RopeofSilicon Movie Club: 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller' (1971)

Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Photo: Warner Bros.

After watching Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller I quickly rushed back to the beginning and started watching it with Altman and producer David Foster's audio commentary, and the first thing that struck me was when Altman refers to the story as simple and how he doesn't care much for story, but looks at movies more as paintings.

I found the comment fascinating, largely because many times people question my focus on narrative and how important I believe story to be for a film. There are certainly exceptions where a film can exist without a traditional narrative and perhaps manage to excite audiences despite never really telling a story at all, but those examples are few and far between, especially if we were to discuss films of a certain quality.

To that end, on many levels I found McCabe & Mrs. Miller to be quite exceptional, but I hope people don't confuse Altman's comment and perceived disinterest in story to assume story isn't important. Instead, Altman realized the story he is telling is certainly simple, but beyond that, it is intact and easy enough to tell to where he can find greater joy and intimacy with his audience by developing the story not through exposition, but through performance and the subtleties of his characters. This is where McCabe & Mrs. Miller truly excels and credit belongs on the shoulders of many as a result.

From the opening moments we begin to get hints as to who John "Pudgy" McCabe (Warren Beatty) is. He has the appearance of a drifter, mumbling to himself as he rides through the rainy, Pacific Northwest wilderness. He soon arrives in the small town of Presbyterian Church in the late 1800s with cigars, money and plans to open a saloon and brothel. Whispers of him killing a man begin to circulate and he even appears to have some business sense as he begins negotiating for three prostitutes to start his stable.

Construction is underway and McCabe soon finds himself propositioned by Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a force to be reckoned with, though we do get see a small glimmer of a softer side as she peers out a window at one of the town's few women doing laundry in the wet and cold. What does she see when she sees this woman? A past long denied her? A simpler, less harsh existence than she has adopted?

Constance offers McCabe the chance at bolstering his entrepreneurial efforts in Presbyterian Church, by advancing his false sense of high class and really turn his establishment into something people will pay top dollar for. He accepts, though attempts to maintain his status with the locals. As the film plays on, McCabe's false front begins to fall, but he holds on tight in the face of odds that set out to crush him.

Scene from McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Photo: Warner Bros.

Strangely enough, as much as McCabe & Mrs. Miller -- at first glance -- suggests a love story, don't think the title uses that ampersand by mistake as Roger Ebert suggests. This film is all business, which is no less evident than the moment McCabe must fill Mrs. Miller's bedside chest with $5 if he intends to slide beneath the sheets.

McCabe's fortunes soon begin to turn as he finds himself in a position to fight off western expansion as a major mining company makes a small offer to buy up all his land and comes to the table with threats once he denies an offer he feels is unworthy of what he and Mrs. Miller have created. It's a case of the small guy being crushed by the larger and a man showing a willingness to fight for his piece of a country where the little guy is already starting to stand little to no chance.

Even the final scene of the film, a shot of Christie's Mrs. Miller, doped up on opium mixed with images of McCabe dead outside in the snow could be interpreted today as the death of the small businessman and the partner left behind who must turn to drugs to cope with the depression. I just wonder, does opium have the same side effects as Zoloft?

Mrs. Miller's whorehouse continues this industrial theme and harsh conditions for survival. It's a world where one doesn't have a choice in life, at least not if they want to go on living. Upon introduction she lists the trouble McCabe faces if he wants to run the brothel by himself and how the whores must be kept in check, because if they're not they'll find religion. Later, the death of one man results in his wife (Shelley Duvall) doing what she must. Mrs. Miller coaxes her through it, telling her the sex she was having with her husband is no different than the sex she'll have with a paying customer. We do what we must to survive and the powerful wield that "must" through scare tactics to the point only the bottom rung is innocent... that is until they are no longer the bottom rung.

Hugh Millais in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Hugh Millais in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Photo: Warner Bros.

And sometimes you may find yourself as the embodiment of that scare tactic, such as Butler played by Hugh Millais seen in the image above that immediately calls to mind John Wayne's stoic pose in The Searchers, and was duplicated a few years ago in the Coen brothers' True Grit. Butler has been called in along with a pair of fellow gunslingers not to negotiate with McCabe, but to kill him.

