our involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.

I mean… ok. But it’s Vietnam. And that’s probably a good thing because the core audience that lifted M*A*S*H to its dizzying heights of financial and critical success was the cynical Boomer generation who was more than ready to pick up what Altman and company was putting down. The late and lamented father of a buddy of mine used to speak about seeing M*A*S*H in the theater in tones so reverent, they were probably better suited to stories about the birth of his son. “We had to go back and watch it again immediately to pick up the stuff we missed,” he said.

And, of course, M*A*S*H is really where Altman’s style blossomed which caused one to want to go back and watch it again. And maybe that’s not by choice but accident. After all, his previous three films all seemed much more tightly bound by story and plot. Regardless of whatever the screenplay was or the source material from which it sprung, Altman decided M*A*S*H was a mood and not a story and all but chucked the script; something that made Lardner none too pleased until, ironically, he picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Bracketed by the arrival and departure of Col. Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) to and from the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit which is mere miles from the front, M*A*S*H zips through its running time dividing itself between the zany antics of the irreverent surgeons and the horrendous detail of their gruesome work. When the film settles down into the operating rooms, the film turns shockingly gory and, additionally, gets awash in so much overlapping dialogue regarding surgical procedural and other ephemera that the audience never once thinks that Sutherland and Skerritt (and Elliott Gould who shows up as ace chest surgeon “Trapper John” McIntyre), aren’t actual doctors.

It is in this busy canvass of toil and work that Altman can let his focus run free and drift in and out of clusters of people, all engaged in their own private worlds. The multi-tracked soundtrack he’d perfect in Nashville gets its first workout here as stacked conversations force the viewer to choose one and stick with it only to realize you’ve drifted into another conversation that somehow seemed adjoined to the other. That Altman could do this at will and almost any film was pure magic and the biggest reason his films have such long legs in terms of their conduciveness for revisiting. And M*A*S*H is Altman’s first film to have the wide and warm tapestry of supporting players who fade in and out of the scenery in half-measures but all of whom we feel as if we know by the time the closing credits run. It is around this time that Altman begins to toy with building communities within his films. A practice that would run to the release of Popeye (and non-release of HealtH) in 1980, Altman’s productions became something of a communal experience with actors being chosen as types and then asked to flesh them out on the screen while using the script only as a loose framework (most notably in the following year’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). In M*A*S*H, we come to adore secondary characters such as Major Frank Burns (the extra dry Roger Bowen), Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois, having a ball), Painless Pole Waldowski (John Shuck, making history by dropping the very first instance of the word “fuck” in a scripted motion picture by a major studio), and Corporal Radar O’ Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only cast member to make the transition to the television adaptation).

The film might have a cruel misogynistic streak by today’s standards and there are plenty of people who will impose all the current social values and norms to a fifty year old movie without applying much context to the discussion. But while it would be silly and irresponsible to cancel it outright, M*A*S*H shouldn’t be let off the hook completely. For it is true that the kind of cruelty heaped upon Major Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman, bringing a fire to the role that nabbed her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) is of an aggressively sexual and misogynistic nature but Altman wants to make sure that it’s not entirely at the hands of the hands of men. In what is seen as the most overtly crude humiliation (namely the shower scene), it’s clear that the other women in the camp have as much disdain for her as the men and are likewise in on the prank. In M*A*S*H, the camp isn’t simply a “boy’s club,” but a “club for open hedonists.” Nobody cares that the aggressively hypocritical Frank Burns (a terrific Robert Duvall) and O’Houlihan are having sex, what they care about is Burns and O’ Houlihan’s attitudes about everyone else who are having sex. But, all of that said, that women are in on the prank in the movie cannot erase the fact that none of the filmmakers were women. In this world, O’Houlihan is tasked with the binary choice of dumbing down and shutting up or resigning her commission which everyone knows means everything to her. This is where the film’s aim to drag all authority down to a very low level, strong career women like O’Houlihan become collateral damage and its hard not see the the undermining of similar women characters of the era as a feature and not a bug. Luckily, Altman would get much better at this in a very big hurry.

