In praise of Robert Altman

The great director is the subject of a new documentary

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At the end of last year, I came across a story in the Los Angeles Times, which reported that the apartment occupied by Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman‘s great 1973 film The Long Goodbye was available for rent. One bedroom, one bathroom, private parking, hardwood floors and a terrace, with access via a private elevator, it was on the market for around £1,790 a month.

“At the end of a cul de sac near the Hollywood Bowl, park your car in a garage carved into the hill,” wrote the original advertisment for the apartment on Craigslist. “Walk through a gated tunnel to a private elevator where you’ll be taken up 6 stories through the hill to the top of a Tuscan tower. Nestled in a quiet walk street enclave high above the bustle of Hollywood Blvd.”

Long Goodbye poster
Long Goodbye poster

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The Long Goodbye is probably my favourite Altman film; a smart update of Chandler’s novel reworking through the prism of the Seventies. And, of course, Gould was on excellent form as Marlowe’s sardonic private investigator, Philip Marlowe.

Of course, The Long Goodbye was given a boost recently when it was cited as an influence on Paul Thomas Anderson‘s film, Inherent Vice. This goodwill directed towards Altman and his films continues in Ron Mann’s affectionate new documentary about the filmmaker.

Remarkably, for a filmmaker whose preferred style of movie making was loose and digressive, Mann’s tribute to Altman is a remarkably straightforward bit of business. That’s not to demerit the film unduly, but the narrative moves in workmanlike fashion when it should ideally amble along, occasionally pausing to truffle out some interesting minor detail. Certainly, Ron Mann’s film is at its best when exploring Altman’s nascent career: his time as an airman during the last war and his apprenticeship in network television.

An early supporter was Alfred Hitchcock, who invited him to direct episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents… during the 1950s. His formative attempts at moviemaking were compromised: for instance, he was fired from Countdown, about a space mission to the moon, before it was even finished. Admittedly, much of Altman’s initial forays into filmmaking are less well-told than, say, the stories of M*A*S*H or Nashville.

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It would be nice to dig a little deeper, too, into Brewster McCloud, California Split and 3 Woman. Along the way, Mann assembles an impressive list of former collaborators to offer confirmation to Altman’s skills – James Caan, Julianne Moore and Bruce Willis among them. But their testimonies are warm rather than necessarily illuminating. At its most infuriating, Mann’s film is crushingly literal: “Bob loved to throw a party,” his widow Kathryn Reed Altman tells us in voiceover. – cut to an early, unreleased Altman short called… The Party.

If nothing else, Mann’s film might at least inspire you to revisit some of Altman’s best, from his Seventies’ heyday.

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner

ALTMAN OPENS IN THE UK ON FRIDAY, APRIL 3

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