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Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt
Stars: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Bellafonte, Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney, Michael Murphy, Brooke Smith, Jane Addams
The Story: Altman does what he does best: a big sprawling portrait of an interconnected city, rich and poor, black and white, crooks and victims and in-between. On Election Day 1934, a gun moll kidnaps the governor’s wife, hoping that the governor will use his influence to get her husband freed from the clutches of a jazz-loving black gangster (with lots of other little storylines snaking in and out, of course)
How it Came to be Underrated: Altman made movies steadily for forty years. He would go through periods of popularity and periods of total obscurity, but it never seemed to affect his process much. I was baffled that this wasn’t a bigger hit. He was in the middle of resurgence of popularity at the time, but this one still misfired with the public—it even got mixed reactions from critics, but I thought it was another masterpiece. What do I know?
Why It’s Great:
- Whenever a veteran filmmaker makes a movie set in the city of their youth, you know that they’ve started thinking about what really matters to them. Altman’s Kansas City is the ultimate American No Man’s Land, straddling the border between two states, between East and West, between North and South, modern and backward. They fought on both sides of the Civil War, except they started fighting early and then kept fighting afterwards. For Leigh’s character, a brunette named “Blondie”, the two competing gods of Kansas City are Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford: One light, one dark, one genuine, one phony... A lady who played tramps and a tramp who played ladies. Both were local girls who had found unfulfilling success in Hollywood.
- So it’s fitting that this works as both a drama and a comedy. The tragic elements are paired with lots of droll laughs... especially from the laudanum-crazed non-sequiters of Richardson’s society wife and the ultra-cynical musings of Belafonte’s ruthless gangster. You’ll laugh until you choke on it.
- Cinephiles ignored this movie, but music fans treasured it, since Altman gathered many jazz greats of the ‘90s to play jazz greats of the ‘30s and let them go and go though a marathon jam session that lasts the whole length of the film. This culminates in a rousing re-creation of a famous sax battle between Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy) and Lester Young (Joshua Redman).
- The rigged election unfolds chaotically in the background, never really affecting the goings on but giving everything a tragic sense of futility. Then as now, it doesn’t matter what anybody does, the cops are crooks, the crooks police themselves, and the fix is in. It all finally comes together at the very end, after the tragic conclusion, when one character, after murdering another, suddenly remembers something: “You know what I didn’t do today? I didn’t vote.”
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Other underrated Altman films include Brewster McCloud and California Split.
How Available Is It?: It just disappeared off of Watch Instantly, but it’s still on DVD.