Criterion Prediction #11: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, by Alexander Miller
Title: McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, William Devane
Synopsis: A wandering gambler reluctantly becomes partners with a prostitute when he uses his poker winnings to open a brothel in the small Washington town of Presbyterian Church. The flourishing brothel run by the titular characters (Beatty and Christie, both in top form) is the talk of the small snow-covered town, so successful that they catch the eye Harrison Shaughnessy, a mining company known for getting what they want because they afford to buy people out, or hire bounty hunters to expedite the bidding process. When agents from the Harrison Shaughnessy Company approach John McCabe, he tests the waters in a bidding war and corners himself when the thuggish tycoons enlist the most unlikely trio of gunfighters to hunt McCabe down.
Critique: Take any preconceived notion or expectation of the western genre and leave it at the door. Altman is cinema’s great revisionist. His instincts aren’t that of a contrarian, but a storyteller whose respect for history grounds his style with earthy realism accentuated by the weightlessness of a dreamer whose narrative constraints are barely visible. This hazy atmosphere is highlighted by Vilmos Zsigmond’s achingly beautiful cinematography. While Beatty and Christie have strong chemistry, the stars of McCabe & Mrs. Miller are behind the camera. The art department and set design (most notably crew member Sidney H. Greenwood as property master) bring an enormous amount of detail and accuracy to the wintry habitat of frontier life in this deglamorized western. The town of Presbyterian Church was built during production using tools that would be available in the film’s time period. Frontier life is further authenticated with the cast and wardrobe; here the men are hairy and dirty, the women are frumpy and toothless, the town is muddy and cold, and the interiors are hazy with smoke. Nothing had looked like McCabe & Mrs. Miller as far as westerns are concerned, and its influence has proven vast. Had it not been for McCabe & Mrs. Miller (accolades to Ford, Leone, and Peckinpah notwithstanding), The Shooting, Dead Man, Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will be Blood and HBO’s Deadwood might not have the detailed gravitas and atmosphere. Robert Altman was indeed a maverick filmmaker in that he made films on his terms, and he never made a movie he didn’t want to make. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is proof that his instincts revealed a new truth in cinema that had been overlooked and is now a hallmark of the genre. And finally, if you’re discussing McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s criminal to neglect Leonard Cohen’s soundtrack. His inherently despondent and occasionally hopeful tone is a model pair to the dismal surroundings that are at times disarmingly captivating. It’s impossible to imagine McCabe & Mrs. Miller without it.
Why it Belongs in the Collection? In the early days of Criterions DVD years we had a healthy range of Altman in the collection. With films as diverse as 3 Women, Nashville, Short Cuts, Secret Honor, and his HBO series Tanner ‘88, it feels like anything in Altman’s filmography is possible. While McCabe & Mrs. Miller is now considered one of his most important films, it’s still stuck in home video purgatory with a Warner Bros. snapper case DVD. The picture looks decent; the vintage featurette is fun, and the director’s commentary (given Altman’s dynamic personality) is a delight. But this is a rich film (theoretically speaking) that merits further exploration and restoration, imagine seeing the snow caked finale with a crisp 4k restoration? McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a definitive Altman movie, given its status among movie buffs a Criterion release would be a guaranteed success.