By Violet Lucca
The name Robert Altman conjures up a portrayal of life that feels natural, like it’s unfolding before us. Maybe it’s a character wandering through a landscape, musing over some point, even if there’s no one there to listen. Or maybe it’s someone carrying on in a large group or street, surrounded by others and not even always audible. This approximation of life—loose, unfocused, organic—is a little like a vaudevillian’s pratfall: it takes a lot of technical skill to make it look easy.
Altman’s technical training came before the era of the film school. Before making features, he cut his teeth on industrial films at Calvin Company, in his hometown of Kansas City. In the late Fifties, he re-settled in Los Angeles and began work in the highly structured world of dramatic television.
Television allowed Altman to work with technicians from old Hollywood who had crossed over to the new medium. In fact, it was Alfred Hitchcock who gave him his first TV directing gigs with two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
In 1957’s “The Young One,” a beautiful teenage girl dreams of escaping her overbearing aunt and Podunk small town. But these fantasies are soon revealed to be the product of a detached and malicious mind. Her tale is told economically, using three locations: her house (particularly the stairs), the Woolly Bear roadhouse, and some darkened suburban streets. Altman’s use of long takes allow us to see exactly what’s going through her head, switching angles whenever she tries a new technique of manipulation.
She’s clearly a psychopath, but Altman’s attempts to get inside the mind of a female character anticipate the string of female-led films he’d write and direct nearly 20 years later: 3 Women, A Wedding, Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
Altman’s efforts on another wildly popular series, Bonanza, also injected some female subjectivity into an otherwise formulaic plot, through inventive and subtle camerawork. In the episode “Silent Thunder,” the hot-headed young sheriff Joe Cartwright comes across a deaf-mute girl, the daughter of an ornery sheep farmer.
The sets might look hokey, and the attitudes about deafness are outdated, but all of that falls away when the daughter is cornered by a degenerate fur-trapper. When he tries to rape her, Altman switches to her point of view, and her terror comes sharply into focus.
Altman worked on many genre TV shows besides Bonanza, like Troubleshooters, Lawman, Surfside 6, and Kraft Mystery Theater. As Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan has noted, these early television works allowed Altman to familiarize himself with genres that he would later subvert in films like M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye.
Two important TV series for Altman were the World War II drama Combat! and the anthology show Bus Stop. Though loaded with explosions and bad Nazi extras, Combat! still allowed Altman to reflect on the barbarism of wartime, as a veteran himself of the U.S. Air Force. Altman wrote and produced several episodes in addition to directing half of the first season.
In the nightmarish episode “Survival,” a sergeant (played by Vic Morrow) is severely burned during an Allied air strike and separated from the rest of his platoon. He wanders around enemy territory in a dissociative daze; the rest of his platoon does little better, starving and scrounging for shoes.
The drifting feel of the episode, sparse dialogue, and hand-held camerawork convey the Sergeant’s agony, and it’s hard not to think of the ending of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The ambitious script was initially rejected by the show’s executive producer—which is why Altman waited to shoot it while he was out of town. This got him fired from the series—but he received an Emmy nomination.
Bus Stop was very loosely based on the play by William Inge, and would trigger even larger controversy than Combat!. Each episode of the show featured a new character passing through a Colorado bus station. Altman was no doubt drawn to the opportunity to show eccentric, small town life, as in later works like Cookie’s Fortune.
In “A Lion Walks Among Us,” teen idol Fabian plays a young hepcat who commits multiple robberies and murders. He repeatedly gets away with it because of his immense charm and thanks to the insular, gossipy dynamics of the townsfolk; at one point, he discredits a prime witness as an unreliable drunk.
A congressional inquiry—an extension of the Kefauver hearings on the comic book industry in the Fifties—was held to examine the episode’s depictions of violence and sex. The series was ultimately cancelled, the network president was fired, and “A Lion Walks Among Us” wasn’t aired again. In this scene at the roadhouse, Altman alternates between performer and audience in a way that efficiently establishes both the characters’ dynamics and plot. Altman would take this evocative technique to an extreme in films like Nashville and Prairie Home Companion.
His choice to use long takes in his television work in part reflects the options of the medium at the time, as three-camera setups were standard. But, as D’Agnolo Vallan has also argued, Altman’s fondness for long takes was a directorial choice that you can see even in his industrial films. The temptation to overlook Altman’s auteurist achievements stretching back to television is understandable. When the films are as distinctive and satisfying as Altman’s, it’s hard to believe all that life is coming from just one man.
Thanks to Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, co-author of the new book Altman, and the Museum of Modern Art, whose Robert Altman retrospective ran through January 17, for their invaluable assistance.