A singular ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’

Fourteen years after its DVD release, the 1971 Robert Altman film finally comes to Blu-ray.

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click to enlarge Warren Beatty is at his best in this classic, now on Blu-ray. - Photo: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Photo: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Warren Beatty is at his best in this classic, now on Blu-ray.
The first time I experienced Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller was via a well-worn VHS copy I rented from my local video store in the early 1990s. Despite the less-than-ideal format projected through my old-school 27-inch Zenith, it was a revelation — an introduction to a unique cinematic universe that remains fresh in my mind a quarter-century later.

In fact, looking back now, Altman’s 1971 off-kilter quasi-Western is in some ways well suited for the technical limitations of the day: Vilmos Zsigmond’s hazy cinematography, which perfectly captures the mood of the movie’s setting (a dank mining town called Presbyterian Church in the late-19th-century Pacific Northwest), and the overlapping and often incomprehensible dialogue don’t need a hi-def system to reveal their naturalistic, oddly hypnotic effect. And the use of spare, melancholy Leonard Cohen songs — including “The Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy” — is both anachronistic and perfectly suited.

All that said, don’t think I wasn’t first in line when Warner Bros. finally put out a DVD version in 2002. McCabe & Mrs. Miller transports one to a world entirely its own, and its enveloping power is even more apparent as Zsigmond’s full frames and the rough-hewn set design come more into view. And now, 14 years later, we finally have the Blu-ray version, a lavish Criterion Collection release that further reveals Altman’s singular vision. 

The story’s loose, barely there narrative centers on John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a small-time gambler and would-be entrepreneur who travels to Presbyterian Church and almost immediately ingratiates himself with the simple townsfolk. Sensing an opportunity, McCabe opens a modest whorehouse (which initially is housed in ramshackle tents) to cater to the various builders who are at work expanding Presbyterian Church from a tiny town to a slightly more robust stop for those adventurous enough to travel to its remote location.

McCabe’s plan changes when Constance Miller (Julie Christie), an ambitious madam, comes to town — she wants to upgrade McCabe’s crude operation and, inevitably, wants her own cut of the profits to do so. Mrs. Miller’s arrival reveals McCabe’s true nature — he’s a bumbling con man who makes things up as he goes along. He is intimidated by her fast-talking, seemingly sophisticated ways, a fact betrayed to the audience every time he mumbles in an effort to convince himself that he knows what he is doing.

Beatty, an admitted control freak, has never been better than as McCabe, an American dreamer who believes tomorrow will be better than today. Altman and Beatty reportedly butted heads on set — the director, notorious for his loose approach, preferred a limited number of takes; Beatty, never satisfied, wanted to keep going until he felt he got it right. Altman admits in a sometimes illuminating, sometimes perplexing commentary track that accompanies the Criterion release (it’s the same track that appeared on the 2002 DVD release) that he would do a few takes and then leave the set and let Beatty do as many more as he wanted. It’s anyone’s guess which of the takes Altman eventually used — he says he used one of the first few takes — but the result is Beatty’s most interesting and vanity-free performance. 

Tender and unguarded, his acting is a testament to Altman’s nurturing, anything-goes creative atmosphere and to the presence of Christie, Beatty’s then-lover. Christie seems more at home amid the scuzzy frontier surroundings than Beatty. Her introduction into the picture — a sequence in which she charms McCabe while devouring a plate of eggs — is a tour-de-force of naturalistic acting and ballsy character choices.

“My job is to create an environment where something real can happen,” Altman said when I interviewed him upon the release of his final film, 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion. An example of “something real” is McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which remains my favorite Altman creation, a movie so unfathomably singular it’s a wonder it even exists. It’s a pungent portrayal of ungraspable aspirations, the perfect encapsulation of Altman’s long career. 

The movie is as McCabe says to himself at one point: “I got poetry in me.”

CONTACT JASON GARGANO: [email protected]

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