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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 06:24 pm

Rest in peace, Robert Altman

Director’s passing one of the cinema’s great losses

"Thieves Like Us" Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, director Robert Altman1974 United Artists

The recent passing of Robert Altman is one of the greatest losses to the world of cinema. My high regard for his work should be apparent from past columns, including the one last week, which was written before his death. Altman has been a personal obsession ever since I saw M*A*S*H at the Senate Theatre in 1970, and he rarely disappointed me. I had the privilege of meeting him at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where he was shooting the HBO series Tanner ’88. He was a very friendly man who was happy to talk with a fan. I remarked that his movie M*A*S*H was far superior to the series, and he agreed. Altman was one of Hollywood’s true mavericks, and his filmography contains more great works than does that of any other director. Besides the pivotal classic M*A*S*H, his best-known titles are Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001), plus A Prairie Home Companion (2006), his final film, but there are many idiosyncratic gems among his less popular films. Altman had a penchant for subverting genre conventions, and his foray into the Western, resulting in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), produced two of his best films. McCabe, the more highly regarded of the two, is a poetic Western starring Warren Beatty as a frontier businessman who opens a brothel and Julie Christie as the madam he hires. Buffalo Bill stars Paul Newman as the Western legend who is all bluff and bluster.

Thieves Like Us (1974) gave Altman some of the best reviews of his career, but the public never warmed up to one of his least remembered films. Keith Carradine juggles a career as a bank robber with his romancing of a small-town girl (Shelley Duvall). Altman focuses on character over crime by never showing the actual robberies. Later that year he achieved greater box-office success with the gambling comedy California Split. George Segal and Elliott Gould are perfectly teamed as a pair of compulsive poker players. Altman’s freeform narrative emphasizes the personalities of the gamblers over the gambling. 3 Women (1977), an oddity even for Altman, is a dreamlike drama of personality transference. Sissy Spacek is a convalescent-home worker who latches on to her mentor, a quirky outcast (Shelley Duvall), and takes on her personality after a near-tragic accident. Janice Rule plays the third woman in this mysterious drama, which was intended to be experienced rather than understood.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Dec. 5): Beerfest, How to Eat Fried Worms, The OH in Ohio, Look Both Ways, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

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