Robert Altman’s first opportunity to cut loose with an entirely personal film is this scattershot comedy that satirizes the American scene, taking pokes at patriotism, greed, and silly police movies. To his favorite eccentrics from M*AS*H Bud Cort and Sally Kellerman he adds the new discovery Shelley Duvall; the movie’s like a bag of absurdist jokes that spilled onto a Houston Highway.
Warner Archive Collection
1970 / Color / 2:35 enhanced widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date November 27, 2018 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 21.99
Starring: Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, William Windom, Shelley Duvall, Rene Auberjonois, Stacy Keach, John Schuck, Margaret Hamilton, Jennifer Salt, Corey Fischer, G. Wood, Bert Remsen.
Cinematography: Lamar Boren, Jordan Cronenweth
Film Editor: Lou Lombardo
Original Music: Gene Page
Written by Doran William Cannon
Produced by Lou Adler
Directed by Robert Altman
Robert Altman may be gone but he’s far from forgotten; his reputation is doing better than ever thanks to revivals and restorations on home video. Criterion released a beautiful Blu-ray of McCabe and Mrs. Miller two years ago, and Kino is presently releasing an Altman film I wasn’t even aware of, 1998’s The Gingerbread Man.
Altman has always been controversial. Fans either hate him or think he’s God’s gift to the movies. Pauline Kael kept his early career going when the box office receipts didn’t. The actors the director favored likewise worshipped him, while the studios that released his three decades of critically praised pictures mostly took a loss. Altman never exactly hit a commercial groove but for better or worse he stuck to his guns. His distinctive style is a free-form cinema that encourages actor input. Altman’s camera (or cameras) tend to stand far back and record the action with telephoto lenses, so as not to interfere with the performance space. The director’s stock company grew like a rolling snowball, until some of his pictures became narrative-challenged ‘murals’ featuring his favorite personalities.
This reviewer loved Altman’s breakthrough smash hit M*A*S*H when new, rebelled much later against its crude sexism and finally calmed down and relented. Of his ‘dream’ fantasies, I find Images mostly a chore and Three Women fascinating. Altman’s Fellini-like circus movies move me the least (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding) but I like the games he plays with genres (The Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park).
Filmed hot on the heels of M*A*S*H, 1970’s Brewster McCloud was the first of a string of deals cooked up by studios in hopes of a repeat success. Without spending a lot of money but left free to do as he pleased, Robert Altman came up with a nonsensical fantasy loosely organized around his favorite actors of the moment. Repeating from M*A*S*H are Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Rene Auberjonois, G. Wood, John Shuck, Michael Murphy and Corey Fischer; the big debut here belongs to the young Shelley Duvall, who would come back to work for Altman again at least six times.
Doran William Cannon’s original script Brewster McLeod’s Flying Machine was set entirely in New York. This entirely new rewrite is less a story than a collection of ideas flying in loose formation. Altman’s original inspiration of Houston’s then-new Astrodome as a good filming site happened a few years before, when he talked with MGM about possibly directing the sports heist film The Split. The director exploited opportunities as they arose on location. Margaret Hamilton is in the picture because she was appearing locally in a play; Altman made up the Daphne Heap character and the idea of her singing the National Anthem.
Costumed like ‘Where’s Waldo,’ young Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) hides out in a forgotten bomb shelter in the Astrodome, designing a DaVinci-like flying contraption. He’s visited by a confused girl named Hope (Jennifer Salt of Sisters), who reaches sexual climax under a blanket while watching the slight McCloud exercise to build up the ‘flying’ muscles in his arms. Tending, bathing and watching over Brewster is Louise (Sally Kellerman), a mystery woman who appears to be an angel. Or perhaps she once was an angel, as she has marks on her back where her wings once were. Brewster meets Astrodome guide Suzanne Davis (Shelley Duvall), a quirky but nice girl who almost immediately makes plans to deflower the innocent lad — a prospect that takes guardian angel Louise by surprise.
Only slightly intersecting the story is a nonsensical murder investigation. Various victims, always unpleasant jerks, are found dead, each splattered with bird droppings (a theme emerges). The rich, bossy Daphne Heap (Margaret Hamilton sings a horrible rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the Astrodome. Abraham Wright (Stacy Keach) is a tyrannical Scrooge type; Brewster chauffeurs him as he collects his rents from various nursing homes. Offensively racist cop Douglas Breen (Bert Remsen) is felled at the zoo, to the joy of his long-suffering wife and boy. Yet another victim is Suzanne’s thuggish boyfriend. Suzanne and Brewster lead the cops and Frank Shaft on a wild chase in the boyfriend’s souped-up Road Runner muscle car.
