MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (Altman, 1971)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 11, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) slowly builds up its world and its characters layer by layer, the better to tear everything down.
When fur-swaddled John McCabe (Warren Beatty) first rides his horse into the Pacific northwest frontier town of Presbyterian Church, he arrives as a barely noticed stranger. Crossing a rickety wooden bridge into the equally rickety wooden town, he enters a decrepit saloon, its cramped interior space shrouded in dusky gloom and, no doubt, pungent with the aroma of its unwashed clientele.
As the newcomer gladhands his way into a low-rent poker game, the saloon customers, only partially visible in the murk, whisper up a gossipy storm: “Is he wearing a gun?... Swedish gun.” Soon, saloon owner Sheehan (the always fabulous Rene Auberjonois) is racing through the gin joint like a town crier, announcing the stranger as “Pudgy” McCabe, a deadly gunfighter who's “got a big rep... a big rep.” Bit by bit, a Western legend is built.
In an uncharacteristically wise move, McCabe declines to confirm or deny the rumors, leveraging his “big rep” into the self-declared position of big man in town, peddling bargain-priced prostitutes to the town's lonely, grubby miners. The big man, however, is no match for the big woman. After a steam engine ushers Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) into town, everyone's plans change. The Cockney entrepreneur, an expert on managing classy whorehouses and a fancy five dollar hooker in her own right, sweeps the shiftless McCabe up in her wake, and soon has the entire unkempt populace bathing regularly for the privilege of patronizing her prestigious establishment, now only nominally fronted by McCabe, who is lucky and (mostly) happy just to be along for the ride.
Director Robert Altman loved to turn his actors loose, and some of his best films often feel like documentaries about actors conducting “business,” the gradual accretion of their various tics and idiosyncrasies defining their characters more than any role they play in an amorphous plot that rarely matters much. The weaselly Sheehan, Shelley Duvall's mail order bride, and Keith Carradine's affable greenhorn cowboy just drop in from time to time, emerging as distinct presences primarily from a series of glances, mumbled lines, or, in Carradine's case, a ratty, stretched-out pair of long johns. Eventually we have a growing town full of snifflers, belchers, mutterers, and beard scratchers negotiating the turn-of-century transition from Wild West to proto-civilization.
Altman builds the town of Presbyterian Church nail by nail too. Shooting mostly in sequence, Altman incorporates his construction crews, dressed in period costumes, into many scenes as they actually build the set on location near Vancouver, as the town transforms from mud puddle to respectable tourist attraction, if not quite a glittering metropolis. Nothing in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” could really glitter anyway. Altman asked ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to degrade the image by partially exposing the negative before shooting, adding a weird antique patina that is simultaneously grubby and beautiful, all in gloriously dull color.
Still more layering. Altman recorded each speaking part on a separate track, giving him the opportunity to isolate vocals in scenes that include multiple simultaneous speakers, dialing them up or down as desired. The technique renders much of the dialogue barely intelligible, a quality that drove some audiences, critics, and Warren Beatty to distraction. Watching the film at home with subtitles transforms the experience so much, it simply has to count as cheating, but who can resist?
Layered on top of the endlessly overlapping dialogue is the ubiquitous use of several songs by Leonard Cohen, another make-or-break feature for audiences. What initially might sound incongruous to the setting soon becomes indispensable, with Cohen tracks like “The Stranger Song” (coded to McCabe) and “Sisters of Mercy” (coded to the most of the prostitutes) so tightly interwoven into the fabric of the film, it's hard to imagine the movie without them, and almost as hard to believe Altman only decided to use the Cohen music during post-production, dropping the surprise on most of his cast at the first screening.
