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Robert Altman’s Lost Classics Finally on Blu-ray

Good gravy, can it really be true? Has it really been nine years since the passing of Robert Altman, one of the best and most idiosyncratic of all American filmmakers? Nine years since the release of one of those films that, depending on one's point of view, amused, outraged, inspired or perplexed audiences and critics alike—all at once, in many cases? Nine years since the time when one could purchase a ticket for his latest work and feel confident that, regardless of whether it was "good" or "bad," they were about to experience a genuinely singular cinematic experience? On the one hand, it doesn't feel that long because the films themselves are so vibrant and alive (and often ahead of their times) that they still feel more fresh and vital than most current movies. On the other, the absence of that vitality can be felt more and more with each passing year, as even the more artistically inclined films have begun to fall into a depressingly rigid lockstep that even his dopiest efforts usually managed to avoid—he may have made the occasional bad movie but he almost never made a boring one.

Whether a conscious effort to mark the anniversary of his passing or the result of the kind of unconscious cosmic synergy that often cropped up in his work, a number of Altman's films are making their long-awaited Blu-ray debuts—Kino Lorber is issuing "The Long Goodbye" (1973), "Thieves Like Us" (1974) and "Buffalo Bill & the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson" (1976), while Olive Films is offering up "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982). On the surface, none of these films may have the immediate cachet of such better-known Altman titles as "MASH" (1970), "Nashville" (1975) or "The Player" (1992), but in terms of style, character and iconoclastic charm, they are all more than worthy works from one of the all-time great filmmakers and they all play just as well today as they did when they first came out—even better in some cases. Put it this way—having seen the vast majority of this year's Oscar derby competitors at this point, I would cheerfully rank all four of these titles above the vast majority of the current awards competition without even the slightest hesitation. 

Based on the 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler featuring his beloved hard-boiled detective character Philip Marlowe, "The Long Goodbye" found Altman taking a stab at the private eye genre but anyone looking at it for a standard-issue whodunnit is likely to be as perplexed as those who went into "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" expecting a typical western. Instead of the tough, laconic version of Marlowe embodied by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, this version presented viewers with Elliott Gould as a constantly muttering goof who helps an old friend cross the border into Tijuana, learns that the now-vanished friend has been accused of murdering his wife, and attempts to get to the bottom of what really happened in an investigation that finds him crossing paths with an angry gangster (Mark Rydell), a quack doctor (Henry Gibson), a drunken author (Sterling Hayden) and the author's beautiful blonde wife (Nina Van Pallandt). Throughout his shambling inquiries, Marlowe is treated with disdain by practically everyone he encounters—even his pet cat runs out on him when he commits the unpardonable sin of not purchasing the right food—but what they fail to recognize is that, unlike most members of the Me Generation, he has a certain personal code that still upholds such outdated notions as friendship and loyalty, and woe to anyone who violates it.

Although the screenplay to "The Long Goodbye" (penned by Leigh Brackett, who previously co-wrote the classic "The Big Sleep") is as solidly constructed as one could hope, Altman uses it as a springboard for a one-of-a-kind narrative that pokes fun at the private eye genre without completely crossing the line into outright parody, while maintaining a serious undertone that only becomes fully evident when it is all over and one finally realizes that this Marlowe is not to be trifled with. Although Gould may not be anyone's immediate idea of Philip Marlowe, his out-of-place nature underscores the notion that the character and the ideals that he once represented are themselves now out of step in a era of drugs, free love and self-improvement. The film also contains two of the most jarring moments of Altman's entire career—one in which the gangster (whose minions include a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger) shatters a Coke bottle against the face of his girlfriend in order to prove his seriousness to Marlowe, and the finale in which Marlowe faces the ultimate betrayal and responds in kind.

Needless to say, this was considerably different from what most fans of Chandler were expecting and, as would prove to be the case a few years later when he subverted long-held notions of an equally iconic character in his screen adaptation of "Popeye," the film outraged many viewers and critics at the time. As it turned out, also like "Popeye," his idiosyncratic approach would wind up gaining enormous favor in subsequent years to a point where "The Long Goodbye" is now often cited as one of his great works. It would also prove to be one of the more influential ones as well. The shaggy dog approach to the storyline and the collection of colorful characters, each of whom could plausibly inspire their own film, would prove to be a key influence on the Coen Brothers when they made their own riff on the genre in the cult favorite "The Big Lebowski." More recently, while Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant "Inherent Vice" is, first and foremost, a highly effective adaptation of the singular prose stylings of Thomas Pynchon, traces of "The Long Goodbye" can be found in its DNA.

