Moviedrome Redux: ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ (1971)

❉ “A work like McCabe and Mrs. Miller feels nearly impossible to contemplate being made today”.

Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film that feels preserved in amber. It’s a slow-burn piece of dramatic cinema that takes a rather bleak look at the inevitability of death, and I can’t seem to find one negative thing to say about it after numerous viewings. Serving as yet a further reminder of how versatile and unpredictable a filmmaker Robert Altman was, especially when compared with our current cookie-cutter studio mentality, a work like McCabe and Mrs. Miller feels nearly impossible to contemplate being made today. The laconic pace is purposeful, character motivation is sometimes fuzzy and dictated by living in the moment rather than through a complete worldview, and the way that Altman and co-writer Brian McKay were able to weave various layers into their story in an organic fashion is worthy of study.

Adapted from the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton, the film stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, both flawless in two of the best performances in their legendary careers, subverting expectations and creating two lasting portraits of tough-love individuals who are realists more than anything else. I love how this film isn’t really a “western” in the traditional sense, but it’s got the atmosphere and personality of one at times, with hardscrabble production values and Altman’s now-famous use of overlapping dialogue in full effect, resulting in a film that feels akin to a dream. The phenomenal supporting cast includes William Devane, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, Antony Holland, Hugh Millais, Rene Auberjonois, and Keith Carradine in his screen debut.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s warmly fuzzy widescreen cinematography goes for wide shots mixed with slow zooms, creating a sense of openness while still retaining a certain level of intimacy, and never losing sight of the desolate and chilly landscape. The “flashing” technique that Altman and Zsigmond favored during post-production created a halo effect to the images, eliminating any color saturation, resulting in a picture quality that’s gauzy and opaque. Roger Deakins must have watched this movie 1,000 times before shooting The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Leonard Cohen’s sparse musical score is yet another key ingredient to Altman’s masterpiece, with the two artists joining forces as Cohen was a big fan of Altman’s idiosyncratic comedy Brewster McCloud, and Altman was particularly taken with Cohen’s dark and brooding style from his debut album. The evocative production design by Leon Erickson was in perfect tandem with Ilse Richter’s lived-in costumes; there isn’t one department of the filmmaking process that wasn’t operating at peak strength during this production. The aesthetic chill in McCabe and Mrs. Miller extends to the film’s unsentimental themes as well, creating total package cinema in a way that most filmmakers could only have dreamed of achieving. Especially the film’s haunting, snowy final moments which are fully appropriate is particularly downbeat.

Few other storytellers would have been able to pull of the tricky balancing act that is McCabe & Mrs. Miller, yet Altman, ever the sly storyteller, managed to keep you engaged to a narrative that offers little in the way of conventional cinematic pleasure, and instead invites you to watch and listen as two exceedingly selfish yet practical people try and figure out how to survive life in some of the most unpredictable and unsparing of circumstances. Second unit director and lead editor Louis Lombardo had a nearly Herculean task in terms of assembling the picture; apparently the editing process lasted nine months. And because the film involves multiple characters, both big and small, there’s a mosaic quality that begins to take shape, as the central relationship between Beatty and Christie doesn’t kick into full-gear until half of the movie’s running time has elapsed. Altman even asked all of the background performers to “find their characters” on their own, having them chose their own costumes, and create their own backstories so as to feel more realistic.

A film like this would be very hard to get made today unless it were a passion project for a very influential star and/or filmmaker, as it’s more about mood and relationships than it is about concrete plotting with easy to define character traits for the various personalities that comprise the story. In 2010, McCabe and Mrs. Miller was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and last year, the film became available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. This supreme work of art deserves a spot in any film fan’s physical media collection.


❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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