Friday, January 11, 2013

Robert Altman's TV Beginnings

After spending years producing industrial films in Kansas City, but before becoming an auteurist's darling, Robert Altman worked as an assembly line director in episodic TV. Most of this work was routine, but a few entries stand out from the pack.

COMBAT: "Survival" (1963)

TV greatest war drama (after Band of Brothers), created by war specialist Robert Pirosh (Battleground, Hell Is for Heroes -- curiously enough, he was a former writer for the Marx Brothers), and concerning a squad of GIs in France just after D-Day.  This episode shows the dogfaces captured by Germans and held captive in a barn -- but the barn catches fire, and the resulting confusion separates an injured Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow) from his unit. For the rest of footage attention is divided between the squad escaping and Saunders wandering around in a daze. The Morrow section has almost no dialogue, as well as some unorthodox camera angles for the period. Even today "Survival" is impressively out-of-the-ordinary TV.

KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE: "Once Upon A Savage Night" (1964)

A pilot for a cop show starring veteran tough guy Charles McGraw.  Notable not only for Altman's moody direction merging noir with verite, but also for actually shooting on Chicago locations -- a very, very rare occurrence in those days, as Mayor Daley hated The Untouchables and blamed it for damaging the city's image. Daley would take out his frustrations on Hollywood, refusing to cooperate with filmmakers who wanted to shoot there (how did residents feel about him costing the city money?). How Altman was able to finagle the location shoot, not only with the Chitown bigwigs but Universal and his producer (Perry Como!), I have no idea.

Note the score by John Williams.   Opening very much influenced by Bernard Hermann.

An offering from Altman's Kansas City oeuvre:

Altman himself has a cameo at 4:20 -- he's a lot more emotional here than he ever was in his TV interviews.

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