The late 1960s and early ‘70s were a turbulent time in Tinseltown. In addition to the collapse of the studio system, during which the Big-Five studios – Warner Brothers, Paramount, RKO, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and 20th Century Fox – were able to control all aspects of their films including production, distribution, and exhibition, the cinematic tastes of the youth demographic had suddenly become very fickle. Ticket sales were down, as were overall profits.
With the blockbuster success of Easy Rider in 1969 though, studio heads and production executives discovered that to attract young viewers, the subject matter of their films had to change from the stories of the past. Out went overwrought epics like Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia, and in came smaller, edgier films like Chinatown and Taxi Driver.
Likewise, opulent movie stars like Richard Burton and Rock Hudson fell out of favor and were replaced by rebellious antiheroes like Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson.
But perhaps the most significant change were the filmmakers that rose to prominence during the era. Educated at film schools like those at USC and NYU, and enamored by the French and Italian New Wave directors from the generation before them, these up-and-coming auteurs intrinsically understood the sea change that they were a part of. Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdonovitch, De Palma, and Lucas were just some of these new kings of cinema.
Lumped amongst this cadre by virtue of his aesthetic style, and the subversive subject matter of his movies, was a much older, highly seasoned television director by the name of Robert Altman.
In 1970, Altman directed a massive hit film which would ultimately become an American cultural phenomenon in the form of M*A*S*H, a dark comedy set during the Korean conflict that was actually a quiet indictment of the Vietnam war which was raging at the time.
Altman’s very next project, produced immediately after M*A*S*H, was an idiosyncratic art-house film that featured some pretty amazing muscle cars from the era in it.
Because of this, and my deep love for Altman’s films, I thought that we’d have a look at this American New Wave classic and the rides that inhabit it. So without further ado,I present to you 1970’s Brewster McCloud.
Brewster McCloud was co-produced by Robert Altman’s nascent Lion’s Gate Productions (not to be confused with today’s Lionsgate Entertainment Films) along with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which also served as the movie’s distributor in the United States.
The screenplay was scribed by Doran William Cannon, and was apparently so despised by Altman that the director allegedly tossed the script, and coached his actors on their lines as scenes were shot.
And what a wonderful ensemble of actors he had to work with. Rehiring much of the cast of M*A*S*H, the movie stars Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck, G. Wood, and Corey Fischer.
Added to this cadre of Altman veterans was Stacy Keach, William Windom, Margaret Hamilton (yes, that Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz), and Shelly Duvall, who Altman had discovered at a party in Houston just as filming there had begun.
An absurdist dark comedy with fantasy elements, the movie focuses on the exploits of the eponymous main character, Brewster McCloud (Cort), a nerdy, introverted young man who lives in a fallout shelter in the bowels of the newly constructed Houston Astrodome. Brewster is obsessed with creating a set of mechanical wings and using them to fly like Daedalus from Greek Mythology.
Constantly protected and aided by a fallen angel, Louise (Kellerman), Brewster photographs and studies a variety of birds and incorporates what he has learned into his design.
Meanwhile, a serial killer is stalking the denizens of Houston, with the common links between the victims being that all were authoritarian and bigoted figures who were strangled and covered in bird droppings.
Shaken by the murders and the fact that the local police cannot crack the case, Houston bigwig Haskell Weeks (Windom) arranges to have San Francisco supercop Frank Shaft (Murphy, spoofing Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt, complete with turtleneck, upside-down shoulder holster, and piercing blue eyes courtesy of contact lenses) come to Houston to crack the case.
In short order, the evidence leads Shaft to believe that Brewster is responsible for the murders. Brewster, aided by Louise and Astrodome employee Suzanne (Duvall) evades Shaft and the police initially, but as the dragnet closes in on him, Brewster’s chances of getting back to the Astrodome and finally flying his finished mechanical wings looks more and more in jeopardy.
If you just read that and said to yourself, “Um, that’s kind of weird,” you wouldn’t be wrong. Brewster McCloud is a strange film, one that could have only been made in the era that it was, when the slogan “better living through chemistry” had taken on a different meaning. There is a great deal going on in the movie, very little of which is explained or wrapped up neatly with a bow. Why is Brewster obsessed with trying to fly? Why is there an angel looking out for him? Did Brewster actually commit the murders and why? You’ve got me on every count.
Having said that, if you give up on worrying about such things, Brewster McCloud is an interesting and watchable picture for a number of reasons. For starters, Altman’s aesthetics and direction are superb as always, lending the picture an ethereal sense of unreality. The performances, especially those delivered by Kellerman and Duvall are exceptional, and the camerawork, sound design, and editing are all top-flight.
And for us gearheads, the cars in the film are exceptional.
Virtually having a role of itself in the movie owing to how much screen time it gets is Suzanne’s car: a stunning, Vitamin-C orange over black 1970 Plymouth Road Runner hardtop.
Featuring a black hood stripe and pins, and a set of five-spoke mag wheels shod with Firestone rubber, this ‘runner just looks splendid, and Robert Altman must have thought so too. His camera lingers on the car multiple times, to the extent that he even gives us a close-up of the vacuum-actuated Air Grabber hood scoop popping up, a demonstration of the famous “Beep-Beep” horn, and a good glimpse at the Hurst pistol-grip shifter that lets us know this was an A833 four-speed car.
Unfortunately, we never get a look under the hood, but given the car has an Air Grabber, it could only have been equipped with one of two engines: the 440 cubic-inch six-barrel or the legendary 426 Hemi. Since only 75 Hemi hardtops were made that year, I’m guessing Suzanne’s car was one of the 697 440 six-barrel, four-speed cars that were produced. And boy, does it sound good on screen.
The Road Runner takes part in a spectacular, extended chase sequence during the third act of the film, which Altman no doubt intended to again spoof Bullitt with. For us, that means genuine high-speed driving, burnouts, J-turns, and slow-motion jumps. Good stuff.
The Road Runner’s main competitor in the chase is Frank Shaft’s ride, a Cortez Silver 1970 Chevy Camaro Z/28. Sounding just as good as the Road Runner, the Camaro is adorned with twin black hood stripes, a black vinyl top, a black interior, and sports a set of chromed five-spokes. Keen-eyed observers will note that two different Camaros were used in filming, as most shots show a solid bumper car, while a few show a split-bumper Rally Sport one.
Powered by the Corvette’s excellent 350 cubic-inch LT1 V8 equipped with solid lifters, a hot cam, an 11.0:1 compression ratio, and a 780-cfm Holley four-barrel, the LT1 was good for 360 horses and a stout 380 lb-ft of twist.
Sadly, as Hollywood was wont to do in those days, the Camaro is totaled at the climax of the high-speed pursuit. Such a waste…
Another featured vehicle is Louise’s 1970 AMC Gremlin. Some of you may scoff at it as being a progenitor of the “malaise years” cars that American auto manufacturers would soon be pumping out en masse, but this Gremlin actually looks 1970s kitschy cool. Draped in Firecracker Red paint with a white hockey-stick side stripe, Louise’s ride also features in the main car chase and does some thrilling jumps and slides in it.
Other cars that feature less prominently in the movie are a 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V, a 1970 Dodge Coronet, a ’69 Mustang, a ’69 Cougar, and a slew of Plymouth Fury police cars.
Brewster McCloud might not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, those not disposed to art films might hate it. But fans of Robert Altman, and students of film like me have plenty to enjoy here. Likewise, muscle car fanatics will not be disappointed with the four-wheeled offerings on display.
I give Brewster McCloud seven out of ten pistons.