← Back to Reviews

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller - 1971

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Brian McKay & Robert Altman
Based on the novel "McCabe" by Edmund Naughton

Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, René Auberjonois
& William Devane

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is no ordinary film, and stands as the kind of masterpiece that only comes around once in a while. Robert Altman, who had already shown a certain consistency in the quality of films he made, topped them all to this point while staying true to his non-commercial artistic interests. I first came across the film when reading Danny Peary's "Alternate Oscars", where he'd awarded the 1971 statuette to a film that hadn't even been nominated for Best Picture - this one. In the years since, my appreciation for McCabe & Mrs. Miller has grown every time I've watched it, culminating in a kind of reverence that one has for the special works of art that do something profound to their souls - it's such a beautiful piece of filmmaking that it stands as a kind of testament to the craft itself. Altman himself called it a kind of "anti-Western", but only because it simply defies any attempt to classify it genre-wise. It's a western narrative, but every aspect of the classical western to that point was turned on it's head - and the result was a kind of true representation of it's time, full of honest, bitter-sweet pain.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) shows up in the small settlement of Presbyterian Church with the impression of being a man of some standing. Rumours are he's a deadly gunfighter, and his worldly manner allows him to ingratiate himself with the locals, holding poker games and later bringing prostitutes for a whorehouse and gambling saloon he hopes to build. As Presbyterian Church and his business ventures grow, a Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) shows up, and immediately points out to McCabe the various flaws in the way he's set everything up. It's not long until Miller is in a partnership with McCabe, the madam of his brothel and a high-priced prostitute herself bringing clean and safe practices to the establishment, despite her opium habit. Before long, a couple of businessmen representing powerful interests offer to buy McCabe's holdings - he refuses them twice, hoping to negotiate a good deal, but they leave, insulted and done with negotiating. These people are known to solve problems through murder - and low men are on their way to Presbyterian Church to settle the manner through violence.

It's a simple story, and with McCabe & Mrs. Miller it's mood, character, setting and tension that dominate the film from the first reel. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, working in close conjunction with Robert Altman, creates a very unique and atmospheric tone from the start - primarily by "flashing" (slightly exposing) the film negative before printing, which helps bleed the light and clarity from the picture, making the film look as if it has aged and is coming to us from yesteryear. It was a daring gamble, but gives this film a look that is very much it's own. There is also an overwhelming preponderance of shots that use the zoom feature, something most cinematographers and filmmakers generally avoid, but something Altman often used in an experimental way - sometimes in a very rapid fashion, as if the camera itself has suddenly locked on to something, and sometimes very drawn out, as when we zoom into Mrs. Miller's eye and seemingly her mind. Zsigmond would eventually end up winning an Oscar for being Director of Photography on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and would be nominated a further three times (for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia.) He has created a visually rich and winsomely eccentric visual tapestry for this great film.

For the soundtrack, which is as perfect as this film's visuals, we have Leonard Cohen to thank - and McCabe & Mrs. Miller manages to stretch only three Cohen songs in various ways across the entire film. The lyrical and musical beauty of these tracks are wonderful by themselves, but the way they match the wistful, haunting film is perfect - so much so you'd swear they were written for the film itself - not lyrics-wise but in the emotional tone they set. Altman had been listening to one of Cohen's albums while he was helping edit the film (with Lou Lombardo) and contacted him when he realised the connection. Fortunately, Cohen was already a fan of Brewster McCloud and readily agreed with letting the director use his songs for the film. The songs used were "The Stranger Song", "Sisters of Mercy" and "Winter Lady" - they all came from Cohen's "Songs of Leonard Cohen" album. It was just happenstance, but at the same time feels anything but random that these songs ended up providing the musical background to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The songs are evocative and powerful in the way they create a kind of romantic despair, and a poignant, stirring kind of charm and dreamy enchantment.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were wonderful in their roles, with Christie being nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress (losing to Jane Fonda in Klute.) Along with them were many of the regular Altman troupe. Michael Murphy (from That Cold Day in the Park, M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud), Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck and Corey Fischer (from M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud), Bert Remsen and Shelley Duvall (from Brewster McCloud) and Linda Sorensen (from The Cold Day in the Park). Keith Carradine made his feature debut, was quite solid as a young, inexperienced cowboy, and would feature in many future Altman films. While various carpenters and builders were creating the town of Presbyterian Church, as it slowly grows in the film, they were given period costumes and allowed to work as filming was underway, becoming the various tradesmen you see in the background of the film. Duvall is a real standout, though not having much screen time, she's memorable in only her second feature film after McCloud. Beatty's perfectionism clashed with Altman's freewheeling ways, but both actor and director can be proud of the end product regardless.

