McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman and Brian McKay (based on the novel by Edmund Naughton)
Stars: Warren Beatty (John McCabe), Julie Christie (Constance Miller), Rene Auberjonois (Sheehan), William Devane (The Lawyer), John Schuck (Smalley), Corey Fischer (Mr. Elliott), Bert Remsen (Bart Coyle), Shelley Duvall (Ida Coyle), Keith Carradine (Cowboy), Michael Murphy (Sears), Antony Holland (Hollander), Hugh Millais (Butler), Manfred Schulz (Kid)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1971
Country: U.S.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller Criterion Collection Blu-ray
McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller arrived in the midst of a cycle of anti-westerns—preceded by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970), and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), followed by John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), and Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks (1976), among others. All of these films, in various ways and to different degrees, undercut the basic tenets of the Western genre, primarily with a newfound sense of moral ambiguity. The basic elements of the genre were still there—the six-shooters, the horses, the frontier towns—but the genre’s underlying thematic tropes—the righteousness of the gunslinger, the power balance between men and women, the justification of war waged against Native Americans, the hope of truly carving civilization out of the wilderness—were made dubious. However, there had been none quite like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which shouldn’t be surprising given Altman’s utterly unique ability to take any story, any topic, any genre, no matter how familiar, and put it through his own artistic wringer and come out with something that felt fresh, challenging, and wholly original.

In fact, if I had to name the film most reflective of the New Hollywood of the 1970s, it would have to be this one. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was made at a time when the Hollywood industry, which had seemed virtually unshakeable a few decades earlier, was floundering amid cultural, demographic, and political change, unsure of who their audience was and how to appeal to them. The result was the takeover of almost every major studio by a multinational conglomerate, the erosion of the old guard in favor of younger producers and executives, and an influx of film-school trained talent behind the camera who would go on to produce a decade’s worth of new classics that borrowed liberally from the Golden Era of Hollywood, but were infused with aesthetics and ideology from various European new waves and a new license in depicting violence and sexuality. McCabe & Mrs. Miller embodies almost every characteristic of the New Hollywood, sometimes to an almost absurd degree: it is a revisionist genre film featuring a complex protagonist who could easily be dismissed as a “loser”; it undercuts star power by casting said “loser” with a popular, handsome marquee idol; it upends conventional sexism by giving most of the narrative’s power to not just a woman, but a prostitute; it is shot in the hazy, low-contrast style that was coming into favor at the time; and it emphasizes realism in the gritty, frigid location work while employing self-conscious stylistic devices like zooms, slow motion, and an overlay of bittersweet ballads by folk singer Leonard Cohen.

Despite sharing thematic and aesthetic proclivities with young, film-school trained directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, Altman was not technically one of them; rather, he had been a prolific television director since the early 1950s who moved into feature film directing in the 1960s, scoring a major commercial and critical hit with M*A*S*H (1970), a war satire that remains one of the most subversive comedies to escape a major studio. It is easy to imagine that, had M*A*S*H not been a commercial success and not spun off one of the decade’s most popular television series, his career in feature films might have ended there. But, it didn’t—and we are all the richer for it.

Following his oddball fantasy Brewster McCloud (1970), Altman turned his attention to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which was based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton. Set almost entirely in Presbyterian Church, a tiny, but growing mining settlement in the Pacific Northwest, the story centers on the relationship between John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a (possibly) former gunslinger-turned-professional gambler and businessman, and Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a madam who convinces him to build and allow her to manage an elaborate whorehouse. Like many a Western before it, McCabe & Mrs. Miller opens with McCabe, a mysterious figure buried in a massive bearskin coat, riding into town from the wilderness. He starts up a poker game at the only saloon in town, a dank, miserable place, and everyone is immediately awash in speculation about who he is.

While McCabe’s background remains hazy, his intentions come quickly into focus, as he sets about building his own saloon as the town’s centerpiece. When Mrs. Miller arrives in town, specifically to see him, she convinces him to alter his plans and turn it into a fully functional, high-price whorehouse (his idea had been to bring in some prostitutes from a neighboring town and set them up in small tents outside the saloon). The whorehouse becomes a kind of beacon in the wilderness, promising men not just sexual gratification, but silk sheets, warm baths, and fine food. It is, in its way, a bit of civilization standing out from the mud and grit of the wilderness that surrounds it.

The business venture is a success, and McCabe, emboldened by his new prominence and financial power, dismisses the attempts by a large mining company to buy him out. Blinded into believing that he is more than just a big fish in a small pond, he is unable to recognize the danger posed by real sharks, and once he sees the light and tries to renegotiate, it is too late. The opportunity to play nice has passed, leaving only violence, which, having been largely absent from the first two-thirds of the film, hangs heavily over its third act, initiated by the brutal and callous killing of one character by a representative of the mining company, thus ensuring our fears that they are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. Woven throughout the narrative is McCabe’s growing romantic attachment to Mrs. Miller, which brings up feelings that he is not quite able to manage and that she, being a professional in the art of making men feel important and powerful, isn’t in a position to reciprocate.

