EW's Owen Gleiberman looks at five of the director's best

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 24, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

M*A*S*H (1970)
Altman’s one certified blockbuster is a chattery, blood-spurting, Korea-as-Vietnam medical wartime comedy in which Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, as antiestablishment hipster lothario surgeons, sock it to the ”regular Army clowns.” What makes their throwaway put-downs so priceless is that they’re truly asides, spilling out of the murk of Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue, which is heard here for the first time in its revolutionary real-as-life burble.

Even ”revisionist” Westerns embraced the mythic nature of the West. It was Altman’s inspiration to imagine the land of six-guns, saloons, and two-bit gamblers as a shabby and lyrical modern place, with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as lonelyheart desperadoes. The wood-and-smoke-and-mist imagery is extraordinary, but this is also a stark tale of capitalist doom, as McCabe takes on the polite man in the suit — the one who will always buy you out, or kill you trying.

Pauline Kael called it ”the ultimate Altman movie,” and it still is. Liberating himself, at last, from any vestige of a traditional three-act story line, Altman follows 24 linked characters in a gloriously free-flowing, jam-packed human pageant of C&W showbiz, politics, and middle-class American life, in which the audience, in effect, becomes the 25th character. Arguably the greatest film since Citizen Kane, Nashville is a timeless experience, but when you see it now, you behold the dizzying and soulful chaos of America in the post-Watergate ’70s, a time when one set of grand illusions had yet to be replaced by another.

After spending nearly 20 years in a kind of scattershot creative limbo, Altman returned to form — spectacularly — with this jovially witty and merciless satire of a Hollywood in which lies had conquered art. Tim Robbins, as the snake of a studio executive who murders a screenwriter (the ultimate allegory for the age of high concept), is the oddly sympathetic center of a movie in which Altman digs as far into the metaphysical what-is-real daze of life in Los Angeles as he did in The Long Goodbye.

The first thing to be said about Altman’s impish and majestically enjoyable rendition of a middlebrow British period piece is that it’s the most deft, layered, and virtuosic film ever made by a director well into his 70s. The slyness of the Altman magic is right there on the surface of this upstairs/downstairs house-party murder mystery, which all but quivers with yearning for what high society, and England, once was…not.