It’s not often I come across amazing genre films from the 70’s and 80’s that I’ve never heard of. As someone who grew up in those decades and lived and breathed this stuff, it’s always a wonderful surprise to hit on a film that appears out of nowhere. Such is the case with a 70’s sci-fi gem I watched on Christmas day called Quintet. What’s most surprising of all, considering how under the radar this film was, is that it is directed by the great Robert Altman and stars Hollywood legend Paul Newman. You would think with that sort of talent involved this film would be a well known quantity. I don’t know what it’s release history on video has been previously, but as far as DVD is concerned it’s only been put out as part of a box set packaged along with other obscure Altman films and MASH. From what I gather, it hasn’t been readily available for some time and consequently has fallen into obscurity. And unfortunately, as it is packaged with 3 other films with totally unrelated subject matter, it’s likely that it won’t find it’s way into the hearts of sci-fi fans this time around either. Nevertheless I figure it’s worth reviewing anyway, so I hope you enjoy the following.
It’s hard to summarize Quintet with a plot synopsis, because it’s not as straightforward as an outline of events would suggest . . . but I’ll give it my best shot. At it’s basic level, the film recalls 70’s post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man and The Ultimate Warrior. Some cataclysm has brought the world to the brink, sending mankind into a new ice age. What few inhabitants remain on the frigid earth are gathered in a dilapidated city waiting for the end to come. The film opens with Essex (Paul Newman) returning from the wilderness with his wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) whom he met in the wastelands where they lived on seals (until those eventually ran out). Having no other means for survival, the city is their only option for obtaining food and shelter.
Once in the city Essex looks up his brother and a family reunion of sorts occurs. Essex and Vivia are welcomed into his brother’s home, and a celebration is planned. Of particular excitement is the realization that Vivia is with child (a rare occurrence in the world of Quintet). Essex leaves briefly to get some food for the group to have dinner, only to witness the apartment blow up killing his wife, brother, and his brother’s family. With nothing left to live for, Essex embarks on a quest to uncover the reason for the bombing. In so doing he discovers the city’s inhabitants have developed a brutal game called Quintet, which sees the participants hunt and kill each other. Essex subsequently assumes the identity of a doomed player, and works toward winning the game and avenging the death of his family.
That’s the surface story of Quintet, and it’s a premise I like a lot to begin with. As a huge fan of this genre, particularly its 70’s incarnations, I’m sort of predisposed to dig this. But to be honest, after The Omega Man and Heston’s several terrific stabs at the material, it takes something special to wow me at this point. Something either a) that gives the material a unique spin or b) is just gung-ho fun. Quintet doesn’t really measure up on the latter, but delivers solidly on the former, and no doubt that’s due to the signature style and vision of Altman. Even though he has a great premise with the game, and a cool actor (at just the right weary age) in the form of Newman, that’s just window dressing. Altman would rather use the trappings of B-grade post-apocalyptic sci-fi to explore deeper themes involving what it means to live and feel alive.
Although other films in the genre have pondered deep questions inherent to the material, they have done so at a grander level (i.e. if we don’t learn how to play nice with each other we’re going to blow up the planet and that would be terrible so let’s be better people if we can). Essentially they are morality tales that are distinct from one another only via the degree of optimism they show in their endings. Things may be turning in the right direction with the new youth of The Omega Man, but nothing can help you if your favorite food is Soylent Green. Well, Quintet could really care less about all that. There’s an ice age on and whose fault it is doesn’t really matter. What does matter is what makes the existence of a person worthwhile even in such conditions. Right and wrong are not necessarily the chief consideration.
In Quintet, the players of the game find meaning in life by living in constant fear of death at the hands of their fellow players. Life is so harsh and brutal in the fading world, that the only joy can be derived from playing the game. Adrenaline and competition give the people a reason to carry on their grim existence. When Essex finally confronts the closest thing to a villain the film has in Grigor, the orchestrator of the Quintet games, there is a moral debate. Essex sees the whole business as a waste of life, and one can certainly see his point given what he’s lost. Altman however doesn’t tip his hat to a clear winner of the argument, forcing us to recognize how such circumstances could lead to something like Quintet. We all want the noble Essex and what he stands for to win the day, but Altman suggests that the reality is we would devolve to the level of Grigor in such a situation.
Altman’s a fairly provocative filmmaker, and to be honest I can’t say I love any of his films in particular. But without fail I’ve found every film I’ve seen by him to be interesting. MASH, Short Cuts, 3 Women, Gosford Park, Pret-a-Porter, The Player, Popeye, and Quintet are my Altman experience thus far. Among those Quintet is the only one I would return to with great enthusiasm, but I would have no hesitation in recommending any one of them. They are all interesting worlds he invites us into, and he always has something to say. Even Popeye. I hated it as a kid expecting the cartoon, but seeing it later I appreciated his take. And you’ve got to love a big studio turning such an individual loose on a beloved cartoon character . . . what were they thinking?!? In all of these, Altman doesn’t seem so much interested in entertaining as he does in playing with the medium for whatever purpose he has in mind. MASH is another great example. If you love the series and never saw the film, try that one out. It’s a whole different animal, and straight narrative is not on the menu.
One significant detail I do have to mention, because it can be disorienting when viewing the film. The whole thing is shot in a very peculiar fashion. To give Quintet a frozen, delirious feeling, Altman smudged the border of the camera lens with Vaseline. This leaves the only clear image in the dead center of the screen. To get an idea of what this is like, imagine losing most of your peripheral vision and you’re on the right track. It’s really bizarre and at first I thought it must be a poor transfer or something. Nope. It’s totally deliberate, and judging by comments I’ve read online it looks like most either love it or hate it. I found it worked for me, as it seemed to be appropriate to the style and mood of the film. I can see where some would find it distracting, even unpleasant, but that’s sort of how you need to feel in watching this. Just know going in that you don’t need to adjust your television set, and you don’t have a bad disc.
In summary, Quintet was a major surprise to me on all fronts. Firstly it was a surprise in that I’d never heard of it. How could this be? Secondly it was a surprise because Altman managed to put together a very Altman film, and still made it an entertaining sci-fi yarn. In other words his style did not totally trump storytelling, and the material was not treated as beneath him. He honestly directed a great 70’s post-apocalyptic movie that functions as entertainment and thought provoking art house fare. With an A-list leading man no less. If I have one qualm with the film it’s that it lacks a dynamic score a la Ron Grainer’s soundtrack to The Omega Man. But this is a much darker film, and there aren’t supposed to be a lot of leap out of your seat moments. Still, the subdued score sounds a little too much like a TV movie for my tastes . . . but it’s passable. That aside, if this sort of thing is your cup of tea you really need to hunt this one down Essex style, especially during these long winter months when you can feel the cold waiting just outside your door.