3 Women (1977)


3 Women
Dir. Robert Altman
Premiered April 3, 1977

With no disrespect to his talent, there are few filmmakers I’d consider less appropriate to direct a thriller than Robert Altman. Director henceforth of such classics as MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, Altman developed the idea for 3 Women from a dream, and though it’s nowhere near the surrealism of Eraserhead, you can tell where this movie came from. The result is a strangely engrossing film that nevertheless resists proper analysis. In other words, exactly the type of thriller you’d expect Altman to make.

Working at a health spa in the distant California desert, Texas native Millie (Shelley Duvall) is gregarious but little-liked. So when meek but affectionate fellow Texan Pinky (Sissy Spacek) arrives for work, Millie is more than happy to make her her new friend and roommate, living in a clubby compound where the pregnant landlady (Janice Rule) paints disturbing, Gerald Scarfe-ish murals on the walls and floor of the swimming pool. But all is not well, as Pixie begins systematically stealing Millie’s identity; not just her Social Security number, but her personality. Frustrated by Millie’s affair with their landlord (Robert Fortier), Pinky attempts to commit suicide but ends up in a coma, waking up to become someone else entirely.

3 Women’s ambitions go beyond what’s on screen. Playing with the mechanics of dreams, ideas explored much more thoroughly in other movies, the film seems to revolve around the idea that everyone in your dream is you, and that every character therein is a signifier of a state of being in relation to the self. Dreams may almost never be a good inspiration for art, but one area where film is exceptionally good at recreating them is in the way a great director can inspire astounding dread over nothing in particular, which 3 Women has more than enough of. Every moment, you’re expecting something to go horribly wrong, and though it never does, the terror–and occasional humor– Altman is able to wring out of every shot is nothing short of masterful.

I didn’t love this movie, though. 3 Women is probably best viewed if you know nothing about it going in, or everything. Describing it as a “thriller” is somewhat misleading, though there’s no shortage of darkness lurking under every frame. But whatever my personal satisfaction may have been, Robert Altman wanted to recreate a dream, and he definitely succeeded.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Millie drives a Ford Pinto, the automobile famously recalled for spontaneously combusting.

How Did It Do?
3 Women’s box office grosses appear lost to history. But with a budget of $1.5 million and no shortage of screenings, it’s likely that it at least broke even. Altman, one of the foremost filmmakers of the New Hollywood, never had a huge hit again, but he kept on anyway, directing an astounding 23 more films before his death in 2006.

Next Time: Annie Hall


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