So, for certain, M*A*S*H is a product of its time but it’s hard to overstate what a dynamite product it was. Nothing seemed scared after M*A*S*H. Hell, even the holy game of football, as American as war, gets pulled through the ringer in the film’s final act (with some footage courtesy of future trash auteur and Wide World of Sports pioneer, Andy Sidaris). At a time in which norms were crumbling by the second, M*A*S*H took dead center aim and laughed all the way to the bank as it stomped through all that we took seriously as a nation. The combination of our cathartic exhale and the film’s black humor proved quite therapeutic. And while the film launched a whole cottage industry of similar comedies in which anti-authoritarianism is taken to a sophomoric and perverse level, (it’s difficult to watch something like National Lampoon’s Animal House without seeing much of M*A*S*H’s DNA), Altman, now a superstar director with a monster hit under his belt, would be displaying his brand of fully-committed anarchy by the year’s end as the next trick up his sleeve would both equally dazzle and confuse and put on full display the fearless maverick that he truly was.

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

By Patrick Crain

On a random chilly day in Vancouver, a wealthy woman of undetermined age named Frances Austen spots a boy, teetering somewhere between his late teens and early twentes, sitting on a park bench adjacent to her home. The day grows colder and is then is finally saturated by rain, yet he doesn’t budge from the bench. Frances observes this from her window and for reasons either of benevolence or simple, piqued interest, the woman invites the boy, who first appears to be mute, into her home. From here, an unorthodox and obsessive relationship begins.

Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is a movie about sex though not necessarily in the way you’d expect from the description above. More specifically, it’s a tragic and mysterious film about a woman whose unmoored sexual blossoming combusts with her rigid repression. Sandy Dennis’s Frances Austen is almost a zombie of ritual who lives in a sarcophagus of high-class privilege occupied by the waxy specters of her late parents’ peers. We know little about her other than what we get by way of light expository dialogue and her direct yet taciturn demeanor. Her daily activities don’t seem to include any kind of employment but, instead, are spent entertaining, shopping, listening to selections from her utterly square record collection, and playing bocce ball with people twice her age. It’s as if her entire reason for being were awarded to her through a probate judgement along with her house and its servants.

This is juxtaposed with the life of The Boy, credited as such and played with a certain bright and impish charm by Michael Burns. Detangled from his large, overwhelming family we glimpse in one masterful exterior shot of his cramped, multi-level home that reveals multitudes while saying very little, he seems to float on a wave of pure life, his only real connection being that of his free-spirited sister who squats in a docked, derelict boat with her hippie boyfriend. It is with her that we learn that he is not, indeed, mute but is instead a curious observer with some rather eccentric tendencies.

In Altman’s first film to really put a real examining glass to human nature, That Cold Day in the Park lives in a very uncomfortable space where sex is never something joyous, exciting, a good time, or expressive but where it is a commodity, a disgusting biological necessity with frightening and painful ramifications, or an unreachable and twisted curiosity. There is always a heavy dichotomous swing between the awkwardness of not knowing anything or, in the case of The Boy, possibly knowing far too much. And while it doesn’t decry healthy sexual freedom, it looks on in sadness at unhealthy sexual identities which leaves the emotionally crippled without any alternatives or outlets.

With her downward-turned smile, librarian hair, and muted earth tones, Sandy Dennis’s Frances is as sharp and as emotionless as a clock and it is next to impossible to imagine that Dennis was but 32 years old when the film was made. Only when she eats some pot-laced cookies gifted to her as a gag by The Boy do we see her melt into a soft-focused thing of beauty, lifted into the ether by the tremendously gorgeous camerawork of Vilmos Zsigmond. Like Sissy Spacek’s Pinky in Altman’s 1977 masterpiece 3 Women, Sandy Dennis’s Frances literally transforms into another character in front of the audience’s face and it a thing of true wonder. As the scene slowly relaxes forward, we begin to vibe with her and pick up on the fully sexual being that she clearly would love to be if situations and forces unknown wouldn’t have stifled her. And like many an Altman woman that would pop up in his filmography, we get that her life has been robbed somewhere of a natural joy. Little wonder that when disappointment strikes, Frances snaps back into her discomforting comfort zone. And boy, does she snap back hard.