If the film isn't particularly plot-centric and spends most of its creative energy on demythologizing the West and the Western hero, it still adheres in broad structure to some of the genre's classical elements. McCabe's posturing works on small timers, but he soon finds himself outclassed by corporate thugs who intend to take over his business by any means necessary. The audience has long since figured out that the deadly gunfighter is neither deadly nor much of a gunfighter, but the film still ends in one of the more spectacular shootouts in any Western film, a protracted, snow-covered spectacle that crisscrosses the entire town, and consumes the final twenty minutes. Zsigmond works magic, exploiting the edges of the 2.40:1 widescreen frame with sharp movements, long shots framing tiny figures against a vast landscape, and strategic use of the zoom lens. Few snow scenes have ever felt so darn snowy. Any bodies won't be found until winter thaws, which will be never, since the film ends.
The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
Because the film's negative was intentionally exposed to light (a process sometimes called “flashing”) to degrade the image, any video presentation can be a challenge (the Blu-ray release was delayed by a few months to continue to work on the transfer), and any release is guaranteed to generate a debate from experts, some legitimate and some self-styled, who are certain they know what the original release was supposed to look like. I can't attest to any of that, since the film hit theaters before I hit the world, but I know that this transfer looks very strong, and at least feels authentic. There are very dark shots where you'll be frustrated by how little you can see, surely as Altman and Zsigmond intended. And the movie looks suitably muddy and grainy throughout. Is it an exact reproduction of the original? Zsigmond died at the start of 2016, but participated in this transfer which is credited as “timed by Vilmos Zsigmond.”
I suspect you're going to be happy with this rich high-def transfer, and if you're not, you're unlikely to be please with ANY transfer.
The linear PCM Mono audio mix is crisp and sounds like it's up to a difficult task. Altman's sound tracks are as complex as anybody's, and I'm sure it's a nightmare to replicate everything exactly. Usually I can say that Criterion audio mixes offer no audio drop off. That's not the case here, but when it drops off, or at least gets somewhat unintelligible, that's because it's supposed to. Even if Warren Beatty couldn't stand it. Optional English subtitles support the English audio, and most people will need the support.
Criterion has absolutely packed this release with extras.
The film is accompanied by a 2002 commentary track with Robert Altman and producer David Foster.
The lengthiest extra is titled “Way Out On A Limb” (2016, 54 min.), a collection of interviews with casting director Graeme Clifford, writer Joan Tewkesbury, and actors Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy. The feature jumps back and forth among the subjects, providing perspective from both cast and crew. Carradine clearly still appreciates Altman taking a chance on a teenage neophyte, and Auberjonois obviously loved working with him too. They also single out set designer Leon Ericksen for kudos (see more below).
The disc also includes a new interview (2016, 36 min.) with film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, who debate whether or not the film should properly be called an “anti-Western” and also discuss Altman's feelings about the genre (he wasn't a fan, perhaps because of his unsatisfying work on so many TV Westerns, including “Bonanza.”)
We also get a short feature (11 min.) that mixes two interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, from 2005 and 2008. He talks about exposing the negative on purpose and also the challenges in preparing for a film where the director didn't always know what he'd be shooting the next day.
Set designer Leon Ericksen is spotlighted in an excerpt from a 1999 Art Directors Guild Film Society event in Los Angeles. Appearing in front of his peers, Ericksen is hailed as a rock star in this 37-minute video.
A promotional “Behind The Scenes” featurette (1970, 9 min.) covers the location shooting Vancouver.
Criterion has also included two excerpts from “The Dick Cavett Show.” Cinephiles will particularly enjoy the July 6, 1971 (10 min.) excerpt in which critic Pauline Kael takes the opportunity to enthusiastically defend the film against poor reviews from early critics like Rona Barrett and Rex Reed. She predicts that the movie, about to be rushed out of theaters, will be widely hailed down the road, so good call there. An Aug 16, 1971 excerpt (12 min.) sees Altman explaining some problems with the audio in the film's first critical screening.
The “Steve Schapiro Art Gallery” offers 28 stills from the set photographer.
An original Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) wraps up the collection
The slim fold-out insert booklet fetures an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.
This revisionist Western has just about everything, but I have to be honest. It had me at Leonard Cohen. Criterion's Blu-ray release has just about everything too, except any participation from the film's stars in the extras. I can live without that, but it would have been fun to hear the words “Hello, I'm Shelley Duvall” at some point.