I had never seen McCabe & Mrs. Miller before, but the fascinating parallels the story holds with this weekend's new film Killing Them Softly is eerily coincidental as the two films paired alongside one anoterh prove the old saying, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Scene from McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Photo: Warner Bros.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller embraces its setting from top to bottom. Shot in Vancouver, B.C. the set was constructed as the film was shot and as Altman tells us in his commentary, it was largely shot in order, which the film truly benefits from in the final moments as the finale was shot over the course of 9-10 days and the accumulation of snow only adds to the intensity.

The director of photography on the project was Vilmos Zsigmond whose work here is stunning in ways we rarely see. A master with light, Zsigmond confines himself to shadows, bringing the same dark, wet, dirty and gritty appearance to this picture as he will later use for The Deer Hunter and Deliverance and some of the establishing shots of the town of Presbyterian immediately call to mind his work on Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate.

There was one interesting decision, however, that sometimes took me out of the film.

Zsigmond would often shoot scenes indoors with a gas lamp in the foreground and while it was done early on to great effect the more and more he used it the more and more it became an obstruction.

Scene from McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Photo: Warner Bros.
Rene Auberjonois in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Rene Auberjonois in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Photo: Warner Bros.

Note the two shots above and how in one the gas lamp is less intrusive, but in the second shot it is virtually all you can focus your attention on. Granted the DVD transfer for this film is terrible and needs the higher storage capacity of Blu-ray to truly capture the dark atmosphere the film exists in, but the frequent decision to shoot scenes like this became bothersome.

That said, even though I think the below image would greatly benefit from a restoration and HD transfer, this shot of McCabe drowning his sorrows in the darkness with only a small light in the corner of the frame was my favorite in the entire picture.

Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Photo: Warner Bros.

And finally, while I liked the use of Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song" over the film's impressive opening titles, I did not like the use of it throughout the picture. For a film that hardly features any kind of music outside of the music being played by the characters, the Cohen track was out of place in my opinion. McCabe & Mrs. Miller doesn't rely on dialogue as much as it relied on mood and tone and the last thing I felt it needed was a bunch of lyrics overstating what is already known.

To remain positive, however, since I did really enjoy this movie, I loved the way Altman handled all of the characters. No one is explained. There is no sitting down and "Tell me what you do and I'll tell you what I do." Characters motivations are realized through their actions and even someone as goofy as Keith Carradine's toothy Cowboy can be looked at as a potential threat until he smiles and asks for directions to the whorehouse.

Countless times Altman would just turn his camera on a group of men who could be discussing what's for dinner or how they are thinking of shaving their face. It may seem unimportant at the moment, but Altman creates a vibe. He invites you into the world of the film and creates an intimacy that will give you a larger investment in the story, the town and its people.

I watched the film twice in less than a ten hour timespan and could very easily watch it again right now, but I hope Warner has some plans for a fully restored Blu-ray version in the near future or perhaps even hand over the reigns to the Criterion Collection. The transfer on this DVD was terrible as even the titles showed artifacts and the audio is tinny and lackluster.

I am a huge fan of Westerns and going forward I'm happy to know I can suggest this film as one to watch.


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  • IngmarTheBergman

    One essential thought that comes to mind is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It’s not McCabe and Mrs. Miller. At the very heart of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the relationship between the two characters. As Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song states, Mrs. Miller looked to McCabe for things he was not capable of. He thought of her as a business opportunity, which is way the film is called McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The symbol (&) does not suggest love between the two characters, it suggests a business , such as when you’ll see a sign in front of a shop that says the last names of the two owners. Without a doubt, Altman is a sheer genius. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is possibly (when putting aside 3 Women) the greatest example of his genius.

  • Timothy

    When I was watching the opening credits, I noticed Zsigmond's name and I recognized it. However, during the opening scenes, I felt shocked. I thought that there was serious underlighting, and at times it was hard to decipher what exactly was happening. As the film progressed, I began to realize that Zsigmond and Altman were going for a very natural look for the picture, akin to Barry Lyndon.

