McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman’s best film by far, has often been called an “anti-Western,” but that’s a bit off. The plot is pure Western: A stranger comes to a frontier town, builds it up; bad guys come to kill him and take it away; he tracks them down on the street and kills them first; and oh, yes, there’s a whore with a heart of gold. The difference here is that the plot is infused with circa-1900 realism: The stranger’s a bit of a dunce; the town is a muddy mess; the bad guys are corporate poachers; our man kills them by shooting them in the back, and afterward he dies in the snow from gunshot wounds while the townsfolk put out a fire in an unused church; and, oh, the whore is also a shrewd merchant with an opium habit. are a few other unusual things about this film. It’s gorgeous, photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond as if the scenes were out of a Dutch Masters painting. (He achieved some of this effect by flashing the negative, somewhat desaturating the color, but he’s also brilliant with light and shadow.) The ensemble acting is wondrously natural, replete with overlapping dialogue; you really feel you’re witnessing day-to-day life in a lived-in town. (This is Altman’s specialty, as in M*A*S*H and Gosford Park.) Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, as the title characters, are captivating in as understated a way as two big movie stars have ever managed. The musical score, consisting of Leonard Cohen songs, is perfect in mood and lyrics; you’d think they were written for this film (though they weren’t).

Criterion’s 1080p transfer, struck from a 4K restoration, isn’t eye candy—it’s too dark for that—but it captures to a T what Altman and Zsigmond were after. I’ll repeat: It’s gorgeous, but in an unconventional way. Some of the dialogue is unintelligible, but that’s intended, too; you hear what you need to hear, the ambience is fine, and the Cohen songs have depth and richness. The special features are a mixed bag, most of them fine, not least the commentary track, in which Altman lays out his philosophy of filmmaking as well as some tricks he pulled for this film, while producer David Foster muses on how it got made and why it was a critical success but a box-office flop.

Studio: Criterion Collection, 1971
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Audio Format: Uncompressed mono
Length: 121 mins.
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Shelley Duvall

iggyoddy's picture

Ever heard of the phrase "spoiler alert"? Evidently not! I've always wanted to see this movie but you've revealed every major plot point - including the ending! - in your review. Unbelievable!