Of course, to some extent (at least, if Altman is to be believed), the story in McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, if not entirely irrelevant, at least subservient to the atmosphere. Altman put most of his artistic energy into creating a mood, a sense of time and place that the story essentially justifies. There were movies at the time that shared some aesthetic similarities to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but none that employed so many extremes to create an almost dreamlike vision of the frontier at the turn of the century (the setting in the Pacific Northwest, with its towering evergreens, made for a nice visual change of pace while also maintaining historical accuracy). Altman worked with production designer Leon Erickson to create a world of largely muted colors so that the film would resemble the daguerreotypes of the late 19th century, and he and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond took the risk of “flashing” the film (meaning exposing the otherwise unexposed negative to light) to further wash out the image, lowering contrast and graying out the blacks. Combined with the visual textures of the setting itself (which tend to be either rain-drenched and muddy or snow-covered), Altman’s visual approach results in a film that looks like something new by reproducing the look of something old.

At the time, there were complaints about Altman’s approach to dialogue, which involves characters talking over each other and often mumbling in a way that makes hearing every word impossible. Altman’s intention was to create a more realistic milieu, one in which you catch parts of conversations, but never the whole (Orson Welles had done something similar in Citizen Kane, but Altman took it much, much further). While it is easy to see why this might create some frustration, it creates a sense of presence that is often belied by the neat and clean sound design we are used to in Hollywood productions. It was another way that Altman could undercut the expected while achieving something that is more palpable and realistic.

The same could be said for the performances, especially Warren Beatty as McCabe. Having already reached superstar status in the New Hollywood with the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Beatty continued to buck tradition by using his matinee good looks in the service of playing antiheroes. McCabe is one of his greatest creations—a man who talks big, but often at the wrong time; who sees himself as much more than he is, and once aware of that fact, is downright pathetic in trying to backtrack; who mumbles to himself in a way that suggests his confidence is just bluster. We can’t help but like him, which is what gives the film, despite its esoteric artistic design and elliptical nature, a real hook. For all its improvisation and daring, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a moving portrait of how the little man, no matter how confident in himself, is usually at the mercy of others with more money and more power and less scruples. That is, like all Westerns, it is a microcosm of the story of America.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary from 2002 featuring director Robert Altman and producer David Foster
  • Making-of documentary, featuring members of the cast and crew
  • Video conversation about the film and Altman’s career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell
  • Featurette from the film’s 1970 production
  • Art Directors Guild Film Society Q&A from 1999 with production designer Leon Ericksen
  • Excerpts from archival interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond
  • Gallery of stills from the set by photographer Steve Schapiro
  • Excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael
  • Trailer
  • Essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 11, 2016

    McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with its grainy, washed-out visual design and soft focus, poses an immense challenge in terms of film-to-video transfer, which is why all previous editions on home video have come up lacking. When it was announced that Criterion would be releasing a Blu-ray edition, many (myself included) got their hopes up that the film would finally get its due on home video, and I am delighted to report that I am not disappointed. Criterion’s presentation derives from a new 4K 16-bit digital transfer from the original 35mm camera negative that was given extensive digital restoration. To ensure accuracy of the muted color palette, the transfer was matched to a reference print made by the Academy Film Archive and timed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The result is head and shoulders above previous video editions, giving us not only a more accurate presentation in terms of color and contrast, but one that boasts improved detail and texture. The image certainly looks soft and hazy, as was the intent, and blacks are mostly grayed out and grainy. Criterion has done a fantastic job bringing the film as close to its original presentation as possible while avoiding any temptation to make it look “modern.” The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm magnetic tracks and digitally restored. It sounds as I would expect, with some of the dialogue muffled and overlapping to the point of being inaudible. But, there is a real sense of depth and reality in the track’s multi-layered texture, and Leonard Cohen’s melancholic songs sound warm and natural.
    Criterion has put together an excellent array of supplements, some of which are familiar and some of which are new. The audio commentary by director Robert Altman and producer David Foster was originally recorded in 2002 and previously appeared on Warners’ 2004 DVD. It’s a good track—chock full of background detail and production stories. New to the disc is “Way Out on a Limb”, a 55-minute retrospective documentary featuring new interviews with script supervisor, Joan Tewkesbury (who later penned Nashville for Altman), casting director Grahame Clifford, and actors Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy. Also new to Criterion’s disc is a 36-minute, conversation between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, who discuss both the film itself and the long arc of Altman’s filmmaking career. The rest of the supplements have all been culled from the archives, starting with a fascinating 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette from 1970, which offers a great deal of footage during the location shooting in Canada, with a particular focus on the construction of Presbyterian Church. There is also a 37-minute excerpt from a 1999 Q&A with production designer Leon Ericksen that was hosted by the Art Directors Guild Film Society in Los Angeles and led by production designer Jack De Govia (art director Al Locatellu also participates). The late Vilmos Zsigmond appears in a 10-minute featurette that edits together a 2005 interview for the American Society of Cinematographers and an interview that was recorded for the 2008 documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos. There is also a gallery of stills shot on the set by photographer Steve Schapiro and 22 minutes of excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, one featuring Altman and one featuring film critic Pauline Kael, who raved about the film in her New Yorker review. Finally, there is a trailer, and the insert fold-out includes an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.

    Copyright © 2016 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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