    By the end, I felt I understood why the film was shot that way, and it did help to underscore the reality of what was going on. Now about the rest of the film. I really liked this one, and Beatty and Christie were part of that magic. Beatty gives one of his best performances, and Christie is also excellent, albeit in more of a subtle way. I really like the scene where Beatty is mumbling to himself while getting dressed, and I found it distinctly humorous.

    I found that this film is one of Altman's best, although it has some tough competition. It is in many ways a revisionist western (it is set in the pacific northwest,and it snows). It showed that Altman wasn't afraid to take a genre and do something really new with it, a trait it shares with the also excellent The Long goodbye.

    I found the film's use of The Stranger Song to be effective, even if it was overused. The final shootout in the snow was beautifully shot, and it is in my opinion one of the best shootouts in cinema history.

    Overall, I really liked the film, and I think that it is very unique.

  • Susan

    I've said this here before, but this is a movie I love dearly. I can understand you, largely minor, complaints. However, for me they are some of the best elements. The movie's leisurely tone makes every scene have this weird tension, added by the wonderful details of the various character.

    For me, this is also one of Beatty's best performances. It reminds me oddly enough of another western; Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Each movie uses their lead's famous persona and natural charisma to undermind their actions.

  • Criterion10

    I watched McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the first time last night. I had heard of the film for ages, but never got around to it. (I actually believe my first encounter with the film was when I was about ten years old or so, and a family member brought the film home from the library. I remember watching parts of it, but being uninterested and giving up on the film.)

    I'm not too familiar with the works of Robert Altman, although I have seen and do love 3 Women. Anyways, all things considered, I really liked McCabe and Mrs. Miller, even if I didn't find it to be the masterpiece that many claim it out to be.

    This truly is an anti-western. One of the best things about this film is the atmosphere, in which Altman does an incredible job at re-creating the time period and really submersing you in it. I was surprised at how straightforward and simple the story of the film was, but this is an example of a film that is primarily about the characters and the world they inhabit. Going by the remark you claim Altman says in the commentary, it would seem that his intentions succeeded, as I felt this way constantly throughout the film. While I did love this aspect about the film, I would criticize it that at times, it was a little slow moving, but it did still manage to always hold my interest.

    I thought the soundtrack by Leonard Cohen helped create a very interesting atmosphere. There's an interesting scene early in the film where McCabe intervenes to stop one of the woman from killing a man that presumably has assaulted. Here, a song by Cohen is juxtaposed with the violent act, and I found the use of his music to be very impacting.

    BTW, I'd like to point out that the climactic shoot out in the snow was a remarkable sequence. Simply stunning filmmaking.

    Although Zsigmond's cinematography was very good and very natural, the film was very dark at times, almost nearly impossible to make out what was going on. I'm not sure whether this is just a result of a terrible restoration, or if this was the intended look of the film. Regardless, while the film was often beautiful to look at, it was a little annoying when I could barely tell what was going on.

    And yes, Brad, the quality of the Warner Bros. DVD is horrendous. The picture was atrocious, and I could barely understand what the dialogue. I'd love to see Criterion license the film out from them, but WB is notorious for being difficult to license from, so I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you.

  • Mikey

    I agree with a lot of what's being said here. The cinematography is great. The transfer is not. The acting is phenomenal with everyone completely embodying their character. All around a great movie that I can't wait to return to.

    The one point I would like to make is in regards to the Cohen song. For a film that relies so heavily on atmosphere, I thought the repeated use of this song was great. Cohen's voice is so simple and plain that it evokes a sense of business as usual (even if the business and the lyrics are much darker), but then you contrast that with the foreboding music that plays behind it. The song worked as a constant reminder that while everything was working well enough for know, this was all leading up to something. Then the final shootout- no music, just pure tension. Mccabe dies in the snow, a cold empty death. But Mrs. Miller lies warm inside, her life will go on. And as the credits come, the song kicks in again. For Mrs. Miller, life will continue, even if it is a dark life, leading to death.

