A man against the world

The Quintet is a 1979 American science fiction film that tells the story of a future ice age in which humanity spends its remaining time playing a board game. For a small group, this obsession isn’t enough. They play a game with the living characters….. and only the winner survives.

Directed by Robert Altman from a screenplay he wrote with Frank Barhydt, Robert Altman and Patricia Resnick. The film stars Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, Fernando Rey, Vittoria Gassman, Brigitte Fossey and Nina Van Pallandt.


After a nuclear war plunges planet Earth into a second ice age, a man named Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant wife (Bridget Fossey) travel to the last known living city, a snowy, icy farming community.

In a sudden and shocking attack, his wife is killed, and Essex realizes the truth behind the community’s main pastime, a nihilistic board game called Quintet. Dice dictates real-world strategies for stealth kills and assassinations between small groups of players. And Essex is still in play….


For much of the 1970s, Robert Altman was a favorite of respected film critics, thanks to three career milestones that quickly transcended genres: the anti-military comedy MAS*H (1970), the anti-Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and the real screen equivalent of The Great Un-American Novel, Nashville (1975).

But when the unconventional Altman dared to go further, those same critics may have turned on him. Quintet (1979) was a rare foray into the science fiction genre for Altman (his Countdown (1968) was a surprisingly cynical take on the Apollo moon program), and the reviews were almost universally vile and hateful. Still, it’s worth swimming against the current (and joining SF encyclopedia compiler John Clute) and thinking that the quintet has far more merit than the same disco-era commentators who couldn’t be bothered to wipe Star Wars (1977) from their tired eyes.

Altman worked on the script with several writers – including Lionel Chetwynd and Patricia Resnick – and when the material took shape, it was initially a sort of crime thriller with an Irish Republican Army/terrorist angle, not unlike Carol Reed’s The Third Man. At one point, the idea was to evoke a kind of seedy, vibrant European capital.

After exploring Chicago, Altman went to Montreal in search of an atmospheric underground pipe system and stumbled upon the dilapidated remains of Man and His World, a beautiful abandoned exhibition that was part of the Montreal Exposition of 1967 (actually the World’s Fair that year). All those strange buildings stood there and collapsed. I thought that because we were filming in the middle of winter, we could just go inside and freeze everything. So we moved the story to a futuristic period and rewrote it almost entirely. …. Actually, we found a location and wrote the film around it.

The result is a dying winter world after a nuclear war. A survivor named Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), a potential Adam and Eve type, end up, much to their chagrin, in the last functioning city, a fantastical place built in the shape of a pentagon and shrouded in ice crystals, where steam and electricity barely work, but which is also littered with corpses being disposed of by black dogs. Essex and Vivia are first greeted by the medieval inhabitants, over whom a man named Grigor (Fernando Rey) seems to have some power. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Vivia is killed by a suicide bomber.

The truth behind the despair: The citizens, having lost all hope of a tomorrow, throw themselves into a devouring dice game called Quintet. Five players perform moves on the board that in real life amount to attempts to kill each other using tricks, gimmicks, or just brute force. Grigor plays a judge of sorts, and Essex realizes that he’s still in the game, even after his defeat (Vivia’s killer, meanwhile, is already dead in another move). Essex tries to determine which of the few people around him is his target and who are his potential killers.

Throughout, there’s the hypnotic music of Tom Pearson (reminiscent of Philip Glass or Mike Oldfield), an international cast of polyglots playing in a mannered manner, and some particularly memorable deaths. Altman really stirs up the fire in this chilly climate by predictably building up to a big fight in the style of Besson’s The Last Fight – and then mowing down the ground beneath the audience’s expectations (The Last Fight without The Last Fight). Given his temperament, this is either a disappointment or an acknowledgement that the maverick director is trying to do things differently.

Of course, the audience didn’t find it all as fascinating as cute little robots or starlets, and so the quintet died at the box office. But for those whose preference is for post-apocalyptic art, it remains a bright and fateful spectacle. Although the bleak scene and finale seem to make it clear that even in the most hopeless situation, there must be a reason to insist on humanity surviving in this endless winter (as in Snowball), Altman told a film magazine at the time – spoiler alert – that he didn’t think there was any hope of humanity going extinct in Quint after the credits rolled. Oh, my God. Yet the quintet itself should not be dismissed as easily as others.

Charles Cassady Jr,

Other reviews:

It’s a dark, shadowy futuristic fantasy in which everyone plays immensely mysterious games, which Altman unfolds at a slow pace over the course of a long, two-hour workday without tension or suspense. But Jean Boffeti’s stylized depiction of Montreal in winter is the only real highlight of the film. Derek Winner.

The actors look bored and confused, the pacing is deadly, and the music is distracting, thundering drums playing over the quiet scenes as if a climax could somehow cause excitement. The worst part is that the film takes itself too seriously, resulting in a monotonous atmosphere that hits the viewer like a drug. All films from the 70’s

The Quintet may be well made, but it’s also a painfully slow film. Just because the film is set on a glacier doesn’t mean it has to move that way.  The slow pace is not helped by the fact that many of the characters tend to suddenly start giving these deep, faux philosophical monologues, most of which are as profound as a typical Tumblr post. Lisa Marie Bowman, through a broken lens.

The actors and characters:

Paul Newman… EssexVittorio Gassman… Saint Christopher-Fernando Rey… GrigorBibi Andersson… AmbrosiaBrigget Fossey… Vivianne van Pallandt… Deuca (as in Nina Van Pallandt) David Langton… GoldstarThomas Hill… Francha (as Tom Hill) Monica… mercurial Redstone’s motherCraig Richard Nelson… RedstoneMarushka Stankova… JarrahAnna Gerety… AeonMichel Maillot … ObelusMax Stain … Wood supplierFrançoise Baird … Wife of the charity house (as Françoise Baird)

Technical details:

118 minutes. Aspect ratio
: 1.85 : 1
Audio : Mono


Associated companies

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