Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) is a solitary young man who has a job as a limousine driver for a wealthy, elderly and money-obsessed property owner, and he is ordered each day to drive around to the buildings where old Mr Wright (Stacy Keach) is owed rent and push him about in his wheelchair so that he can harangue the tenants. Meanwhile, a murder has been committed involving an elderly soprano (Margaret Hamilton) who used to sing the National Anthem at every occasion, and had recently completed rehearsals at the new Houston Astrodome - detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) is called in from out of town...
After MASH was the hit it was for director Robert Altman, it was expected that he would capitalise on that success with an immediate commercial follow up, but nothing could have been further from the truth. He accepted a script by Doran William Cannon which he did not have much liking for, and used it as the jumping off point for a series of bizarre sketch-like scenes, loosely connected to Cannon's plot but actually using the improvisation techniques that Altman was so fond of. The studio, allowing him to do whatever he wanted in the hope that lightning would strike twice, regretted their decision not to have more control over their man of the moment.
And so Brewster McCloud was somewhat buried as an embarrassment to the executives who had prompted its filming, but you cannot have a work like this without it gathering some kind of cult following and so it was here. Of those who did see it, either in the cinemas or more likely on late night television, many were baffled, but a few liked what they were seeing, an experimental effort directed by an artist with a following, starring actors with the same kind of appeal (Shelley Duvall makes her debut here), and with a reasoning behind its goings-on which bordered on the impenetrable, inviting viewers to work out what precisely was supposed to be happening in it. Granted, many had neither the time nor the inclination to do so, but you can see why it appealed to a certain type of person.
As a whole, the film comes across as a spoof on detective fiction, yet arranged so loosely, with so little interest in uncovering the truth behind the crimes that you would be forgiven for thinking nobody here was really all that bothered about who the killer was. As if to back this up, when we do find out as one character admits their guilt to another it's much as we expected - unless you are taking a fantastical view of what is going on. Brewster, who lives in the bomb shelter under the Astrodome, has a guardian angel called Louise (Sally Kellerman) who in just one instance of bird imagery has scars on her back where wings have been surgically removed, and she is as much a suspect in our eyes as he is, as if she is looking after him by killing those who mean him harm.
The irony being that few will do him as much harm as he will himself. His big plan is to fly, as the bird references arrive thick and fast, from number plates on cars to the birdshit dropped on the bodies of those who are found dead, all leading up to a remarkable final sequence that even if you have remained unimpressed by what leads up to it, and you are still watching of course, is well worth waiting for. Altman displays a cruel sense of humour, although you have the impression he is siding with Brewster who has to navigate through too many people out to spoil his ambitions, so there are moments that appear to be jokes but are actually quite offputting, such as the suicide of one character after a mockingly generic car chase goes tragically wrong. Even the clichés of the thriller were sent up, never mind the drive to subvert the medium through weirdness, and if Brewster McCloud is a hard film to get along with, then it's true to say you'll rarely see anything quite like it. Music by Gene Page.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.