This unorthodox dream western by Robert Altman may be the most radically beautiful film to come out of the New American Cinema that transformed Hollywood in the early 1970s. It stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as an enterprising gambler and a bordello madam, both newcomers to the raw Pacific Northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church, who join forces to provide the miners with a superior kind of whorehouse experience. The appearance of representatives of a powerful mining company with interests of its own, however, threatens to be the undoing of their plans. With its fascinating flawed characters, evocative cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, and soundtrack that innovatively interweaves overlapping dialogue and haunting Leonard Cohen songs, McCabe & Mrs. Millerbrilliantly deglamorized and revitalized the most American of genres.
Robert Altman is one of the greatest directors of all time. With films like 'MASH', 'Nashville', 'The Player', 'Short Cuts', and 'Gosford Park', you immediately know that Altman knew what he was doing when it came to filmmaking in a variety of genres. Back in 1971, Altman came across the 1959 book 'McCabe' by Edmund Naughton and adapted the novel into a feature film titled 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller', which went on to win awards and was even nominated for an Oscar. 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' is a western, but Altman wanted to make an anti-western film, which he mostly succeeded in doing with this film, by not following the usual western genre tropes that came before it.
The result is a very satisfying and original take in the old west with some underlying themes of big businesses trying to take over people's lives by any means necessary. 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' takes place in Washington state in a very small mining town called Presbyterian Church, due to the one decent building in town, where there are really no leaders or no money in this small community. A drunk gambler wanders into town by the name of John McCabe (Warren Beatty) and with his charming, go-getting personality, he convinces the town to let him open up a brothel business to make some money.
Soon enough, a prostitute by the name of Constance Miller (Julie Christie) heads into the town of Presbyterian Church and wants to strike a deal and partner with McCabe and tells him that she can bring other high-end prostitutes from other towns to make this business an even bigger success than it is. The two strike a deal, and business starts booming. This attracts the attention of a wealthy businessman in a neighboring town, who sends a couple of people to purchase McCabe and Miller's business.
When McCabe refuses to sell, he finds out that this wealthy businessman is known for making people offers "they can't refuse". Soon enough, bounty hunters are out for McCabe to run him out of town, where the Presbyterian Church townsfolk bet on whether or not he can fight and save the day in a 'Magnificent Seven' type of showdown, but instead of seven people, it's just poor old McCabe who doesn't really know how to use a gun. That's what makes this Altman film an unusual, but excellent western film.
Instead of big standoffs, or cowboys running at the chance to kill people, this film does the opposite, which has McCabe running and hiding, so he can calculate how to stage a sneak attack on his enemies. There is a dark sense of humor here too, which Altman's screenplay delivers that awkward comedy throughout. Leonard Cohen provides the music as well for the film, which keeps with this odd storytelling in this anti-western, but the result is strangely perfect film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion that is Region A Locked with the spine #827. The disc is housed in a clear, hard plastic case with a fold out booklet of a poster from the film as well as an essay from Nathaniel Rich.
'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' comes with a 1080p HD transfer presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio from Criterion. According to the Criterion Booklet, this is a new digital transfer that was created in 4K 16-bit resolution from the original 35mm camera negative. The color was matched to a reference print from the Academy Film Archive of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which were timed by the original cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed for this new transfer.
Needless to say, this is the best this movie has every looked. Being forty five years old, you would think there were be issues with the movie, visually speaking, but there isn't. Detail is sharp and vivid throughout, giving new life to the picture. Closeups reveal individual snowflakes, beard hair, and sweat nicely. The fur coats show strands of hairs as well easily in well-lit situations. There is a great layer of grain that keeps the film in its filmic state without looking overly processed in the digital age.
The different lighting elements in the interiors never make any wide shot or closeup look soft. The colors pop, but are mostly warm in nature with all of the natural lighting and candle lit scenes. The green on the poker tables pop right off screen though. Black levels are deep and inky, and the skin tones are natural and smooth. Again, there were no compression problems of any kind here, leaving this video presentation with top marks.
This release comes with a LPCM 1.0 mix and according to the Criterion booklet, this original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm magnetic track where clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Again, I wish there was an optional 5.1 mix here, but this original 1.0 option does the job well.
Sound effects and ambient noises of nature, gun shots, and the townsfolk chattering all sound fluid, loud, and full. The song selections by Leonard Cohen add to the odd feel of the story, but always sounds rich and crisp without drowning out any other sound aspects. Dialogue is crystal clear and easy to follow too, and is free of any sound issues.
Audio Commentary - This is the commentary track with Robert Altman and David Foster that was imported from the previous DVD release, where the two talk about shooting on location, the characters, casting, and the impact the film has had.
Way Out on a Limb (HD, 55 Mins.) - This bonus feature was made in 2016 for Criterion and has interviews with some of the actors, script supervisor, and casting director, as they discuss making the film, the style and themes of the story, working with Robert Altman, and more with some production stills inserted.
Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell Conversation (HD, 37 Mins.) - This bonus feature was made in 2016 for Criterion and has film experts Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell talking about the making of the film and the impact it has had on culture and the filmmaking world.
Art Director Q&A (HD, 38 Mins.) - This bonus feature was made in 1999 and has production designer Leon Ericksen, Jack De Govia, and Al Locatelli discussing making Robert Altman movies, specifically this western, which is quite fun.
Vilmos Zsigmond Interview (HD, 12 Mins.) - This interview with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was combined from two interviews from 2005 and 2008, where Vilmos discusses shooting 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller as well as the impact it had on the filmmaking world.
The Dick Cavett Show (HD, 23 Mins.) - There are two clips from two different Dick Cavett Shows, where the film critic Pauline Kael talks about the film and tells people to not believe some of the bad reviews it got when the film came out. The other clip is with Robert Altman himself, as he talks about Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and the sound of the film. Both clips are from 1971.
Behind the Scenes (HD, 10 Mins.) - Here is some footage of the the film crew building the town set and church where the film takes place.
Steve Schapiro Photo Gallery (HD) - Robert Altman hired a photojournalist by the name of Steve Schapiro to take pictures of the film while it was shooting. Here are some of those photos.
Trailer (HD, 2 Mins.) - Trailer for the film.
Criterion Booklet - Here is a fully illustrated Criterion booklet that details the technical specs of the movie, cast and crew information, and features an essay by Nathaniel Rich on the film.
'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' might be one of Robert Altman's best films and certainly his most unusual, but it all works on every level. Again, this is an anti-western film, because it never follows any of the usual genre tropes that you would typically see in a western film. This really changed the game in the western genre. The acting and characters were all excellent, as was Leonard Cohen's music. The video and audio presentations were both amazing here, and the many extras that are included are all worth watching. Criterion has definitely knocked it out of the park here. Must own!