Quintet (1979)

Let me just say that the texts below do not belong to me – therefore, they do not necessarily express my view on Altman’s movie…unlike the text below, for example, I do not think “this film is so bad etc.”!!! I spent months and months deciding whether I was competent enough to write my PhD thesis on it…and concluded that I’m not mature enough yet to write something useful and clarifying about it. Maybe in my post-doc 😉
“In 1979, Robert Altman set out to create his passion project. This passion project was entitled Quintet, A sci-fi flick set in a post-apocalyptic world coated in ice and blustery snow. It starred Paul Newman as Essex, a seal hunter who is thrust into the violent world of quintet, a game about life and death. Altman creates a world so convincingly cold, bleak, and harsh I must commend him on his efforts. He surely saw this film through to its end, but by golly, it should have been the end of him too. This film is so bad it makes Battlefield Earth a masterpiece by comparison. At the very least, Battlefield contained a few laughs. Quintet contains as much life as its barren tundra setting.”
“il film dark per eccellenza, dell’anno in cui escono 154 dei wire, metal box dei PIL, unknown pleasures dei joy division e join hand di siouxsie and the banshees. in un mondo al crepuscolo a causa di una glaciazione, i pochi superstiti ingannano il tempo rimasto con un gioco da tavolo omicida/suicida. ce solo essex (paul newman) continua a credere ancora nella vita.”
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Altman
Produced by Robert Altman
Written by Frank Barhydt
Patricia Resnick
Robert Altman
Starring Paul Newman
Vittorio Gassman
Fernando Rey
Bibi Andersson
Brigitte Fossey
Nina Van Pallandt
Music by Tom Pierson
Cinematography Jean Boffety
Editing by Dennis M. Hill
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) February 9, 1979
Running time 118 minutes
Country USA
Language English

Quintet is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film by Robert Altman produced in 1979. It features among others Paul NewmanBrigitte FosseyBibi AnderssonFernando ReyVittorio Gassman and Nina Van Pallandt. The soundtrack was recorded by the New York Philharmonic.

The story takes place during a new ice age. The camera tracks a blank, frozen, seemingly deserted tundra– until two blurry distant figures can just be made out. They are the seal hunter Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant companion, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), the daughter of one of Essex’s late hunting partners. They are travelling North, where Essex hopes to reunite with his brother, Francha (Thomas Hill).

Essex and Vivia eventually find Francha’s apartment, but the reunion is short-lived. While Essex is out buying firewood, a gambler named Redstone (Craig Richard Nelson) throws a bomb into Francha’s apartment, killing everyone inside, including Vivia. Essex sees Redstone fleeing the scene and chases him to the sector’s “Information Room”; Essex witnesses the murder of Redstone by a Latin gambler named St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman). When St. Christopher leaves, Essex searches Redstone’s pockets and finds a piece of paper with a list of names: Francha, Redstone, Goldstar, Deuca, St. Christopher, and Ambrosia.

Puzzled by the mystery, Essex discovers that Redstone had previously checked into the Hotel Electra, a gambling resort in another sector. He visits the hotel and assumes Redstone’s identity. Immediately after checking in, Essex is given an unexpected welcome by Grigor (Fernando Rey), who is the dealer in the casino. Insisting that he means no harm, Grigor invites Essex (as “Redstone”) to the casino, where gamblers are now heavily involved in a “Quintet” tournament (rules available here:http://ghostradio.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/robert-altmans-quintet-learn-the-rules/). While there he meets Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), who always plays the “sixth man” in the game.

Essex is unaware that the current Quintet tournament is a fight for the survival of the fittest. Those who are “killed” in game are executed in real life. Grigor and St. Christopher are aware that Essex is not the real Redstone, so they ignore him and focus on the other players. Goldstar (David Langton) is the first killed, followed by Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt), until the only two players left are St. Christopher and Ambrosia. Ambrosia, however, insists that Essex be counted as a player in the game since he has assumed Redstone’s identity. Grigor agrees and informs St. Christopher that he has to eliminate Essex before he can face off against Ambrosia.

Essex and St. Christopher have a showdown outside the city, where St. Christopher is killed in an avalanche. Essex returns to Francha’s apartment and finds the same list that Redstone had. Ambrosia follows Essex to the apartment. Essex slits her throat just before she is about to stab him with a hidden knife. Returning to the Hotel Electra to cremate Ambrosia’s body, Essex confronts Grigor to demand his “prize”, since he was the winner of Quintet. But Grigor reveals that the only prize is the thrill of the game itself. Although Grigor insists he stays and participate in future tournaments, a disgusted Essex condemns Quintet and leaves the hotel for good. The film ends with Essex taking a long walk out into the barren Northern distance.