Also dividing the film in a rather bold way is the way it splits its time between the controlled environment of Frances’s apartment and the exterior world. As in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Frances’s apartment becomes a controlling space just as Susannah York’s two homes do in Altman’s Images, a film which would come three years later. In both films, the women are mostly trapped in cloistered environments are either inescapable or out of which it’s impossible to exist as the characters are constantly met with chaos and confusion and an inability to navigate through reality. And as That Cold Day in the Park marches toward its conclusion and moves more and more away from the confines of Frances’s apartment, Altman really cuts loose with his observations utilizing his signature style of messy sound design meant to give the audience the sensation of being a casual observer. For all the ink spilled about the following year’s M*A*S*H being the birth of the specific thing we’d eventually define as “Altmanesque,” I’d ask that the clock be turned back a bit and present this as an alternative Exhibit A. Here, it’s used not only as an engaging participatory device for the audience but also as an overwhelming sensory overload to Frances as a character as moments in the very chatty waiting room of a gynecologist and a pitiful attempt in a bar by Frances to procure a prostitute attest. In both scenes, she is entirely out of her element and rudderless and her anxiety is palpable.

Aided by Gillian Freeman’s beautifully delicate screenplay (based on a novel by Peter Miles), Altman’s third time at bat is an astonishing and effective film that gets lost in the conversation regarding his greatest works. While it lacks the jolts of Images and it can’t conjure the deliriously impenetrable and mysterious gossamer of 3 Women, That Cold Day in the Park reflects an artist interested in the marginalized and the outcast; people who aren’t given much serious study but who are indeed out there, doing their damndest, and putting their whole heart into it, regardless of consequence.


By Patrick Crain

“Why not just send the Voice of America up there and do it right? Or send some babe with big beautiful teeth and a stack of pop tunes?”

Robert Altman’s filmography is one that lacks heroes in the conventional sense. What it is in no short supply of are people who stumble upwards into some sense of accomplishment or peace. Sometimes it happens a little too late, but it happens nonetheless. For Altman was less interested in the white-hatted good guys who made up the myths found in the American history books; he wanted the stories of the regular schmoes who sometimes lucked into greatness or, as was also the case, those who stood on the wrong side of greatness and peered longingly at the other side.

So it is that Countdown, Altman’s big budget theatrical debut, would have such a concern at its center. Eleven years before Tom Wolfe blew the lid off the painstaking work that went into the myth-making of the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff and a whole year before Apollo 11 made traveling to the moon a reality, Altman got an early crack at both; the bureaucratic handwringing and hustling with elements of the human, home-based drama that got the short shrift in all of those “astronaut wife” profiles Life Magazine churned out around the same time.

Countdown is a film about a fictional race to the moon between the Russians and the United States. Far ahead of the game, the Russians are planning to send an engineer to the moon while the US is still working on its own plans to launch. As the Russians’ plan becomes known, the US throws together a dangerous, breakneck scheme to send a man to beat the Russians to the punch. This causes a rift between Chiz (Robert Duvall) and Lee Stegler (James Caan) as the former is disallowed to go given his military rank and the latter is an untested young hothead. Eventuallly, Chiz becomes Stegler’s backup during his punishing training and preparation while the stress of Stegler’s home life begins to take its toll.

Countdown, at its most basic, is a serious-minded affair that is something between science fantasy and science fiction; I’d be tempted to pitch it as science-fact, but that’s not quite right. For amid the scientific jargon, the gadgets, and the impressive amount of detail, Countdown can’t quite shed its thin, stagey, soap operatic flourishes when it focuses on the domestic world of the Steglers. Chief among the issues is the character of Mick Stegler, Lee’s long-suffering wife. Joanna Moore turns in a fine performance and does what she can with the role but the screenplay gives her no real depth. In a film more daring, Altman would have allowed for Moore to act independently as her emotional void becomes exacerbated by Lee’s work. Mick Stegler is relegated to wear the cloak of the dutiful, robotic wife who more or less has to absorb every decision with a grin. These scenes go through the motions of hitting the right notes where they should in the story (the uncertainty, the fear, the boredom, “what’ll we tell little Stevie?”, etc.) but each domestic situation feels like it was recycled from a benign television drama of the day, exactly the kind of tin-type and shallow patriotism Altman would later skewer with bottomless glee.

