DVD: Quintet (1979)

September 10, 2014 | By


Quintet1979Film: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label: Twentieth Century-Fox

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  April 25, 2006

Genre:  Science-Fiction

Synopsis: Set in a dystopian Ice Age, a man masquerades as a player in a deadly game to find his brother’s murderer.

Special Features:  Making-of featurette / Theatrical Teaser Trailer




In almost every occasion where Robert Altman’s tackled a specific film genre – western, sci-fi, comedy, and thriller – the results unfold like a director not just attempting to redefine the genre with his own loose approach to its tropes, but denying some of the elements that standardize a genre.

In Countdown (1967), for example, the excitement of space exploration was muted to dialogue scenes and distant camera positions, whereas the psychological thrills of Images (1972) relied on audience patience with the film’s puzzle structure that flipped between multiple perspectives of a character and an editorial style far from linear. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is a western, but its dialogue mix is unintelligible to the point where the audience must rely on visuals, reaction shots, and music to follow the story to its grim finale.

Altman’s comfort with grim, nihilistic endings is consistent in several films, and the post-apocalyptic setting of Quintet (1979) is no different, right down to an unconventional location, visual style, and music score, but where the film fails is in being too loose, and Altman’s lack of understanding the minutia of a sci-fi film set in a dystopian future.

Conceived by Altman and written by the director with Frank Barhydt (co-writer of Altman’s HeathH, Short Cuts, and Kansas City), CanCon writer Lionel Chetwynd (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Two Solitudes), and Patricia Resnick (co-writer of Altman’s 3 Women and A Wedding), it’s a meandering film where characters talk in nonsensical riddles as an outsider, Essex (Paul Newman), assumes the identity of his brother’s murderer to understand his brother’s involvement in a lethal game called quintet.

Altman and others shaped the game as the script formed a structure, and it became a kind of Ten Little Indians riff set 200 years in the future, during the next Ice Age, where boredom is combated by partaking in a board game with real-world consequences for its six players. Essex lost not only his brother (Newhart‘s Thomas Hill) to quintet, but a younger companion (Brigitte Fossey) pregnant with what should’ve been a rare joy for humanity: new life. With that downer established within the first quarter, Essex is supposedly driven by a hunger for truth, a need to exact justice on the mastermind of his brother and girlfriend’s murder, and discover the logic and purpose of quintet.

The problem is that while Altman and his writers may have understood the game, it’s never detailed in the film beyond seeing characters shifting their respective trio of player pieces, and some goal of ‘killing’ opponents through the roll of dice. In the DVD’s making-of featurette, Altman concedes the film is structured like a board game with sudden player moves, not unlike the twists and turns of a video game – making Quintet, alongside Sleuth (1972), Deathtrap (1982), and certainly Clue (1985) rare pre-video ‘gamer’ films – but it’s also reliant on muted characters with morose, unemotional behaviour that isn’t especially engaging.

The most emotionally demonstrative performances come from Vittoria Gassman (Barabbas, The Sleazy Uncle) and Fernando Rey (Cold Eyes of Fear, Tristana) as Saint Christopher and Grigor, respectively, while Bibi Andersson’s Ambrosia – also bearing a name akin to a player piece – has a few moments of personal reflection, but Altman’s deadly pacing and a need to keep the game’s meaning foggy that makes the film lethal.

The use of Montreal’s Expo 67 ruins, frozen daily with overnight water in -40 degree weather is brilliant, as are the details of set décor and integrated props, but there are oddities that seem illogical: with each surface – including steps and handrails – coated in ice, characters would be tumbling and breaking bones on a daily basis, especially since they’re wearing leather gloves and wide boots, so there’s no reason why people living in an already dangerously cold environment would allow for conditions that would make them targets for the film’s feral dogs.

The motif of dogs also becomes ridiculous when the only surviving breed are very healthy Rottweilers (there’s no other breed?), and they’re frequently feeding off frozen cadavers seen in the background as actors walk and talk. This of course begs the questions: Why would people allow feral dogs within their compound? And why don’t the dogs, reared on human flesh, not attack the living (especially when sleeping or drunk on the ground) when there’s a dearth of the other white meat?

Essex’ disappointment at the end in being told quintet’s winner is merely to experience the thrill of being hunted and winning is as shallow as Altman’s offering to audiences, and there’s such peculiar laboring on scenes which make one wonder if the director was determined to grind the film’s pacing to a steady crawl, moving scenes as though they too were affected by the arctic temperatures and combative wind and deep snow, or he needed to pad the film to two hours.

There’s a slightly Bergmanesque quality to the visuals – in a sort-of love scene, Altman cuts to some enormous close-ups of stars Newman and Andersson (a regular Bergman stock company member in films, including the experimental puzzle drama Persona); and the end shot where Essex continues to trudge through the snow away from the camera until he’s no different than a dark spec of nearby rocks evokes the end of The Passion of Anna (1969) – but whereas Bergman would allow his handful of characters to breathe and expose their vulnerabilities at various junctures, Altman denies intimate revelations to ensure there’s a sustained / prolonged mystique in Quintet before the game is played out with gruesomely killed players (including Jungle Warriors‘ Nina van Pallandt), the winner is anointed, and a new round of quintet can begin with Grigor continuing his role as ringleader / arbitrator.

There’s no doubt Quintet is ripe with atmosphere, especially from the locations, but Altman’s decision to emphasize the super-cooled temperatures and keep our focus on the centre of the frame by applying fog and Vaseline on the lens circumference means 1/3 to 1/4 of the 1.85:1 image is fuzzy, which ultimately robs the film of details needed to emphasize the oppressive environment.

Tom Pierson’s music is as atypical as other Altman film scores, opting for an innovative approach which denies audiences an epic or tragic sound and theme. Pierson sticks with a delicate repeating figure on harp around which heavy bass, occasional electronic tones, or dissonance evoke the cold environment and its muted characters. While it doesn’t aide in giving the film needed momentum, it certainly matches the tone and grim atmosphere Altman successfully conveys throughout Quintet, and the use of harp does support the peculiar costume designs which mimic Medieval outfits, albeit adapted for arctic temperatures.

In many ways Altman’s dystopian world is a throwback to the Dark Ages: bare electric light bulbs mimic candles (although why survivors can’t expand the use of the power grid for other purposes is a mystery), food comes from boiling vats, and markets offer assorted trinkets and rubbish taken from frozen ruins. As Grigor and Saint Christopher explain to Essex, the game is their religion and raison d’etre, but for audiences,  it’s just not that interesting.

Fox’ DVD includes a crisp transfer of this always grainy-looking film – Altman seemed to have preferred a fast film stock for blown-out whites and grimy interior shots – and there’s a decent making-of featurette where Altman and his associates describe making the film at the icy and dangerously slippery  Expo site. A teaser trailer rounds out the extras, emphasizing the film’s ‘deadly game’ scenario like a conventional thriller / slasher film by using slo-mo dice and a knife blade.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s Blog — IMDB  —  Fan Site — Composer Website
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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