This is by far the best material regarding the Quintet that I’ve ever seen…go to the original address by clicking here if you wish to visit it, or read it below (I’ve copied it in its integrity) – oh, you can also email the author, Daniel Silverman: http://seedyroad.com/email.htm 

Robert Altman’s dystopian nightmare from 1979


Altman’s third masterpiece of the 70s, Quintet is a visually and sonically spectacular study of a world in its final throes of death, both spiritual and physical. Requiring multiple viewings to fully appreciate, even a first-time viewer will languish in the unparalleled cinematic splendor of a darkening frozen world where life has lost all meaning. Unbelievably, Quintet was released the same year as Tarkovsky’s Stalker, making 1979 one of the greatest years ever in cinematic history.

Quintet: the plot

(reprinted from Altman On Altman, David Thompson, editor):

With the planet overwhelmed by a new ice age, and finding no more seals to hunt, Essex returns with his pregnant partner Vivia to the city he left ten years before. Outside, dogs feed on the carcases of the old and sick [sic]; inside, the population are absorbed by a board game called Quintet in which the object is to kill one’s opponents. Essex’s brother Francha takes him to a game which is interrupted by a deadly bomb blast. Essex survives and hunts down the man responsible, Redstone, only to find someone has already killed him. In the pockets of the corpse are the Quintet tokens belonging to Francha and a list of six names — Redstone, Francha, Deuca, Goldstar, St Christopher and Ambrosia. Assumed to be Redstone, Essex visits the Hotel Electra and finds a game in progress but being played for real. Goldstar and Deuca are the next victims, and in spite of Essex’s protestations, Ambrosia refuses to give up her role as ‘sixth man’, the person who arranges the killing order in the game. She in turn fails to dissuade St Christopher from trying to kill Essex, who ignores her warnings. But St Christopher dies in a natural disaster, and Essex kills Ambrosia before she can make her move. In spite of Grigor suggesting that he might make a great player, Essex leaves the city, following the trail of wild geese.

Quintet: the stills

Essex and Vivia taking shelter just before reaching the city.

The frozen train.

Entering the city.

Essex and Vivia arriving at the city. Scott Bushnell’s wardrobe ideas were absolutely spectacular.

Vivia, entranced by urban life.

Quintet, best played with a little boocha/booza in your system.


Chasing Redstone.

Essex carrying the slain Vivia to the water. Quintet’s most moving scene.


St. Christopher questions Essex at the city information center (“It doesn’t transmit, but the information is still there”). The two scenes at the information center are among the most stirringly beautiful in cinematic history. No shit.

Playing Quintet at the Hotel Electra.

Deuca: “Weak roll, Redstone. You’ll never make Sixth Man like that.”

Grigor entering Essex’s room at the Hotel Electra: “I’m afraid I’ve been playing ‘The Sixth Man’ with you.”

Grigor and St. Christopher, contemplating the intent of Redstone’s imposter.

The dogs, looking for a nice bite.

“Hmm, maybe I shoulda stayed down south after all.”

A little down-time at the Hotel Electra.

Essex ‘round Ambrosia’s crib.

A suspicious Grigor.

Essex showing St. Christopher the killing order: “Your name’s on the list”. “Tell me something I don’t know!” St. Christopher no doubt thinks.

St. Christopher and Essex continuing their little tête-à-tête.

Ambrosia, waking from the dream of her mother.

St. Christopher sermoning the downtrodden at his charity house.



St. Christopher ready for the kill.

“I’ve won. What’s the prize?”

Quintet: the soundtrack

The soundtrack of Quintet provides a rich tapestry of aural images that greatly enhances the awful bleakness of a world in its final throes of death, exploiting a broad range of the sound spectrum.

The highs are punctuated by the intermittent tinkling of glass, evocative of the crystallized snow and ice that cover this frozen world. We hear this especially in the main casino as we hover around the wholly incongruous glass chandelier that hangs above the set. Indeed, the chandelier could easily be mistaken for icicles when we see it for the first time, before it comes into focus. We also hear high squeaks and creaks as Essex searches the city directory, the cracked ice-like glass panes that swivel on rusted metal piping again evoke ice and cold.