But Countdown really shines in those moments where the film focuses on the mission and all of the dressing around it. Altman’s military service gives him a keen understanding of Air Force culture and when the movie settles into the wood-paneled military offices and yawning lecture halls where decisions both good and bad are shouted over each other, the film has a certain immediacy. And, really, to a layman, all of the dialogue and the ephemera sounds pretty buyable, most especially for the time. Hell, “His eyes will have been bathing in oxygen and he’ll have bilateral conjunctivitis” sounds like something I might quote at a party to sound smart if I were in a conversation about astronauts and was three glasses of wine into it.

Under-remarked, too, is just how much pure chemistry is apparent in the debut match of James Caan and Robert Duvall who would find themselves paired in four more films in the following seven years. The naturalism of their rivalry/friendship is a true thing of beauty and it is really on high display here, especially given the nature of the roles and the story.

Countdown is far from a perfect film and it’s very much a product of its time but it’s also not exactly NOT “Altmanesque.” While his particular style of casual observation of the mundane and the messy sound design that’s immediately recognizable as Altman’s would have to wait until his next film, Altman does give it the old college try by having heavy chunks of dialogue to crash and topple on another during a number of the scenes. It’s a technique that would make him famous by 1975 but, in 1968, got him fired from the picture by studio chief Jack Warner and, unfortunately, led to reshoots that jettisoned Altman’s darker, more opaque ending in favor of something with some positive closure.

Due to the studio interference, Countdown is ultimately an impersonal work but Altman’s deconstructive dark streak really finds a way to make its debut here as the film cannily tracks his fascination with the sloppy beauty of America and its ability to achieve great things in spite of itself. How does a man beat the odds, go to the moon, and become the All American Boy? According to Altman, with lot of meetings, nervous political decisions, goofy luck, faulty technology, and a bunch of uncomfortable familial damage.

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: The Delinquents / The James Dean Story (1957)

By Patrick Crain

When we think about the social unraveling that occurred in America, we seem more or less fixated on the mid to late sixties, a psychologically fragile time in which our great compact seemed to fissure as stress upon stress was laid atop it and harder and harder scar tissue began to form in the place of the great, gaping wounds. The seeds of this, of course, were sown in the postwar years in which men came home from overseas with psychological issues and then created children who would then have to deal with the silent trauma in their own way by dropping out and tuning in just as the sixties began to ripen.

But floating between these two extremes were those of the Silent Generation who, too young to serve their country themselves, watched their fathers go off to war but then had to grapple with the reality of the absent parent who, in some cases, would not return, or, in other cases, would return in a form almost unrecognizable to the people who stayed behind. World War I was the first war in which medical advances allowed us to reckon with the physical damage of combat and World War II was the first in which we had to confront with the difficult sociological damage of combat. That it was met with relative silence and was internalized in such a way that it often resembled a pressure cooker was a definite contributing factor in the fracture between the generations that occurred later.

To the young men drifting through those times, Elvis Presley and James Dean were identifiable outlets; figures who cut through a lot of social layers and captured the imagination and set the cultural tone. But James Dean filled this gap better than Elvis. Maybe it’s because Dean didn’t seem quite as beamed in from another planet like Elvis did or maybe because Dean remained forever young, perpetually romantic and frozen in time; an almost perfectly preserved artifact of his time. By turns dangerous and sweet, sexual and brooding, Dean was the perfect icon due to the ability for men to see him through whatever prism they chose.