Based on the Edward Anderson novel that would inspire the Nicholas Ray film "They Live By Night" (1949), "Thieves Like Us" is a Depression-era crime drama/lovers-on-the-run saga that begins with three convicts—Bowie (Keith Carradine), T-Dub (Bert Remsen) and Chicamaw (John Schuck)—escaping from prison and executing a series of robberies while holed up in a farmhouse along with Dee Mobley (Tom Skerrit) and the naive, Coke-swilling romantic Keechie (Shelley Duvall). After one robbery goes violently wrong, the group splits up, but when Bowie is injured in a car accident, he returns to the farmhouse and is nursed back to health by Keechie. During his convalescence, Bowie and Keechie fall in love and idly speculate about somehow making a life for themselves free of crime. It isn't to be, of course, and after half-hearted stabs at loyalty (springing Chicamaw from jail) and morality (cutting Chicamaw loose rather than get sucked back into his old life), Bowie meets his inevitable fate.

Produced amidst a flurry of activity from Altman that would culminate the next year with the arrival of "Nashville," "Thieves Like Us" is one of those titles that has always tended to get lost in the shuffle, and while it may be one of his smaller films in that it does not contain the sprawling narratives or cast of his more expansive works, it is nevertheless fairly epic on an emotional scale. Rather than focus on the criminal activities and their violent aftermaths in the manner of the superficially similar "Bonnie & Clyde" (whose infamously choreographed scenes of bloodshed are diametrically opposite to the short and brief bursts of brutality displayed here), Altman is more interested in presenting viewers with a character piece centered around the short, sweet and ultimately doomed relationship between Bowie and Keetchie that is aided greatly by the touching performances from Carradine and Duvall.

At the same time, the film also serves as an intriguing look at male aggression and its ultimate failings, a theme that would crop up in many of his films over the year—the men may have the guns and the booze and the bluster but they are little more than slaves to their own desires while it is the women, especially T-Dub's in-law Mattie (Louise Fletcher) that ultimately prove to be smarter and more capable at doing what it takes to survive. Another nice and occasionally ironic touch comes from Altman's decision to eschew a traditional score in order to set all the action to what is playing on the radio, anything from music to old radio programs that inevitably wind up commenting on the action. (During a romantic interlude between the two lovers, a production of "Romeo & Juliet" can be heard in the background.) "Thieves Like Us" may lack the galvanizing effect of some of Altman's better-known films but in its own quietly moving way, it is as powerful as anything that he ever did and is a film ripe for rediscovery.

In the wake of the success of his next film, "Nashville," all eyes were on Altman to see what he would come up with next and as a result, it was perhaps inevitable that this followup, "Buffalo Bill & the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," would prove to be arguably his highest-profile flop to date. On paper, it all sounded so promising—loosely adapted from Arthur Kopit's play "Indians" by key Altman collaborator Alan Rudolph, the film was a savagely satirical revisionist western in which Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman), now running a ramshackle revue that purports to tell the "real" story of how the west was won, scores what he thinks is an enormous publicity coup by hiring no less of a figure than Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), the defeater of Custer himself, to appear. Much to his frustration, his new attraction fails to live up to the racist cliches about the savage Indians that his show has continued to perpetrate—this Sitting Bull is, unlike Cody, quiet, decent and morally correct in all regards as he silently observes the perversions of the historical record that the show is based upon. Things come to a head when Sitting Bull, through his emissary (Will Sampson), not only refuses to participate in Cody's take on Custer's defeat (the result of a cowardly sneak attack) but insists that the show perform a recreation of a U.S. military massacre on a peaceful Sioux village—Cody angrily fires him in response but then finds himself in a bind when the show's star attraction, Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin), sides with Sitting Bull and refuses to perform as well.

It is generally assumed that since the film happened to be released at the height of Bicentennial fever during the summer of 1976, the dark and cynical satire that it trafficked in instead of the patriotic romp promised by the ads no doubt contributed to its commercial and critical failure (which also led to a falling-out with producer Dino De Laurentiis that cost Altman the chance to make his long-cherished adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime"—by blending the historical and the fictional together as he did here, Altman almost appeared to be using "Buffalo Bill" as a test run for ideas to use for that never-to-be project). This is perhaps not too surprising, but what is odd is that people have not gone back in subsequent years to take another look at it because, stripped of the ridiculous expectations that accompanied its original release, the film is both enormously entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. Instead of simply making fun of America, as was the charge at the time, Altman is instead drawing fascinating parallels between American history and showbiz history and how both are perfectly willing to massage, revise or outright stretch the truth in order to tell a better story. (If one reads Bill's revue as a form of Hollywood before the existence of Hollywood, then the film would make for a fascinating double-bill with his equally dark showbiz satire "The Player.")