In the midrange, footsteps during the deathly quiet chase scenes are often accompanied by the muffled crunch of packed snow underfoot, so evocative of a frozen winter setting bathed in a quilting silence. Somehow, the role of the Quintet dice onto the wood or fabric playing board seems to enhance this effect: the role of dice–which may mean life or death for the players–has never sounded so bleak and helpless as in the world of Quintet.

We finally come to the lower frequencies: the aching, rolling groans of the glacial ice are constant reminders that this is a world in its final stages.

Mention should also be made of the wild dogs feeding on the abandoned dead, the awful sounds of human flesh being shredded, and tooth-on-bone, along with the low growl of the savage beasts, can only be described as horrific.

Quintet Symphonic Suite, composed by Tom Pierson:

quintet symphonic suite

Quintet: the legacy

Quintet endured an awful reception upon its release, and the few who actually saw it in 1979 basically ran away from it as quickly as they could. It was, by most accounts, a hopelessly boring, muddled, pretentious, mess of a movie, with Altman’s tricks of muddy sound and muddy lenses (or in this case, Vaseline-covered lenses, as if we’re peering through an iced window) in evidence to the hilt. It was an embarrassment to all but Altman himself, it seemed. Consequently, there were unlikely to be many conscious decisions to emulate the look, the feel, or anything else of it.

Quintet: the credits

Production Company:
Lion’s Gate Films for 20th Century Fox

Robert Altman

Frank Barhydt, Robert Altman, Patricia Resnick, from a story by Robert Altman, Lionel Chetwynd, Patricia Resnick

Cinematography (Panavision):
Jean Boffety

Robert Gravenor

Dennis M. Hill

Tom Pierson

Production Design:
Leon Ericksen

Paul Newman (Essex)
Vittorio Gassman (St Christopher)
Fernando Rey (Grigor)
Bibi Andersson (Ambrosia)
Brigitte Fossey (Vivia)
Nina Van Pallandt (Deuca)
David Langton (Goldstar)
Tom Hill (Francha)
Monique Mercure (Redstone’s Mate)
Craig Richard Nelson (Redstone)
Maruska Stankova (Jaspera)
Anne Gerety (Aeon)
Michel Maillot (Obelus)
Max Fleck (Wood Supplier)
Francoise Berd (Charity House Woman)

118 mins

Quintet: the game

The game of QUINTET (reprinted from Altman On Altman, David Thompson, editor):


Object of game:
To be the last player left on the board after all your opponent’s tokens have been captured.

Gameboard, 2 dice and 15 playing tokens, 3 x 5 kinds.

Background of the game:
Quintet is a game of survival. The five sectors of the Quintet board reflect the five sectors of inhabitants in a futuristic civilization portrayed in Quintet. The film is set in a time of advanced technology within a city founded entirely upon the concept of five: five sectors, five levels in each sector, a population of five million.

As in the film, each player participates with a distinctive token: Redstone (Paul Newman), the mushroom-shaped token; Grigor (Fernando Rey), the starfish; Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), the scalloped cross; Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), the red amulet; and Deuca (Nina van Pallandt), the ice crystal.

Because the Quintet players in the film exist at a time in the future the earth and its inhabitants are near total devastation from a new ice age, they live in constant presence of death. People all around them are freezing to death every day, and it is just a matter of time before death will strike each one of them. So why wait passively for death to strike? The Quintet player lives to challenge and taunt death.

In the film Quintet, the most daring of the players expand their board game rivalry to compete with each other at a level of reality: the game’s capturing order becomes a real-life killing order. The game becomes so real that in order to win the players must kill or be killed.

In the film, successful Quintet players are forced to look out solely for themselves. They form alliances which are broken when they are no longer self-serving. As the capturing order changes, friendships and loyalties change. All of life, particularly mankind’s feelings and motivations for survival, is contained in the game of Quintet. For the true Quintet player, life becomes a game, and the game is all there is to life.

The Quintet game described here is, of course, a non-lethal versionof the one in the film. Nevertheless, the ingredients of intrigue, plotting and deceit remain to make it a thrilling contest for every player. But remember, wIhen you play to cheat death, be prepared for death to cheat you!

Get Ready:
Each player sits in front of one of the five sides of the Gameboard and chooses three matching playing Tokens. Each player rolls the dice, and the one who achieves the highest number plays first and decides the Capturing Order. In case of a tie, the first one to roll the highest number plays first.

Capturing Order:
The first player sets up the Capturing Order by placing one of each player’s Tokens in the middle of the Gameboard. These Tokens in the killing circle remain untouched until the matching Tokens are captured and are out of the game. They serve only as visual reminders of the Capturing Order.

