FANTASIA OBSCURA: Paul Newman Plays the Game in Robert Altman’s Chilly Dystopian Tale

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, a cold day in Hell describes more than just something that ain’t gonna happen…

Quintet (1979)

Distributed by: Twentieth Century Fox

Directed by: Robert Altman

Let me share with you a story about a time when the world drastically changed. Things had fallen apart, the old ways no longer worked, and the survivors were going crazy and doing things for their own sake, when keeping on in the face of doom was the only stimuli that kept you alive.

And the best way to get into this look at Robert Altman’s career in the late 1970s, is to review one of those films from then.

It’s an unspecified time in the future. We ultimately find out as the film slowly reveals its story that the earth is in the process of freezing to death, which is hammered home by the long shot of a train frozen in its tracks as the show blows over it to cover it up.

[Insert your preferred Snowpiercer joke here…]

We soon see two figures walking alongside the train, Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter who’s been out of work after the last seal died, and Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), the daughter of his former partner, who now carries his child. Essex has decided to bring his new family to the unnamed city he left 12 years earlier to go south for the seals, coming home to look up his brother Francha (Thomas Hill) and share the good news.

We get of scene with Francha before the reunion, though, where he’s playing Quintet, the game that lends its name to the movie title. We see him in a casino where the game is all important but the ambiance is decayed and ruined, more Laughlin than Las Vegas. While there, he is told he’s in a new tournament by casino owner Grigor (Fernando Rey) who also personally informs the other members that they are now in that round, Redstone (Craig Richard Nelson), Goldstar (David Langton), Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt), Saint Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), and Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson).

We soon discover some of the rules for this game through watching the film; for a full set of rules, you had to go to a first run screening where pamphlets laying out the rules of the game were distributed to the audience. One of the rules we learn quickly on is, that to win at the tournament level, you have to kill off the other players, which Redstone gets a jump on when he rolls a bomb into Francha’s apartment.

This wipes out everyone but Essex, who went out to buy more firewood while his entire family became collateral damage. He spies Redstone running from the scene, but before he can catch up to him, Redstone loses the game to Saint Christopher, who disappears into the shadows just as Essex gets up to his corpse.

Essex, desperate to know why his family was killed, channels the spirit of Lew Harper and takes up Redstone’s identity. With half the players having never met Redstone and the rest willing to allow his charade to continue, Essex gets closer to how the tournament works, why the game requires people to die, and what the ‘winner’ gets out of it, answers that don’t leave him happy…

…about as unhappy as Fox was when they got their first look at Altman’s film. The studio had entered into a long-term commitment for his films after he delivered MASH to them in 1970, allowing Altman to leave behind the journeyman work he was doing in TV on series like Bonanza and Combat! along with single episodes here and there. This being the 1970s and the period of the emerging auteur that made up the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls era, Altman was one of the greater beneficiaries of the time, and with every success from a McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, or Nashville, Altman got more ambitious and received more freedom from Hollywood to do what he wanted.

For Quintet, he assembled an international cast and took them to Montreal to film amidst the crumbling pavilions of Man and His World, fka Expo ’67. In the depths of winter, no less, where he had the crew apply coats of water every few hours to the sets to grow icicles on them that were many feet long. And if that somehow failed to project how cold this world was, Altman used a ring of petroleum jelly around the lens in most shots (picked at random, it seems) to suggest that as the world was freezing that the viewer was too, or something, the reason behind which like every shot this technique pops up in remaining fuzzy to us.

Altman was notorious for letting the actors on set improvise the crap out of a scene, which is a lot easier to do when you have a vision you can share with them as to what’s going on, then working like crazy in the edit bay to pull it all together later. Considering the film when conceived was just an outline he’d hoped he could pass off to Walter Hill to make it work, and came to be his project before he could call out “Not it!”, he may have just winged it, thinking that since there was casino gaming aspect to Quintet that he could channel the vibe off of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and California Split and roll with it.

But while doing that, he also takes on the death of the human spirit and nihilism at the end of the world. The reason Quintet is so important in the city and is played the way it is, we discover, is that there is nothing else to do. Everyone knows the end is coming in a few years, tops, and the only way to get through the last few days without losing your mind is to scream “Screw It!” and give in to the brief rush of imminent death.

The two themes don’t mesh as well as they could, and in more mercurial hands (say, those of David Cronenberg, whose Crash touches on similar topics more deftly) the film might have done better. Even the die-hard fans of Altman have had problems with this piece of his canon; like all of his films, the elements don’t start to gel until just before the end, and you start to pull for the movie to justify having stayed with it after the less patient members of the audience have already walked away. But here, the payoff just doesn’t work, and it’s suggested that because there was nothing to work with, that there was no hope for the film, no matter what he could do with it.

This was picked up in reviews from the time from Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, who both found some effort in presentation but not a lot of product behind it. The film’s release, along with the issues Fox had with Altman’s other film for them, H.E.A.L.T.H., led to a change in the studio’s leadership; the same folks who favored Damnation Alley over Star Wars got swept away as patience for Altman’s work habits dried up.

Seriously in need of work to redeem his rep, Altman had to next take up the opportunity to direct a picture that behaved like an industry shoot, Popeye. Which proved to be a game he tried to play that could have been for him the end of it all…

NEXT TIME: Wait, he was in this film? Seriously? I mean, how did he end up here? (Which was probably what he was wondering, too…)

About James Ryan 134 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…