The spirit of James Dean hangs over Robert Altman’s debut feature, The Delinquents, like an unwelcome ghost. Shot in 1955 but not released until 1957, two years after Dean’s death, the enterprise was the result of a local Kansas City producer wanting to cash in on the juvenile delinquent movies that were printing money out in Hollywood and local talent Robert Altman wanting to move from the industrials he was making for the Calvin Company to actual feature films. Whether Altman was ready for such a thing is another call entirely as the Delinquents is a movie that feels like two parts of an educational film that you might have seen in junior high in the late 50’s. It concerns itself with the doomed romance between Scotty and Janice (pre-Billy Jack Tom Laughlin and KC local Rosemary Howard, respectively), two high school kids who are having trouble taking their relationship to the next level due to Janice’s square parents feeling that a girl of sixteen is far too young to be going steady and forbids them to see each other.

Enter a gaggle of rough young thugs, the ranks of which contain Eddie (Dick Bakalyan) and led by Cholly (Peter Miller). After involving innocent bystander Scotty in a drive in rumble, Cholly hatches a plan to help his new buddy out. He’ll pose as Janice’s date and will bring her to Scotty after picking her up. And, of course, this leads to all kinds of trouble which includes a police raid on a house party, a lot of booze, a gas station robbery, an attempted assault, and, finally, a knife fight.

Containing a mix of passable and stiff performances, a lurching narrative, and a helplessly terrible and moralizing wraparound monologue, the Delinquents more or less banished Altman to the world of television where he honed his skills, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Whirlybirds. It is also notable for the weirdly intense performance Tom Laughlin gives, clashing with the helpless Howard in the same way that predates the exact same awkwardness that would materialize when he would insist on casting Delores Taylor, his non-actress wife, in gigantic, difficult roles in his worthless Billy Jack movies.

I suppose there is a camp quality to be had with this kind of thing. After all, deep in the third act, Laughlin’s method acting gets so out of hand that it looks like he permanently damages Dick Bakalyan’s cervical spine when he drags him down to the ground in something that looks like a headlock that would get you thrown out of most wrestling matches. And in the film’s climax soon afterward, a hotted up Laughlin gets into a fight with Peter Miller’s character that looks like it wasn’t completely covered or cut correctly. The result is a lot of jagged editing which has Laughlin oscillating between looking like he’s going to either destroy or vomit all over Peter Miller before finally coming to a head with Laughlin Popeyeing Miller to the moon against the side of a refrigerator.

Add in some fun Kansas City locations, a painless running time of just around 75 minutes, and the tacked-on monologue regarding morals and American values and this MIGHT just be someone’s cup of tea. And, regardless of the result (which isn’t unwatchable and was good enough to land him a job with Hitchcock) it’s also hard to ignore that Altman beats Cassavetes to the big screen by two years with his independent feature and netting writing, producing, and directing credits. For every independent filmmaker who owes a debt to Cassavetes, some of that gratitude should be directed toward Altman.

James Dean factors in more appropriately and explicitly in Altman’s next outing which was assembled and created during the editing phase of the Delinquents. Also released in 1957, the James Dean Story has the regional, documentarian feel of a Charles B. Pierce film though it also curiously enough seems to veer a little towards the style of an Errol Morris documentary at times as the film is mostly pieced together with solemn narration and the unvarnished and raw takes of some talking heads, some secret recordings, and sprinkled with brooding passages about misgivings, griefs, and the inability to conform.

But the James Dean Story is really a telling little piece of material from the time that might just be a little more reflective and dour than it was envisioned to be. Sure, the subject matter had perished in a terrible car crash and died far too young but, for 1957, it’s just a little honest and just a tad unflattering which showed that the postwar generation were more interested in getting down to just who they were more than they wanted a magazine on film that sold the image of Dean that might not tell the whole story. Buried in all of this was the generation expressed existential angst; who are we?

One thing that Robert Altman really seemed to understand is that celebrities do oftentimes come from humble beginnings and that they are as much a part of the American portrait as steel workers, teachers, and farmers. And while watching this piece, one sometimes wonders how much Altman identifies with James Dean as he was only six years older than Dean and likewise sprung out of the middle of America. Both nonconformist iconoclasts, it’s hard to imagine that Altman didn’t see a lot of himself in Dean. Over time, he would revisit Dean’s legacy, most explicitly in his 1982 adaptation of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean as he examined the nature of celebrity, pop culture, and the empty promises that come with investing in the memories of people you really don’t know.

