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Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Robert Altman

@Russellisation

“Filmmaking is the chance to live many lifetimes.” – Robert Altman

Known as one of the most influential American filmmakers of all time, the late Robert Altman was a director inextricably tied to the culture and history of his country, making films that explored the United States’ politics, sociology and personality. Responsible for the likes of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player and many more, Altman would help to shape the landscape of American cinema as it traversed the 20th century. 

Noting his own freedom as a cinematic artist as his greatest strength, as quoted in Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers, the director once said: “I don’t think there’s a filmmaker alive, or who ever lived, who’s had a better shake than I’ve had”.

Continuing, Altman added, “I’ve never been without a project and it’s always been a project of my own choosing. So I don’t know how much better it could be. I have not become a mogul, I don’t build castles and I don’t have a vast personal fortune, but I have been able to do what I’ve wanted to do and I’ve done it a lot”. 

Enjoying a career that lasted an impressive 55 years before the filmmaker’s unfortunate passing in 2006, Robert Altman’s influence spanned genres and decades, having worked on short films, documentaries and feature-length projects. Celebrating the many facets of the American ideology and spirit, let’s take a look back at the six films that defined the career of Robert Altman. 

Robert Altman’s six definitive films:

The Delinquents (1957)

Whilst Robert Altman was famous for his bevvy of impressive feature films, his career had humble beginnings in the world of documentaries, television and short filmmaking. Despite starting his career in 1951, his first feature wouldn’t come until 1957.  

The director’s first ventures into the entertainment industry came in the drama series Pulse of the City where he helmed several episodes before jumping on the western show, The Sheriff of Cochise in 1956. That same year, Altman was hired by a local businessman to write The Delinquents, a film about juvenile delinquency that would become the directors very first feature film. Whilst the film itself was rudimentary and rather forgettable, the leverage that the teen exploitation film gave him meant he could move to California from Kansas City, armed with a film that displayed all his hallmarks. 

M.A.S.H. (1970)

13 years after the release of his debut feature film, Altman found himself in a unique position. Having developed a database of knowledge after working on multiple television projects, the director decided to take a gamble with a strange comedy about the Korean war called M.A.S.H.

Following the release of The Delinquents, Altman had only jumped into feature filmmaking two more times with low-budget sci-fi Countdown and the impressive, subtle thriller That Cold Day in the Park, the comedy of M.A.S.H. showed quite the deviation. With a determined spirit, he ploughed on and made one of cinema’s greatest war comedies of all time featuring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Robert Duvall. 

Whilst Robert Altman’s radical views and alternative filmmaking styles often caused division on set, the film went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture. 

The Long Goodbye (1973)

M.A.S.H. was Robert Altman’s turning point, going on to direct the likes of Brewster McCloud and the classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie with a renewed lease of life. 

This run of back-to-back classics continued with Images in 1972 and The Long Goodbye in 1973 that remains one of the filmmaker’s greatest ever films. Featuring Elliott Gould and Henry Gibson, the film is a sharp crime drama with a humorous funny bone that details the life of private investigator Philip Marlowe who gets involved with his wife’s own murder by mistake. Well suffusing the genre-bending elements of the film, Altman created one of his most interesting and compelling films to date. 

Nashville (1975)

Dominating the 1970s, Robert Altman’s fame would reach its pinnacle with the release of Nashville, an American classic that would go on to be nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture. 

A vivid musical portrait of a significant politically charged period of time, Robert Altman adopts a documentary style to reflect the complicated ideals of 1970s America, lightly stoking the bubbling fury that lies just beneath Nashville’s crust. Starring 24 main characters, and many other contributing individuals, the film is a sprawling anthropological examination of a certain sub-section of American society, as the city of Nashville gears up for a political convention.

If you want a film that defines the 1970s, Robert Altman’s Nashville may indeed be it. 

The Player (1992)

Robert Altman saw out the 1970s in style, following Nashville up with 3 Women starring Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, as well as the 1978 comedy A Wedding starring Carol Burnett, Desi Arnaz Jr. and Paul Dooley. 

The following decade was one of chequered quality that saw the director create consistent critical failures whilst working on TV to supplement his film work. His next quintessential film would only come in 1992 when The Player starring Tim Robbins was released, a comedy crime drama that followed a Hollywood studio executive that was being sent death threats by a scriptwriter. 

Seeing Robert Altman back to his renowned quality, The Player saw the filmmaker tap back into the American satire that he had perfected, dissecting the Hollywood studio system with hilarious and compelling cinematic consequences. 

Gosford Park (2001)

Altman’s output had slowed following the release of The Player, with his follow-up film Short Cuts being the only one of true note that impressed at the end of the 20th century until the release of Gosford Park in 2001.

This intricate British comedy crime whodunnit is the most unlikely film for Robert Altman to all but finish his career with, though this is what makes it such a definitive piece of his filmography, showing the eclectic range of the director. With an impressive ensemble cast that includes Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas and Stephen Fry, Gosford Park remains known as a classic mystery film punctuated with Altman’s unique brand of humour.

The Company and A Prairie Home Companion would follow in 2003 and 2006 respectively before the director’s untimely death. His career will forever be remembered as one that exposed the true spirit of the American identity, committing his time to showing his cinematic talents in practically every genre of the cinematic medium.