The Capturing Order follows the arrows. The player can capture the piece Ahead but in turn can be captured by the piece behind.

Strategy Points:
ALLIANCE: Alliances happen when two neutral Tokens occupy the same space. Neutral Tokens cannot capture each other, and hence do not immeditely precede or follow each other in the Capturing Order. Alliances protect both players since no other tokens can land on that space and must pass it.

BARRICADE: A Barricade is formed when both of a player’s Tokens occupy the same space. No other Token can land on that space or pass it.

SAFETY SPACE: The spaces numbered VI (6) are Safety Spaces. If you roll a six on one diie, you may either move six spaces or enter the nearest Safety space. If you roll double sixes, you may move both Tokens into Safety Spaces, if you still have both Tokens. If you roll six and another number, and you have only one Token left and you wish to move into safety, you must take the other number first.

You can remain in SAFETY as long as you roll a six or you can use the numbers you roll with your other Token.

Let’s Play Quintet:
1. ROLLING ON. The high roller rolls again and puts his two remaining Tokens in the correct spaces on his side of the board.
Example: If a player rolls a four on one dice and a three on another, he places one Token on space three (III) directly in front and the other Token on space four (IV). If a player rolls double numbers, he places both Tokens in the same room, setting up a barricade.
This is ‘rolling on’. Play continues until all players have ‘rolled on’.

2. To continue, the first player rolls again. He may move either piece the total number shown on the dice. Or he may split up his move and move one Token the number shown on one dice and the other Token number shown on the other dice. MOVES MAY BE TAKEN IN EITHER DIRECTION. When a player rolls double fives, they complete the moves and get an additional turn.
Example: If a player rolls a five and a four, they may move one Token five spaces in one direction and then move the same Token four spaces in the opposite direction, if they wish.

3. There can never be more than two Tokens on any space at any time.

4. During each other player’s turn, he tries to capture one or both Tokens of the player directly after him in the capturing circle. NOT NECESSARILY IN THE ORDER IN WHICH PLAYERS ARE SEATED AROUND THE BOARD. You capture a Token by landing on that Token’s place at the end of the move.

5. Each time a player’s Token is captured, the captured piece is removed from the board. After a player loses both pieces, he is out of the game and his Token is removed from the Capturing Circle. IMPORTANT: At this time there is a new capturing order.

6. If a player has only one piece remaining, he must move according to the numbers of both dice with the one piece (see rule 2.).

7. If a correct move lands a player on a space occupied by the Token that is trying to capture you, you are captured and your piece is removed from the board.

8. ALLIANCES can turn into captures! If a new Capturing Order happens and an old neutral piece that is sharing a space with you can now capture you, you are captured.

9. If a player is trapped between two BARRICADES and cannot move the full amount shown on the dice, he must forfeit that move.

10. If a player has a BARRICADE on one side and moving the other direction would make him land on someone who wants to capture him, he is captured!

Getting Out of Safety:
11. Whenever a player has a piece in SAFETY and he wants to move out of SAFETY, he must move out according to the numbers on the dice.
Example: A player has one piece left which is in SAFETY and he rolls five and four. The player must move out of SAFETY to space five or four nearest that SAFETY. He may then take the other number in either direction.

12.. Example: A player has a space in SAFETY and he must move out. If the only correct moves causes him to end his turn on a space occupied by a Token that wants to capture him, he is captured!

13. Example: A player has only one Token left and it is in SAFETY. If that player rolls a six and a four, he must go to space four on that side before returning to SAFETY. If space four (IV) is occupied by a Token that wants to capture him, he is not captured since he did not end his turn on that space.

14. IN THE CASE OF ROLLING DOUBLE SIXES: When a player has two Tokens and one Token is in SAFETY, one six may be used for that Token to remain in SAFETY. Then the second six is used by the second Token to move six spaces or to go into SAFETY.
When a player has only one remaining Token or both Tokens in SAFETY, it/they must remain in SAFETY.

Got that? Cool. So let’s play

Simplified version of the rules, from the original publicity materials:

Quintet: the Altman interview

In-Depth interview with Robert Altman about Quintet by James Delson, from Fantastic Films magazine, June 1979:









Quintet: the Altmans’ NYC Apartment

2 pensamentos sobre “Quintet (1979)

  1. dan disse:

    Thanks for plugging my QUINTET page. PLEASE write your dissertation on this topic! The film deserves a book-length.

  2. dan disse:

    a book-length appraisal, that is.

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