Robert Altman needs no introduction. From 1957 to 2006, Altman produced works ranging from high-budget Hollywood hits to obscure art house gems. His ability to float between these two polar ends of the spectrum is legendary. Nashville had been such a runaway hit, it seemed odd that he would move on to such films as Three Women (which used no script) and the incredibly bleak post-Apocalyptic Quintet.
The film concerns a handful of humans simply trying to survive a second ice age. This small cluster of people have little hope for a future and no real society to speak of. More than anything, they spend their time playing a game called Quintet. The stakes are high as players bet the only thing they really have — their lives. Paul Newman plays Essex, a traveler who inadvertently finds himself a player in this game.
Like most of my favorite films, Quintet bombed at the box office. Its thoroughly depressing landscape and subject matter, not to mention its experimental look and slow pace were perhaps not what viewers of the preview were expecting. Nevertheless, we have some of Altman’s best work here. The entire movie is shot with a frosted lens — something usually used for romantic close ups or dream sequences, but here it’s effectively used to convey a constant image of a frozen reality. One cannot help but reach for an extra blanket as the film never lets up with its freezing cold imagery. Corpses lay discarded, half buried in snow providing a cold meal for packs of dogs too famished to attack the living. Interior shot are no warmer as the walls inside are are often slick with ice.
What I love most about Altman’s films is his focus on the psychology behind the plot itself, and Quintet is no exception. It’s an odd film. Too slow, perhaps, to earn cult status, but well worth seeing if you’re looking for those hidden gems from the maverick era of Hollywood. The avid fan will also want to check out this interview with Altman during the making of the film.