Robert Altman would disappear into Hollywood hack work for another decade before reemerging in 1968 with his first big studio picture, Countdown from which he was fired by Jack Warner. A literal quote from the James Dean Story reads “the more they criticized, the more he refused to change.” This is said, of course, of James Dean but it could also be as easily said of Robert Altman.

SYLVAIN DESPRETZ: Los Ángeles by Kent Hill



I don’t profess to be anything except a guy who really loves his movies. So I was, needless to say, humbled when Sylvain Despretz, illustrator extraordinaire and Hollywood veteran, asked for my opinion on his new book Los Ángeles .

bio SDGH

The thoughts (abridged) I rendered unto him are as follows:

“Right off the bat I concede we have a very similar taste in movies, beginning on the opening page where you count James Mason among your idols. You have a free-flowing narrative style here – mixed in with a little distain for certain elements of ‘The Industry’. Yet there, embedded in your frankness, and if you know the lyrics to Billy Joel’s Piano Man, you strike me in predicament alone, to be like John the bartender; sure that he could be a movie star . . . if he could get out of this place.

So in that I feel your journey is unique – in the sense that you have been surrounded by the business, yet are melancholic, purely because you are no different than any other kid who wanted to run off and join the circus – you longed to be a lion tamer – you wanted to be a director.

Still I can’t wait to see this all come together. As I read your words I heard your voice and am reminded of great quotes from the towers of their fields from days past. Well, two in particular. One I heard Peter Guber say: “Success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.” And the other comes from Harrison Ellenshaw,  “Shakespeare never had a word processor . . . and now we word processors we have no Shakespeare’s.” Your life is extraordinary and the tapestry upon which your weave this tale is rich in texture and bold in attack.”


Los Ángeles is a book that is much about one man’s love of cinema as it is his adventures in the screen trade. It might get personal, and it does…in the best sense. This separates it from the generic ‘greatest hits’ compilations which would merely be satisfied showing you only the art from the films and pictures of the movie masters Sylvain has been privileged to rub shoulders with.

Set Photo 01

But this is not a film book. It’s about art, life, and loving movies so deeply you feel them at the source of everything that inspires one to create. Sylvain and I always have the most engaging and complex conversations, which are always nice to have with like-minded cineastes, especially when we share a similar perspective on what great films are and how they touch us.



Life like cinema is about a series of moments. We all know the films we like, still, when asked, we find ourselves recounting the scenes which really spoke to us. Robert Altman once told his wife about his first viewing on David Lean’s A Brief Encounter. She recalled that, though Altman was initially just casually watching the movie, by the end, he had fallen in love with the films leading lady, Celia Johnson, and was utterly moved by the story unfurled.

Thus is the power of cinema, and the heart of Sylvain Despretz’s Los Ángeles.

As it has been written, so has it been done.


“Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?” : An Interview with Michael Davis by Kent Hill (PART 3)

Shoot 'em Up

I really love this gig. I really do. I’ve had the distinction of being able to converse with many a hero and much admired artist over my time at PTS. There have though, been a few surprises along the way – and this was one of them.

I have long wanted to chat with Michael Davis. Part of it, and I’m sure you’ll agree having seen his films, that here is a man who went from making 100 Women to writing and directing the most-excellent, ballet of bullets that is Shoot ‘em Up. And you just need a few minutes of talking with Michael to understand how this was possible.


They say Scorsese has a machine-gun-mouth. Well listening to Michael is like standing next to Jesse Ventura firing Ol’ Painless. And – WOW – what a delight, the frenetic and passionate electricity that this man generates in infectious. Michael’s initial overview of the birth of his career is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever heard. From his beginnings as a storyboard artist, to various writing assignments (don’t say Double Dragon out loud), to his eventual directorial debut; it’s a madcap movie marathon coming at you – at high speed!

Our conversation was so enthralling, so engaging, that I would be doing my guest a severe injustice to cut even a moment of it. So I shall be presenting it to you as a trilogy. Each section I promise is as entertaining as the last. So, don’t touch that dial, and prepare yourself to experience the film-making personification of the perfect storm that is . . . Michael Davis . . . . . . PART 3.