This is never funnier nor sadder than in the case of Cody himself, a legitimate war hero who, as seen here, became so obsessed with burnishing his own legend by the most questionable of means that not even he was able to distinguish the truth from the horseshit that he cheerfully slings to the masses. This is beautifully conveyed through Newman's wonderful performance, one of the most underrated of his career in the way that he depicts Cody with all the charm and bluster one could hope for along with a subtle undercurrent that quietly suggests that even he recognizes that behind the elaborate facade is a guy who drinks too much, can no longer shoot straight and is forced to wear a wig in public to keep up appearances regarding his virility. In a perverse way, he even admires Sitting Bull for maintaining the authenticity that he threw away long ago for fame and glory. Frankly, this is more interesting than any bicentennial snarking that would have become dated a few months after its release—its notions are as timely and relevant as ever and as a result, the film as whole has a freshness and vitality to it that is both surprising and surprisingly engaging.

After a few years of commercial non-starters that culminated with his still-controversial adaption of "Popeye," which was criticized for being weird, taking too many liberties with the material and not making as much money at the box-office as "Star Wars" or "Superman," Hollywood decided that it had no more use for a maverick fiilmmaker like Altman. Coincidentally, Altman felt pretty much the same way, but, instead of simply licking his wounds, he went off into a wholly unexpected area by spending the next few years filming a series of low-budget adaptations of stage plays. This period kicked off with the last film covered here, "Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," Ed Graczyk's play about a group of women from a small Texas town united by their adoration for James Dean whose reunion twenty years after his death exposes any number of secrets and resentments that have built up over that time. Having staged the play in New York with a cast made up of familiar faces (Sandy Dennis and Karen Black), relative unknowns (Kathy Bates) and one major wild card in pop icon Cher making her dramatic debut.

Truth be told, the screenplay (adapted by Graczyk himself) is perhaps the least interesting aspect of the enterprise—it is a little too gimmicky in certain places and some of the shocking revelations are anything but. However, what makes it work is the way that Altman translates the material from the stage to the screen in a way that honors its stage origins while still making it into a true cinematic experience. Having worked with such broad canvases over the previous decade, he nevertheless showed a surprising facility for working on a more intimate scale without overwhelming the material. The film also allows him to deal with one of his favorite subjects—women. Over the years, Altman has always shown a fascination for dealing with women and the things they do to cope and survive on a daily basis and while his matter-of-fact depiction of the cruelties they sometimes face has occasionally led to charges of misogyny, his work, especially here, gives lie to that particular accusation. Working with an all-female cast (save for Mark Patton), he gives them all chances to shine and they all tear gleefully into the material and the chance to play characters instead of appendages. As for whatever intuition led him to cast Cher, a move that inspired no small amount of derision when it was announced, it was an inspired move because she delivers a strong performance that is utterly free of the camp persona she had developed over the previous decade and which single-handedly launched her career as a serious actress.

The four Blu-rays contain some special features but how special they are will vary from person to person. The three Kino Lorber discs were licensed from MGM, who put them out on DVD, and they have ported over the extras from those releases without adding anything new to the picture beyond the HD transfers. While the lack of new stuff is a bit of a bummer, the old stuff is pretty good—"The Long Goodbye" features an interview with Altman and Gould about the project and another interview with famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond in which he discusses the unique approach that he took in shooting the film, which is also the subject of a reprinted "American Cinematographer" article from 1973. "Thieves Like Us" contain a full commentary track with Altman that is a fascinating listen. "Buffalo Bill," alas, has nothing to show for it beyond a trailer. As for "Jimmy Dean," which is making its DVD/Blu-ray debut after years in the home video wilderness, it contains an interview with Graczyk in which he talks about working with Altman and the odd journey that his play took on its way to the stage and screen. However, these are films that hardly need a bunch of flashy extras to help further one's appreciation of them—a simple spin of the movies themselves will not only do that but will presumably inspire viewers to watch (or hopefully rewatch) the works of one of the all-time greats.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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