The Robert Altman touch . . . and a surprise Oscar winner

A few months ago, Robert Altman announced his departure from the movie business.

The reason was not mysterious. After building a career with such bold works as ''M*A*S*H'' and ''Nashville,'' he had turned out a string of flops that left him unable to launch his latest projects. So he headed for the New York stage, directing a pair of fierce Off Broadway plays called ''2 by South.'' Then he made his Broadway debut with a peculiar, wildly uneven, but commendably daring comedy called ''Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.'' Despite some savagely bad reviews, it hung on for a few weeks before closing.

All this while, the last Altman movie -- a dark comedy called ''Health'' -- sat on the shelf, presumably so bad that it wasn't worth distributing. Now the enterprising Film Forum has taken the plunge and given ''Health'' its New York theatrical premiere. It runs through April 27, and since it has received some favorable press, it may now move to other cities as a regular commercial film. Which makes sense. Though this is a pretty mediocre picture, it's not nearly as bad as lots of movies that do get released. And it has an impressive cast including Lauren Bacall, Dick Cavett, Carol Burnett, James Garner, Glenda Jackson, and Paul Dooley. They have seen better moments than this, but all manage to shine at one moment or another.

The story unfolds in Florida, during a convention of health-food enthusiasts. Miss Bacall and Miss Jackson play rival candidates for the leadership of the ''health movement.'' One is a well-preserved octogenarian who falls asleep during key moments of her campaign. The other is an intellectual speechifier who resembles the late Adlai Stevenson, right down to a well-placed hole in her shoe. Appearing as himself, Cavett covers the convention for his TV program, taking time out to lounge in his hotel room and watch the Johnny Carson show.

It's a messy movie. A perilous percentage of the jokes fall flat, and the editing lurches all over the place. You'd never guess this was the same Altman who meshed dozens of characters into the seamless shenanigans of ''A Wedding.'' Moreover, such performers as Cavett and Burnett lack the depth needed to turn their portrayals into something more than shallow, TV-type turns.

And yet, and yet. . . . The subject matter is original. Some of the secondary parts are memorably played. And most important, Altman hasn't lost his unique ability to blend the sunny and the dark, mingling the rational and the fantastic as he peers into the cramped crannies of the human spirit. As always, he is concerned with human frailty, and with the eccentric rites and customs that project our secret hopes, fears, and fantasies into the real world. His explorations in ''Health'' seem rather feeble much of the time. Yet it's hard to deny that Altman at his worst is more provocative than many a lesser artist in the bloom of success.

'Mephisto,' upset winner

The biggest upset of this year's Academy Awards race happened in the contest for best foreign-language film.

The entry from Poland, ''Man of Iron,'' was considered a sure winner because of American sympathy with the Polish labor movement, which is the subject of that film. But the prize went to ''Mephisto,'' a drama about Germany under the Nazis, made by Hungarian director Istvan Szabo. Its victory reflected the current popularity of subjects involving the World War II era.

The story of ''Mephisto'' comes from a novel by Klaus Mann, son of the great author Thomas Mann. The main character is an ambitious German actor, based on a real-life figure who married into Mann's family. He disdains the budding Nazi Party, and can't imagine the German people could ever take it seriously. When the Nazis come to power, however, he accepts their good graces, compromising with his culture and his conscience.

By the movie's end he has become part of the Nazi political and propaganda machine. Though he soothes his conscience with mental reservations, he has lost all chance of escaping the twisted Hitlerian web. He has become a hapless ally -- albeit a reluctant one -- of the very forces he loathes.

In bringing Mann's novel to the screen, filmmaker Szabo has toned down some of its more lurid aspects, including the sexual perversity of the protagonist, which is suggested but not dwelt on in the movie version. While the film is too long and not always equal to its own aspirations, its best moments add up to a strong statement on individual responsibility, charged with intellectual and moral suspense. Klaus Maria Brandauer gives a forceful performance in the main role.

During a recent visit to New York, filmmaker Szabo discussed the picture over lunch. He admitted that after reading Mann's novel for the first time, many years ago, he forgot all about it. Only when it came to his attention again did he become enthusiastic about filming it. What drew him was the book's plot, and its protagonist: a man who falls into the common trap of sympathizing with whoever is in power. Though this ''Mephisto'' happens to be an actor, Szabo doesn't feel that his worst failings -- a desperate need for applause and approval -- are unique to performers. Rather, he says, people of all ages and professions have similar weaknesses, which makes the film a timeless and universal metaphor.

Szabo doesn't claim to understand why the World War II era has become so prevalent at the movies, from ''Genocide'' and ''David'' to ''Das Boot'' and ''The Atomic Cafe.'' But he feels the current spate can't be a mere coincidence. Indeed, he sees marked similarities between the present day and the 1930s, which were also marked with a sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future. This may account for the success of ''Mephisto,'' which fared successfully in several European countries before coming to the United States. Only in France was it apathetically received, says Szabo, who attributes this to French reluctance about remembering its own connections with Nazi barbarity during the occupation.

In filming the Mann novel, Szabo toned down the sexual peculiarity of the main character because he considers it a great mistake to draw automatic parallels between political evil and bedroom perversity. Dwelling on sexual anomalies -- a frequent gimmick in movies about Nazism -- gives the audience an easy ''out'' from pondering the deeper implications of the story, says the filmmaker. So he muted these aspects of the original tale, retaining just enough to suggest that the protagonist's problems don't begin and end in the social realm, but extend to his private life as well.

It is ironic to note that Mann's novel did not easily find success in its native Germany -- where it was suppressed first by Hitler, later by publishers and courts who disapproved of the book's unflattering (though disguised) portrait of a real-life actor. Finally published in Germany after the making of Szabo's movie version, the book is now reported to have found a wide European audience. With its occasionally sensationalistic portrayal of Nazi decadence, it is a minor though often engaging novel. Szabo, a believer in ''compassion'' as a main ingredient of cinema, has focused on its strongest aspects in bringing its antifascist message to viewers around the world.

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