  • Lewis

    it's been years since I've seen this. but remember it as being one of Altman's best. I enjoyed the mood and atmosphere. The picture almost attains a state of surrealism, and to make a film like this today would be quite impossible.

    This is up there with Altman's best pictures. Very memorable for studying up on classic 1970s filmmaking.

  • AS

    I saw it several years ago and I thought it was good, but nothing to write home about.

    Here's an interesting clip of Quentin Tarantino talking about the film:

    • Criterion10

      I actually saw that clip a few days before watching the movie. Funny how he too also mentioned the terrible sound design of the film.

      BTW, another director whom I believe praised this film was Paul Thomas Anderson, although I don't have a quote or link at the moment to back up my claim...

      • AS

        I think his point about McCabe & Mrs. Miller having one of the best shootouts is bizarre. I didn't think there was anything particularly interesting or compelling about it.

        • Criterion10

          See, I quite liked the shootout. It wasn't a big, flashy and showy shoot out like is normal in westerns. Instead, it was one built more and suspense and tension. Plus, I loved that cinematography in the snow and the juxtaposition of Beatty trying to defeat his attackers with the burning of the church. I thought it was very well done.

  • Baca

    Unfortunately I don't have to much to add to this conversation, but I saw this movie projected in the theater at my school and boy did it look excellent.

  • Disco Paco

    I saw this movie a few years ago when I was new to 70's Hollywood so I was taken aback by its style. I had liked Altman but hadn't seen much aside from Mash and Gosford Park (you know the more accessible ones). Once the first scene in the tavern unfolded I knew I was in for something different. I remembered the overlapping free-flowing (intermittently decipherable) dialogue from Mash and knew to alter my expectations. Looking back on the films of The New Hollywood it's obvious that the movie wasn't going to be a straight up western. A Robert Altman film starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie was never going to be that. I was mesmerized by the film's gingerly pace especially the meandering character moment-building scenes. The cinematography and setting was just beautiful. I am dying to see this thing on Blu Ray. Better yet on Criterion.

    • Susan

      A Criterion of this would be amazing

  • Owen

    I watched this film a few years ago for a Western film class I took in college. I really enjoyed it, but unfortunately I didn't have the chance to watch it again for the movie club.
    Like just about everyone else, I loved Zsigmond's cinematography. I thought the film was absolutely beautiful to look at, and I was reminded of Zsigmond's work on Heaven's Gate and other cold, dreary westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James... I also actually rather liked the muddled sound design, I guess it made me feel like I was actually sitting there in the saloon. I love westerns in general and it's always fascinating to see a versatile director like Altman tackle a genre film, the results are usually unexpected and very interesting.

  • JaneD

    A little late to the party but I finally got around to watching this and very much enjoyed this anti-western. It was filmed in my neck-of-the-woods so that made it all the more interesting, too. I have always enjoyed Altman films - the way he 'drops' the viewer into the story without explaining things. The movie simply tells the story and reveals the characters as the story is told. The cinematography and gritty real set were spectacular and I watched a little documentary on the DVD that explained how the set was built as the movie was filmed and the movie was filmed in sequence. The third act was filmed in a real blizzard was pretty awesome. All-in-all a great movie.

  • DomizianoA

    A masterpiece!
    Photography is atmosphere infused by astonishing memorable performances (best Beatty ever, Christie as usual a gift of nature just to admire and admire..), conversational sound zig zagging in the admirable, artistic sound and picture editing, becomes a story, as told as it should be in great Cinema: with poetic images it goes deep and deeper into the Soul.
    Were you being funny about the opium's effect?
    You know it is pretty much like oxycontin don't you? Not like Zoloft, at all! :)
    I saw this on the widescreen on its presentation as an homage to Julie Christie a few years ago at the Santa Barbara Film Festival!
    Her stories (very rare to hear anything from her..) were poignantly witty with a touch of nostalgic, intellectual irony! She glitters, the movie was close to one of the 7 wonders! Ah Altman and Christie and Beatty...Cohen..
    I am such a nostalgic, but those were the years!!