On Robert Altman's Subversive Anti-western, 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller'

Warren Beatty, Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller toys with and subverts western tropes and traditions while flat out refusing to fall into others.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Keith Carradine, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Studio: Warner Bros.
Release date: 2016-10-11

When it was released in 1971, the critical response to Robert Altman’s revisionist anti-western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, was positive but tempered. Co-star Julie Christie received an Academy Award nomination, celebrated cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s gauzy camerawork was nominated for a BAFTA award, and a few other accolades added up. Over the years, however, it’s become recognized as a classic of the American New Wave; a maverick, anti-establishment feature; and the Criterion Collection just released a fantastic new Blu-ray worthy of that elevated status.

Set in Washington State in 1902, in the mountain mining town of Presbyterian Church, a mysterious stranger, the gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty), arrives on the scene with big plans. Helped in no small part by the possibly mistaken idea that he’s a vicious gunfighter, McCabe sets up shop establishing a small brothel, all while wearing a bearskin coat of epic proportions and regularly downing a shudder-worthy concoction of a double whiskey and raw egg. Enter Julie Christie’s cocky Brit, Constance Miller, who teams up with McCabe to take their whorehouse game to a whole new level, a strategy that works like gangbusters until a big business concern shows up and starts a ruckus.

Shot in Vancouver, BC, McCabe & Mrs. Miller toys with and subverts western tropes and traditions while flat out refusing to fall into others. It plays with the stranger-comes-to-town set-up and runs themes of the self-made-mythos. McCabe neither confirms nor denies his gun-slinging past, leaving the townsfolk to stew and speculate. Rugged northwest mountains replace sparse desert frontiers, and off-kilter humor supplants grim-faced stare downs, an element that feels more at home in the era the film was produced rather than set.

All of Robert Altman’s directorial trademarks are present and accounted for. Improvised and layered dialogue gives scenes a cacophonous, lived-in feel. The hazy photography is like a stunning mythic dream -- enhanced by the Blu-ray’s gorgeous new 4K transfer. Intentional chaos -- or at least the surface appearance of disorder -- like so many of the filmmaker’s best, abounds. Then there’s the cherry-on-top of this particular sundae: a slew of Leonard Cohen songs, diaphanous and wistful: it feels like a bard following McCabe through this weathered land.

Altman stocked the cast with his regular company, including Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, Bert Remsen, and more. But it’s Beatty and Christie who make McCabe & Mrs. Miller go. Flawed and ambitious and not nearly as clever as the townsfolk think he is (or as clever as he himself thinks he is), McCabe swaggers in. A swagger on the verge of buffoonery; and a swagger Mrs. Miller, putting up her own front, cuts right through. On screen, their chemistry is effortless and undeniable, being simultaneously charming, disarming, scheming, wounded, and insecure as they delve into their ill-fated romance.

A different kind of western, as an experimental genre exercise seen through an opium dream, McCabe & Mrs. Miller makes the framework its own. With an immersive world and uniquely damaged characters all the more compelling for their imperfections, it’s only gained acclaim over the years, and rightly so.

One of the big knocks when the film was released in 1971, was the murky photography. Vilmos Zsigmond’s intentionally soft focus and gauzy images give the impression of watching through a layer gossamer silk. Pre-fogging the film before exposure, Cinephiles have warmed to the ethereal strategy over the years, and never have the images looked as good as they do in the new 4K Blu-ray transfer. And the rest of the bonus features measure up.

A Criterion-exclusive 55-minute documentary, Way Out on a Limb, digs into the production and aesthetic of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Through interviews with actors Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy, casting director Graeme Clifford, and script supervisor Joan Tewksbury, it examines Altman’s approach, the culture surrounding the film, and its singular style.

Another exclusive to this release is a 37-minute conversation with film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell who discuss the film, it’s structure and style, and where it fits into Altman’s larger CV.

A quick ten-minute behind the scenes feature from 1970 looks at the elaborate set as Altman and company essentially constructed an entire town on a mountain-side in Vancouver, BC. Also, shot in 1999 at the Art Directors Guild Film Society in Los Angeles, production designer Leon Ericksen and Jack De Govia, along with art director Al Locatelli, chronicle the production of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray includes two segments taken from 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show. In one, legendary film critic Pauline Kael dismisses the negative reception McCabe & Mrs. Miller received upon its initial release. In the 11-minute clip, she even takes critic Rex Reed to task. In the second, from a month later, Robert Altman himself discusses Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, their performances, the sound design, and much more.

His name is mentioned in conjunction with this film quite often, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond also shows up in the bonus features. In two short interviews, from 2005 and 2008 respectively, the acclaimed DP discusses the time period, his collaborations with Altman, and the ideas the shaped the picture.

Not exclusive to this release, the Criterion Blu-ray nevertheless comes with a commentary track with Altman and David Foster. Originally released as part of Warner’s initial DVD, this track is as insightful and overflowing with information as one could hope.

Rounding out the bonus features on the McCabe & Mrs. Miller Criterion Collection Blu-ray, are the original trailer and a photo gallery from Steve Schapiro, who shot “special photography” on the set. Because this is a Criterion release, it wouldn’t be complete without some reading material, and they oblige by including critic Nathaniel Rich’s essay, “Showdowns”.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.