Altman’s self-proclaimed “anti-western,” based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton, is one
peculiar piece of cinema that fits right in with the “New Hollywood” movement
that began in the late 60s and continued through most of the next decade. At
the time, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was
considered extremely unconventional, not very audience-friendly, and quirky to
boot. Cinema-goers expecting a traditional western were bewildered, but
word-of-mouth and good reviews by younger, “hip” critics edged the picture
along to more educated and receptive viewers. Today, McCabe is generally acclaimed to be one of Altman’s best movies.
weren’t yet accustomed to the director’s methods of movie-making in 1971. M*A*S*H (1970), of course, was a huge
and popular hit. His second effort, Brewster
McCloud (also 1970), was less welcomed, although its charms are appreciated
now by the faithful (I consider it one of Altman’s better pictures). McCabe followed these, so the director’s
stylistic temperaments were still new: overlapping dialogue, improvisational acting, ensemble casting,
murky—and yet beautiful—cinematography, an unusual musical soundtrack,
anti-heroes for protagonists, and a “controlled sloppiness” of mise-en-scène. McCabe had all of these things, but it
also had two strong performances by the leads, Warren Beatty and Julie
Christie, and by the soon-to-be-familiar “Altman stock company” (Keith
Carradine, Shelley Duvall, René Auberjonois, John
Schuck, Bert Remsen, Michael Murphy, among others).
(Beatty) drifts into a ne’er-do-well mining town in the U.S. northwest
territory, circa turn of the last century—so it was still very much “western
times”—and promptly decides to show the settlers he could be an alpha dog. The
town is still in the process of being built—the only notable structures are the
church and the saloon. Not bothering to refute a rumor that he’s a gunfighter
who had killed men, McCabe sets up a brothel and begins to make serious money.
Enter Mrs. Miller (Christie), a Cockney (and opium addict) who comes to town to
start her own whorehouse. She and McCabe eventually team up and create a
class-A establishment that is actually the cleanest and most comfortable place
to hang out. Then the evil mining company arrives to buy out McCabe, and he’d
better accept—or else. McCabe turns out to be not a gunslinger at all—but he
attempts to fake it in order to save his own life, Mrs. Miller, and the town.
was nominated for Best Actress for her role, and she is quite good as the
strong woman who actually becomes the brains of the outfit. Beatty’s McCabe is
actually not a very smart guy—he’s all bravado and no substance—a character he
does well seeing that it’s out of the actor’s comfort zone. Keith Carradine
made his big screen debut in the film at the age of nineteen—he’s wonderfully
goofy and lanky as a cowboy who spends most of his time at the brothel.
Zsigmond’s photography is indeed murky; its soft focus was apparently achieved
with a pre-fogging technique on the film negative prior to exposure. On
Criterion’s new Blu-ray, the imagery looks better than I remember it did when
it was projected on a screen.
the most impressive thing about the film is production designer Leon Ericksen’s
“town” which is built before our eyes as the movie progresses. Altman employed
the builders as actors (in costumes) and they are seen in the background,
working away, as the action unfolds in front of them.
disk sports a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural
soundtrack. An audio commentary from 2002 featuring Altman and producer David
Foster accompanies the film—and it’s always a pleasure to listen to the
director talk about his films. There’s a fascinating new making-of documentary
featuring the likes of Carradine, Auberjonois, frequent Altman collaborator
Joan Tewkesbury, casting director Graeme Clifford, and others; an interesting
new video conversation between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell;
a vintage featurette about the
production; footage from the Art Directors Guild Film Society Q&A from 1999
with Ericksen; an archival interview with Zsigmond; a gallery of stills from
the set by photographer Steve Schapiro; and—perhaps the most fun—two excerpts
from The Dick Cavett Show from 1971,
one with Pauline Kael talking about the film, and the other with Altman.
There’s the obligatory trailer, and an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel
Rich in the booklet.
line—the Criterion Collection’s latest addition to its Robert Altman line-up is
impressive and belongs on the shelf of any true cinephile.