Of the three characters who come to town in the film's last stretch intent on killing McCabe, Hugh Millais (Butler) and Manfred Schulz (Kid) were making their debuts, and weren't really actors - but it's a testament to Altman's method that this isn't in the least bit noticeable. The production was lucky, with non-stop snow over numerous days giving the "chase" section of the film a certain ambiance that suits it so well. As McCabe - a "hero" who is not above winning a duel by shooting his opponent in the back - fights it out the townspeople try to save their church from fire. I really enjoyed this, for it completely isolates McCabe, and his aloneness becomes literal as well as symbolic. McCabe is afraid, and trying to hide. It's a refreshing and distinctive climax that sets this "western" apart from most others, even the likes of High Noon, where the knight in shining armor in the visage of Gary Cooper bravely faces his foes in the open. Also, unlike Grace Kelly, Julie Christie's Mrs. Miller is not there to face the reality of the situation - losing herself chasing the dragon, lost in her own world - a world like our own where the powerful and rich get to dictate their own happy endings.

Leon Ericksen, art director for That Cold Day in the Park, co-producer of M*A*S*H and involved with the makeup and art departments of Brewster McCloud returned again for Altman on this film, this time in the guise of production designer. The film was made in West Vancouver and Squamish, B.C on hilly terrain surrounded by forest. The look is very authentic, and Altman obviously had a close relationship with Ericksen and knew he could count on him. Ericksen would eventually be involved with the making of Star Wars, so his career was involved with making films at the very height of the industry, especially during the 1970s. Altman's second unit director, Lou Lombardo, had handled the editing of Brewster McCloud and this film as well - all of this seems typical of the ad hoc style Altman so successfully used to create his films - a kind of style that would bring most other filmmakers undone.

A review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller wouldn't be complete without one final major talking point - Altman's very unique way of recording and using conversation, with only snippets audible from here or there as characters move around, and at times people talking over each other at the same time. It was a kind of realism that Altman loved to experiment with, and he hoped that audiences would understand that they were only hearing what they needed to hear. That hearing every word of every conversation wasn't important in and of itself. It was something not all film reviewers realised, although many were already hailing this as a masterpiece. It is so different from other films that it can, at first, feel as though something is amiss with the film's sound. Often sound effects like footsteps will drown out what a character is saying - but it's all deliberate. Altman infused his film with a kind of realism, for in our day to day life, we sometimes only hear snippets of conversation, and not every word directed at us. We glean meaning from it regardless, and he didn't feel his film should be so clean in an auditory sense as to distance itself from how reality feels. It was a distinctive trademark of this director, and went back to the reason he was fired while Countdown was in the editing phase. He'd stuck to it, confident in his method.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller wasn't an immediate success. Pauline Kael was one of it's first champions, but it took time for it's audience to find it. I'm another one who is totally on board with how important and brilliant the film is. I loved it the first time I saw it, but when you watch it over you find many new things you missed the first time, and when you watch it after that, you'll find more that will surprise you. There is so much happening, and such beauty in it, that it never fails to completely steal all of my attention each and every time. There doesn't seem to be any familiarity building, despite the number of times I've watched it. It's so layered and textured, in so many senses, that it's a sure desert island film - if I were stranded I could still get lost in it, and just sit there admiring it's haunting and melancholic aura. I could never read Edmund Naughton's McCabe, for fear of contaminating what I love about the film so much - even though Altman has made many changes.

I hope I get the chance some time in the future to see this film at a cinema, as with all the films I hold in the greatest esteem. This one is sheer brilliance - in it's performances, filming, sound, screenplay and direction. In it's design, and execution. There was something magical about the way Altman guided projects - allowing all the contributors to contribute to the artistic side of filmmaking, making their own decisions, and listening to their ideas. It was a perfect balance, and the proof of that is in the results. It was the fourth film in a row (three for most) from Altman that I think was absolutely incredible, and worthy of championing to everyone who loves film and hasn't seen them yet. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an ode to all the hustlers and hucksters who managed to swim too far out, and get in far above their heads - to all the pretenders who became a little too cocky, and should have listened to those close to them. It's a portrait of life on the frontier, big business, the little man, spirit and industry. Capitalism. One of the all-time great movies.