In an undeveloped parody of TV private eyes, San Francisco celebrity cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) comes to town to take over the investigation. Shaft collects avian feces samples from each victim while keeping his wardrobe neat and tidy: hip sweaters and properly color-coordinated slacks. Opposing Shaft are a pushy politico (William Windom) and a crusty local cop (G. Wood, the General and football coach from M*A*S*H).
Tying all of this together are cutaways to ‘The Lecturer’ (Rene Auberjonois), a demented mad professor type who waxes academic about life in the world of birds. His commentary aligns only tangentially with the actions and sex lives of the other characters. The Lecturer appears to become more birdlike as the movie goes on, a running gag that isn’t particularly funny. Not since Olga Baclanova…
Every cast member makes their mark, although director Altman doesn’t get full value from his talent. The pasty-faced Stacy Keach is stuck in a one-note cameo, and the same can be said for several other notables. Third-billed Michael Murphy must have been told to underplay the ‘legendary’ detective Shaft, with the effect that his subplot never comes together — his interactions with various citizens and officials just feel like padding. It seems a crime to feature Margaret Hamilton, only to reduce her participation to yet another Old Crone character; Altman’s idea of a brilliant gag is to show her wearing the magical Ruby Slippers!
But fans of Shelley Duvall love seeing her bloom in the big-break debut that showcases her unique personality. Duvall was literally spotted at a Houston party and given the part; she would then become one of Altman’s biggest stars. Altman would expand and contract roles depending on what he felt was working and what wasn’t, so we wonder if Jennifer Salt’s part was made smaller as Duvall’s got larger. It also appears that a second tour guide at the Astrodome is played by future horror queen Marilyn Burns. I’d have to look at the movie again to find her.
Brewster McCloud has its moments — and is worth seeing if only to delight in the spirited Shelley Duvall — but in the long run it’s tough sledding over an auteur director’s personal fantasies. Even with a constant parade of arresting visuals and the amusing emphasis on the bird theme, few scenes fully satisfy and nothing really coheres. Brewster’s three girlfriends don’t develop any particular statement about life and love, and the entire police sideshow is a shaggy dog story. The payoff for Frank Shaft, when he finds himself in an unforgivably un-cool situation, is like too many gags in the movie, either plain not funny or not funny enough to justify all the time and effort expended on it. We learn that Frank Shaft is so vain that he wears colored contact lenses. Is that supposed to funny?
But don’t try to argue this with the show’s many admirers — they love its unique offbeat style. The cast are simply chess pieces in what’s essentially a director’s playful game.
Altman shoots his wider scenes with his signature long lenses, which flatten perspective. We often feel as if we’re fifty yards away from the action on the floor of the Astrodome. We recognize Margaret Hamilton mostly by her voice. The car chase has moments that nicely parody the action classic Bullitt, but the telephoto treatment makes most of it a curiously remote experience. Brewster’s whimsical flying apparatus is a beautiful design by Leon Ericksen. It moves so nicely, we almost believe it is functional. Say what you will about the movie, it moves to a marvelous finish with Brewster’s flight. Perhaps the Astrodome had some kind of moving crane installed in its rafters, that inspired the flying scene and maybe the whole movie.
One’s subjective reaction will of course vary, especially if you remember Brewster McCloud as a formative experience. Altman displays his cinematic jokes and ideas about innocence & love, and if you’re on his particular wavelength it may all seem profound. Writer Doran William Cannon’s previous effort was Otto Preminger’s disastrous Skiddoo, an entirely different kind of show-biz farce.
The unstructured Brewster McCloud seems more a case of director Altman flexing his style for a cinematic fingerpainting exercise. For me the tip-off is the curtain-call finish borrowed from Federico Fellini’s 8½, an elaborate finale in service to a cynical joke (or perhaps, a poignant joke about cynical endings). It doesn’t look like everybody was available: Margaret Hamilton is hidden behind a flag, and the Stacy Keach we see in the extreme old-age makeup looks like his stunt double for the death ride in the wheelchair. The circus scene deflates its own grandiosity. Had Altman taken a wide shot of the circus activity with Brewster down in the corner of the frame, crumpled and ignored, he’d have reproduced the famous painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Brewster McCloud is a nice refinement of their DVD from ten years ago. As with most of Altman’s pictures, the frequent wide shots are greatly helped by the extra detail of HD — it’s easier to identify characters that never get closer than medium distance.
The one extra is a trailer, that tries to sell Brewster as ‘M*A*S*H part 2’ — a screwball action extravaganza.
Check out TFH Guru Larry Karaszewski’s trailer commentary for Brewster McCloud below:
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
with assistance from correspondent ‘B’
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 22, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson