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McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Directed by Robert Altman in 1971, McCabe & Mrs. Miler takes place in the early 1900's in the small Pacific Northwest town of Presbyterian Church, a mining community still very much in its infancy in a lot of ways. A lot of the town's inhabitants haven't really fully put down roots yet, and while the mining is effective in keeping people around, there really isn't much to the place. There are a lot of Chinese immigrants around but they're basically forced by the white settlers to live off to the side in a rundown shanty town area. The town church stands proud, but isn't finished. This place needs something. Enter John McCabe (Warren Beatty), an enterprising gunslinger who sees an opportunity here: build the town a nice, new brothel. There are those in the town that have some understandable trepidations about his plans, but they keep their mouths shut for the most part and soon enough, McCabe's got everything in place for his new business endeavor.
Business is good right from the start and McCabe is doing just fine running the place, but all of that changes when a beautiful working girl named Constance Miller (Julie Christie) wanders into his establishment. She's got connections in all the right places, the kind of connections she can use to staff his house of ill repute with the finest female talent around. If he cuts her in on the profits and agrees to partner up with her, she'll turn his brothel into the finest of its kind. McCabe agrees and Miller soon proves to be a woman of her word. She fills the place with beautiful women and the clients come calling, eager and more than willing to handover their cash in the process. Things get complicated when two of the executives from the mining company offer to buy him out. He passes, and is then tasked with a follow up offer that comes from a trio of their enforcers. Soon enough, John realizes these guys are going to force him out of town whether he likes it or not, and after talking to his lawyer (William Devane), realizes that he has no choice but to stand and fight if he wants to keep all that he has worked for.
Set to a soundtrack from none other than Leonard Cohen, this is an odd western despite the fact that it clearly adheres to the ‘one man standing up against the bad guys' motif so popular in the genre. Altman's film is shot in such a way that it almost doesn't feel like genre fare. He puts us in the scene and lets us take away what we get out of it in place of spoon feeding us all of the details, and as such, attentive viewers will be rewarded for putting a bit more effort into this one than your typical cowboy movie. The cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond employs a lot of soft focus and a lot of wide shots and a lot of filters to create a certain mood. This works hand in hand with the way that the movie unfolds and the way that it expects us to pay attention to the characters and their words and actions. It's all odd, a rather strange way to tell a westerns story, but Altman make it work. There's a great story here and if Zsigmond's framing and Cohen's songwriting don't necessarily scream ‘early 1900's' to us, somehow Altman makes it all jive in a way that maybe on paper it really shouldn't.
Beatty and Christie are great here. He's handsome and dashing and tough enough to pull this off while she's a little naïve but completely charming and alluring in her own unique way. It doesn't surprise us to learn that she's sweet on him, but he's a motor mouth, the kind of guy who talks his way into trouble as often as he can out of trouble. She's along for the ride, even if she doesn't necessarily realize it at first. At the same time, she's no fool. When he visits her room at night, he pays too, just like any regular john would. As they get to know one another, and like one another, but McCabe is a proud man and his pride clearly gets in the way and causes him to put up walls at times. He's not so much in touch with his emotions as he is, sometimes at least, at war with them. Both Beatty and Christie pull off these complex characters beautifully. The supporting efforts from Devane and form the likes of Keith Carradine, Shelly Duvall (who steals her scene as a first time hooker), Michael Murphy and Rene Auberjonois are all very strong as well.
The pacing here is deliberate, even slow at times, but in the context of the story being told it works. Cohen's lyrics help to fill in the blanks here and there, he's almost a balladeer or a troubadour to the picture. It all ends, as most westerns do, with a gunfight, but in typical Altman style there's no glory here and it doesn't end the way we think it will. This is a pensive film, a thought provoking film that plays towards the clichés of the genre while simultaneously taking those clichés in interesting and unexpected directions.
McCabe & Mrs. Miler arrives on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation framed at 2.40.1 from a new 4k scan of the original 35mm negative and it looks beautiful. There are a lot of scenes in this movie that are filtered to tweak colors or that use soft focus, so keep that in mind when watching the film because that is reproduced here on the Blu-ray, as it should be. As to the quality of the transfer itself, it's pretty much reference quality so long as you expect the film to look like it's supposed to look. Detail, clarity and texture all get substantial boosts over what the old DVD provided while flesh tones look more natural and lifelike. Black levels are stronger and shadow detail more impressive than it has been in the past. There are no problems with any compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor are there any obvious issues with noise reduction. The film's grain structure remains seemingly unaltered, so there are no issues with smoothing or waxy skin tones. Also worth noting is just how clean the picture is. In terms of actual print damage you really have to be looking for it even spot any of the occasional tiny white specks that appear. This really is a gorgeous transfer of a carefully stylized film.
The only audio option for the feature is an LPCM Mono track in the film's native English, with optional subtitles provided in English only. There are spots where it seems like the levels intentionally jump a bit (the old DVD had this quality to it as well) but no problems whatsoever with any hiss or distortion. This means that the dialogue stays clean and clear throughout and that the score sounds great too. There's good presence and range to the older single channel track, no complaints here, this is a very fine mix indeed.
Extras start off with the commentary from director Robert Altman and producer David Foster that originally appeared on the Warner Brothers DVD release and for those who haven't heard it, the track is quite illuminating. Foster talks about hiring American draft dodgers to help build the sets in British Columbia while Altman lends some insight into why he started directing pictures like this in the seventies. There's also a lot of great back and forth about the plot, the writing, the cinematography and of course, the various cast members that populate the picture. The track is well paced and both men are quite engaged in the subject matter, making this a joy to listen to and quite interesting as well.
New to this disc is a documentary called Way Out On A Limb that clocks in at just a few minutes short of a full hour in length. This is primarily made up of interview segments shot with cast members Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine and Michael Murphy alongside casting director Graeme Clifford and script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury and it too is quite interesting. The actors share plenty of stories about Altman's directing style and what it was like to work with a director of his statue on an odd film like this one. There's also talk about how and why the various cast members landed the roles that they did, the film's unique look and setting and how the socio-political climate of early seventies America worked its way into the final product. Also new to this disc is Cari Beauchamp And Rick Jewell, a thirty-seven minute piece where the two film historians talk about Altman's work on the film and how it fits in with some of his other films, critical reception to the film and how it has changed over the years since it debuted, and some of the themes and concepts that the film deals with.
From there, fans will want to take the time to explore some or the archival featurettes included on the disc, starting with a ten minute Behind The Scenes piece that was shot to document the sets being built in 1970. It's quite interesting and it gives us a very honest look at what it would have been like to have been there. There's also a thirty-eight minute piece in which the film's production designer Leon Ericksen converses with fellow production designer Jack De Govia and art director Al Locatelli about what went into getting the look of the film just right. Recorded in Los Angeles in 1999, it's quite interesting and worth checking out. The late Vilmos Zsigmond also gets a featurette here, running twelve minutes, in which he talks about shooting the film with Altman and the intended look of the film. Last but not least, Criterion has also included two clips from The Dick Cavett Show, the first being an eleven minute piece where film critic Pauline Kael defends the film from some of the critical bashing it took on its theatrical release and the second a twelve minute piece with Altman himself where he speaks of the performances from his two leads and shares some of this thoughts on the ups and downs of the movie industry itself. Both of these are from 1971.
Outside of that the disc also includes the film's original theatrical trailer, a still gallery made up of photos that Steve Schapiro shot will working on the picture, menus and chapter selection. Also included inside the clear Blu-ray case is an insert booklet containing an essay on the film by Nathanial Rich alongside credits for the film and for the disc itself.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller may be an atypical American western but it's no less an important one, no matter how unconventional it is at times. The performances are great and the story quite engaging and it all builds up to a powerful finale that viewers won't soon forget. The movie has its detractors to be sure, but for this reviewer, the film holds up wonderfully. Criterion's Blu-ray release is a top notch effort in every way and easily comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.