Altman (2014)

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Altmanesque? Life, liberty and the pursuit of truth. That’s Elliott Gould’s perception of the man with whom he collaborated on some of the key movies of the Seventies. This documentary about Robert Altman is not quite as freestyled, improvised and ensemble-driven as his most acclaimed directorial works but it comes close, using a lot of home movies to illustrate the domestic life that lay behind the man and his films. Ron Mann directs a script by Len Blum which traces his evolution from making industrial films following an early script sale to Hollywood, and a lengthy career in TV episodics which resulted in an abrupt leavetaking following a row over the portrayal of race and the equivalent of then-undiagnosed PTSD, through the astonishing innovative features. There are interviews with family members, including his third wife and some of his children (who wound up working with him, partly as a means of seeing him) as well as actors who perhaps achieved more in those films than in any other in terms of the way their skill sets were utilised. There are interview clips both new and old, film excerpts including on-location footage (expletives undeleted) and the up and down career arcs covering the fall from grace through most of the Eighties when he then reinvented how TV could do drama with Tanner ’88. Then the comeback, cocking a snook at Hollywood with The Player. When he got his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars he made a surprise admission which elicited the appropriate reaction from the star-studded crowd – another glorious directing coup. A fine piece of work (despite some odd editing decisions) doing justice to a peripatetic talent.

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A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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Fool’s courage. Operation Market Garden was the code name for the failed attempt to take the bridges around Arnhem in Holland as winter drew in during 1944. The Allies led by Montgomery and Eisenhower had the idea to power through to the damaged German factories on the Ruhr – and a combination of bloody mindedness, poor planning, bad luck and bad weather made it a pretty disastrous sortie and certainly did not end WW2 as anticipated.  The great Irish writer Cornelius Ryan’s stonking blockbuster books about the era yielded this (published in 1974) and Darryl F. Zanuck’s independent production The Longest Day (1962) and his brilliance as a journalist and investigative historian have cleared up a lot of myths about certain WW2 events, this not being the least of them. Both films have an A-Z list of stars in common but Richard Attenborough was the sole helmer here and William Goldman adapted the book, published in 1974.  General Browning (Dirk Bogarde, a real life WW2 soldier) is the man poised to lead Montgomery’s plan but when a doubting Private Wicks (Paul Copley) carries out an extra recce and supplies him with photos of concealed armoured German tanks in the area where the landing is planned he has him put out on sick leave. Bad idea. With seven days’ notice the paratroopers, infantry and air service both US and UK are sent in. It’s well set up with the Dutch underground – a father and son carry out some spying for the Brits on the Nazis assembled in the area – and the putting together of a team of doubting Thomas Allies with Sean Connery in particular being given some great moments as General Urquhart – confessing to air sickness before takeoff;  landing in a forest where the lunatics from the local asylum are literally laughing at him;  and in a lovely touch and a symmetrical moment after the disaster has happened, arriving at Browning’s Dutch HQ being greeted by geese – who are clearly laughing at him too. That’s good writing. Never mind the naysayers, and there have been a lot over the years amongst the critical posse, who probably wish this had had a very different outcome (don’t we all):  this is fiercely exciting, mordantly funny and has memorable moments of sheer bloody minded bravery, not least when James Caan pilots a jeep through a Nazi regiment with the body of a young captain he has promised he wouldn’t let die. If you’re not cheering at this then you’re not breathing, mate. Maximillian Schell is terrific as the German General who applauds his opponents’ courage and hands Anthony Hopkins a bar of chocolate upon capture. After he’s given the order to raze Arnhem. Thrilling, splendid and a history lesson we still need to learn – bad project management, not heeding early warnings and then stopping the Poles from parachuting in because of fog when it was too late to rescue those poor men who were being slaughtered by the thousand. And those bloody radio crystals. Why’d they bring the wrong ones when the drop zone was eight miles from the river? Sheesh. Exciting as hell. And with a bigger body count. Fantastic, with every Seventies star you could wish for, be they given ever so little but with a special mention to little known Paul Maxwell and Erik Van’t Wout. There is an absolutely iconic score by the great John Addison:  hear it and you know exactly where you are. What a shame Ryan didn’t live long enough to see it:  he died two months after the book was published. What a gentleman and scholar he was. His contribution to our knowledge is immense. Just the thing for a rainy summer’s day when you should be watching Wimbledon but they shunted it back by a fortnight. Again.

Harry and Walter Go To New York (1976)

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I will admit this true thing:  I have never managed to get through more than the first 20 minutes of The Sting. Something about the stultifying production design. Or the story. Or the characters. Don’t know. I try and fail, oh, maybe once a decade. But its success bred imitators and this was one of them. Admittedly I love Elliott Gould, that much you know.  And he’s directed by Mark Rydell, who did the dirty on him in The Long Goodbye. James Caan, sheesh, maybe I love him too: I always felt sorry for him after witnessing his horrifying death at the toll booth (Godfather alert). They’re two not very impressive vaudevillians who get into cracking safes and mastermind Michael Caine has an idea… Diane Keaton, looking quite odd (the hairdos emphasise the down-sloping eyes) and Carol Kane and Lesley Ann Warren (playing odd to the hilt) round out the cast but it’s a bit of a slog. Even the stage antics aren’t that hot. It’s not awful, but … maybe it’s all that brown. Caine is the only one who looks truly comfortable, IMHO. The Sting is on some channel today. I’m going to give it another go. Maybe. Or the FA Cup Final….

The Long Goodbye (1973)

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I love Elliott Gould. Have done since first laying eyes on him when I was, oh, probably, nine years old. And I love cats. So even if I didn’t love this movie, I’d love the poster (there are several but this is my 500th blog entry so I chose my favourite). And this has inhabited my mental landscape since that age. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s an amazingly daring adaptation of Chandler, whose books I adore, it’s done by the great Leigh Brackett (and I was so happy to discover this was a woman) and Robert Altman (who took up the offer to direct when both Hawks and Bogdanovich turned it down. The fools). The title song, which I had presumed was an old movie song, was composed for this by John Williams and Johnny Mercer and reappears in many guises as commentary in the narrative. It’s updated to the Seventies and set in Los Angeles, a city that I love. It’s about Hollywood. It’s about a suicidal alcoholic  writer whose resemblance to Hemingway is overwhelming.  He’s played by controversial actor Sterling Hayden, who was off his rocker throughout shooting. And he’s married to Nina Van Pallandt of Nina & Frederik fame (look them up). The scenes at their beachside home were shot at Altman’s place in Malibu. It’s also about a crazy violent guy played by director Mark Rydell. And it’s about what you find yourself doing when your friend double-crosses you. And it’s about a private eye who needs to find food for his cat late at night. It was completely misunderstood upon initial release, withdrawn and re-released months later with the second poster (below):  ah, said the critics! Now we get it!  Or some of them did. It looks beautiful, like California always ought to look, thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond. It’s one of the reasons I love movies. Everyone has their own Philip Marlowe. This is mine.

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Who? (1973)

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Elliott Gould was one of the best actors ever – throughout the 70s he was probably one of the go-to character stars beloved especially by the left field particularly Robert Altman. He mixed those films up with more mainstream stuff. This thriller, helmed by British everyman Jack Gold (who died last summer) and adapted by John Gould (no relation) from a novel, is about a scientist kidnapped by East Germany and returned to the US with an altered face so the task is to find the man behind the mask. Gould plays Sean Rogers, the intelligence analyst who has to figure out the game in this genre hybrid.