Robert Altman's filmed plays -- ''Secret Honor,'' ''Vincent & Theo,'' and other home-video essentials by the ''Player'' director

By Lawrence O'Toole
April 02, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

If The Player is Robert Altman’s comeback, where has he come back from? Why, home-video land, where the director has spent most of the past decade crafting quirky, small-scale productions that seem like naturals for the medium.

COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME, JIMMY JEAN, JIMMY DEAN (1982) Maybe the best movie ever made out of a lousy play, it tells of James Dean Fan Club members (Karen Black and Cher among them) who come together for a reunion. Clichés of regret and illusion are common, but Altman’s fluid camera moves back and forth from present to past with such agility that you barely notice. A-

SECRET HONOR (1985) Philip Baker Hall is sensational as Richard M. Nixon, trying to explain his ways. Altman’s camera tracks the ex-President through his surveillance-video-appointed study like a hard-nosed journalist who won’t take no for an answer. A

FOOL FOR LOVE (1985) The private hell of Eddie (Sam Shepard, who also scripted) and May (Kim Basinger), who fight like cats and dogs but can’t do without each other. Altman heightens the passions of their half-brother and -sister into and absurd horror: two lives being played out on an eternally unmade bed. B

BEYOND THERAPY (1987) No, Christopher Durang’s fractured farce tweaking psychoanalysis doesn’t work as well as it did on the stage, but this is, after all, the film that got a group of shrinks booing at a New York City screening, so it ougth to be seen for that reason alone. B

VINCENT & THEO (1990) Tim Roth is the self-indulgent and brilliant Vincent van Gough and Paul Rhys is the impatient and troubled Theo, who works to support his brother’s habits. Seldom has the artistic process been made clearer — or the tangle in fraternal love more poignant. A-