Name your poison.
Robert Altman might have the most inconsistent filmography of any certifiably great filmmaker. That’s because the unique, experimental creative process that he typically employs involves an extraordinary amount of risk. His approach is shockingly loose and hands-off… he’s almost anti-Kubrickian in his willingness to surrender control and let his characters and stories wander wherever they wish to wander. Sometimes, this leads us into disastrous territory… the near-unwatchable Pret-a-Porter springs to mind, as does the remarkably disappointing Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. However, when the stars align and the pieces come together, the end results often feel like something that no other filmmaker could have achieved.
There’s no question in my mind that the 1971 western McCabe & Mrs. Miller ranks high on the list of Altman’s achievements. It’s one of those movies in which a bunch of ragged elements seem to have miraculously coalesced into something beautiful; a raw, heartbreaking snapshot of the American west that feels truthful because it feels like no other western ever made.
Our tale begins with John McCabe (Warren Beatty, Dick Tracy), an enigmatic gambler who arrives in the small town of Presbyterian Church, Washington. There are whispers among the townsfolk that McCabe may be a legendary gunslinger. These rumors may or may not be true, but McCabe eagerly uses his reputation as a springboard to becoming one of the town’s most prominent citizens. He announces plans to establish a brothel, and subsequently forms a partnership with business-savvy British madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie, Finding Neverland). Together, they create a high-class whorehouse experience that quickly develops a sterling reputation across the region.
Naturally, it isn’t long before wealthy businessmen come calling. A pair of agents from a mining company make an offer to buy the business, and McCabe cheerfully refuses to even make a respectable counter-offer. Alas, he doesn’t know how danger he’s put himself in: these men are not to be trifled with, and quickly begin making plans to take McCabe’s establishment by any means necessary.
There’s an element of sadness in the air from the very beginning, with melancholy Leonard Cohen songs wandering across the soundtrack and a portrait of wintry frontier life so evocative that you wish you could wrap yourself up in McCabe’s massive fur coat. However, once it becomes clear that we’re witnessing the closing chapter in the life of an ordinary man, the movie attains an exquisite sort of agony. It’s a film about humanity being crushed by the machinery of “progress”; about an era of American history disappearing in the snow.
Beatty’s performance is a captivating piece of work, in part because so many mysteries are left in place about who he is. We aren’t given any sort of conventional narrative explanation of his history, but instead are tasked with trying to understand him through the unfocused ramblings he indulges in when he’s alone. “I’ve got poetry in me. I do!” he declares at one point. Christie has less screen time but does similarly compelling work, suggesting a sort of world-weary wisdom that contrasts effectively with McCabe’s eager naivete.
The film sympathizes with McCabe, but it doesn’t sentimentalize him. Even as he is being drawn into the jaws of forces more powerful than he is, the gambler shamelessly takes advantage of the people less clever and resourceful than he is. Yes, his brand of exploitation is less savage and more familiar, but there are lines to be drawn between the different kinds of financially-motivated methods on display.
As in many Altman movies, there’s an abundance of overlapping dialogue that requires you to either lean forward and try to pick out bits and pieces or sit back and let the overall ambience wash over you. The film’s sound mix doesn’t give you a hint of what you should be prioritizing, and the soft, hazy cinematography takes a similar approach by neglecting to tell you what you ought to be looking at. Some viewers – particularly modern viewers – may find the approach off-putting, but there’s a real thrill of discovery in hearing or seeing something revealing amidst the clutter.
Altman described the movie an an “anti-western,” which certainly seems apt. The film is not only feels wildly different from the conventionally heroic westerns of yesteryear, but also from the grittier “death of the west” movies that were popular at the time. There’s never any directorial or narrative joy in the violence that appears here, and there are no cinematic hymns to the nobility of good men standing up against bad men. The film’s most profoundly affecting scene spotlights a cheerful young man played by Keith Carradine (making his big-screen debut), who finds himself trapped in a negotiation with a gunslinger who’s clearly looking for a reason to shoot him. The scene that follows plays like a small-scale version of the entire film: you can find ways to delay death, but there’s no escaping it.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Blu-ray) Criterion offers an enormous upgrade from the mediocre DVD release of the film, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the dingy beauty of the film’s look. The film has a deliberately soft, smeared look, but given the limitations of the source material, looks sharp and clean. Detail is excellent, flesh tones look healthy and colors are rich and full. There’s a fairly thick layer of grain present, too. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track also does an excellent job of preserving the film’s deliberately cluttered sound mix, offering as much precision as possible without compromising the intent of the original mix. Supplements are generous: an audio commentary from 2002 with Altman and producer David Foster, a 55-minute making-of documentary, a filmed conversation between film historians Carl Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, a 38-minute conversation between production designer Leon Erickson, production designer Jack De Govia and art director Al Locatelli, an archival featurette from the time of the film’s production, a featurette featuring older interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, some archival clips from The Dick Cavett show, a photo gallery and a booklet featuring an essay by Nathaniel Rich.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of Robert Altman’s finest features; a beautifully bruised, bittersweet western anchored by one of Warren Beatty’s best performances. Criterion’s Blu-ray release does this great film justice.