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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”.


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