****/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A
starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane
screenplay by Robert Altman and Brian McKay, based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton
directed by Robert Altman
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, even more than his Nashville, the quintessential American film. The whole of it is in a constant state of construction and reconstruction, a continuous and ever-doomed battle against entropy and that human desire to matter a little before it's all over too soon. The modern analogue for it is Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, as both films detail the sad lives of entrepreneurs staking a claim for themselves on the frontier at the beginning of America's potential. The only reward for ambition, unfortunately, is death. Death is the only reward for anything. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a swaggering loudmouth in a big fur coat who one day struts into the tiny town of Presbyterian Church, pop. 120 (the majority of those prospectors and illiterate scumbags), lays a cloth across a table in the disgusting saloon of Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), and proceeds to take the rubes for everything they're worth. With that cash, he buys three broken-down whores, then lights out for the edge of town, where he starts a company.
Business is good.
Then one day, Constance Miller (Julie Christie) comes to town. She's smart and beautiful, refined in appearance--but she's a whore, and defiant about it. There are only a few choices for a woman on the American frontier: one is being married to someone, another is being a whore. (She could also die, sure.) Constance tells John that she'll run his whorehouse for him and import a higher class of working girl in the process; all John has to do is build them a proper house from which to do it. John isn't an educated man, he confesses, and he's not a very forceful one, either. Constance bullies him into it, and John has never been luckier. McCabe & Mrs. Miller came out one year after Love Story set the world on fire. In every possible way, Altman's is the better romance, because it understands how love is, on some level, a negotiation and a business arrangement. In his 1999 "Great Movies" review, Roger Ebert identifies the title's ampersand as a clue that the picture is about a professional arrangement--and when Ebert was right, few were ever more right. Yet John loves Constance. Or he thinks he does. We know this because when she takes a trick up to her room, he registers some pain and frustration. Through the cross-cutting of the film's final beats, Altman implies that McCabe dies thinking of her. The Edmund Naughton novel McCabe, upon which this film is loosely based, was written by an American in Paris in 1959, which is to say, at the tail end of the classical noir period in the birthplace of the movement. I'm not sure that McCabe & Mrs Miller is a noir in the conventional sense--McCabe is more huckster simpleton than tarnished paladin--but it's true that, in grand noir tradition, as soon as McCabe falls for femme fatale Mrs. Miller, he's fucked.
Constance doesn't love John, but she does feel sorry for and protective of him. We know this because she indulges his awkward advances and probably doesn't always charge him for the fucking. Still, she gets frustrated with him when he turns down an offer to sell their business given him by representatives of a large corporation. Not because the money was so good he would be a fool to refuse it, but because Constance is a whole lot smarter than John and understands how the American Dream is a fucking lie and being innovative only makes you a target of corporations that would like to exploit you if possible, bury you if necessary. So it was, and so it has always been, even in a backwoods shitpile like Presbyterian Church. John says he didn't turn down the offer so much as open negotiations by throwing out a blue-sky number he expected them to counter. What John doesn't get is that he's a dope, a small fish--naive, for all his bluster--who severely underestimates corporate greed. Maybe he's just an optimist. Anyway, he dies in a snowbank while his lady-love obliterates herself in a haze of opium.
Vilmos Zsigmond's camera is often claustrophobically close to his subjects, and the images are soaked in a palpable stink. McCabe & Mrs. Miller feels terrible. Zsigmond "flashed" the negative (i.e., pre-exposed it to light), muting contrasts and bringing shadow detail to the surface, giving the film an antique look we might associate with tintype photography. Combined with filters Altman employed to soften the focus, the effect is wholly miraculous, a time machine. The world of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is three-dimensional, so much so that you effortlessly absorb the geography of it. That's important, because when the killers are looking for John, a significant part of the tension comes from our knowledge of where things are in relation to each other in this place, how hopeless it is that he could ever get away. Altman pairs his muddy tableaux with a legendary soundtrack, dominated by Leonard Cohen songs, that often provides ironic commentary on the action. Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" accompanies three whores reluctantly forced into service, for instance, then gets reprised when one of them fights back against a rapist with a purloined blade. Meanwhile, a one-fiddle saloon version of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" plays when Constance eats four eggs and some foul-looking stew with the gusto of a longshoreman.
The uncanniness of McCabe & Mrs. Miller's story of place continues in its attack on the roots of America's entrenched institutional and social rot. There's a scene after Constance's whores arrive where they all take a bath together in a giant, steaming vat that's filthy and unpleasant. Off screen, some yokel tells the story of how the slant of an Oriental's eyes mirrors the "slant" of her pussy. It was a myth, popularly circulated during WWII by American servicemen encountering Asian women for the first time in the brothels of their deployment, that Asian vaginas were horizontal. The eroticizing of Asian women is as pervasive and lingering a problem in the United States as the desexualization of Asian men, and it has its roots in this era of American history when the Chinese were shipped here to work as indentured labour on the railroads and goldmines, where McCabe & Mrs. Miller is set. A hulking killer, Butler (Hugh Millais), the bigger and more brutal version of John, in a similarly big coat, tells a roomful of admirers that the best way to deal with Chinese labourers is to send them into a mine with an armful of explosives when it's time to pay them, then set them off. The fine for accidentally killing a Chinaman, after all, is less. Resentment over the cheap, seemingly tireless labour these coolies represented at the time is reflected in the response to John asking Sheehan how many chinks are in this little town: "Just turn over a rock." I adore how this film talks about Asian-Americans. Until Dear Leader Trump, the Chinese held the proud distinction of being the only minority banned explicitly from immigrating into the United States. The only other film I can think of that deals with these issues in these frank and pointed ways is Blazing Saddles.
When Truffaut calls Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds an "apocalyptic tone poem," he could easily be referring to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Watch how Altman, in a shot of the steam engine puttering into town, lines up its smokestack to parallel the newly-erected spire of the town's church. The arrival of the rail meant life for these remote, frontier towns. It meant trade with the rest of the country, and travel and conquest and the dangle of every opportunity America promised its white conquerors. Equating that symbol of Manifest Destiny with fundamental religiosity, well, what could be more American than using God as the rationale for material atrocity? Presbyterian Church, alas, doesn't get the rail. This engine is attached to a vehicle the town's idiots will transform into a fire engine they'll later put to work when this same church catches fire--and burns down as John lies dying somewhere in the snow. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is withering in its criticism of the wheels turning, the greed that drives American industry. More than that, it attacks the notion that an individual has a chance to succeed in the United States; the peddling of the "land of opportunity" is cruelty for people intelligent enough to know it's a lie, since they're forced to watch stupid people give themselves over willingly to the hook and reel. When John bungles the deal to sell his ventures to Big Business, Big Business burns it all to the fucking ground.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is infinitely sad because in it is the implication of another element in the universe against which the nihilism of existence is helpless. The possibility of enlightenment, of poetry (poetry John claims is in him in his endless, mumbled, angry monologues to himself), is torture--not the small moments of grace, but the recognition of them by an elevated consciousness. Our curse is not that we know we're going to die, it's that we know we're going to suffer before we do, in all likelihood at the hands of others engaged in a systemic con designed to profit from that suffering. There is a thread of the ineffable buried in the piece, a mermaid song calling each to each. Enough so that every moment of it is infused with complexity, every gesture and glance with the unbearable weight of our experience. The only one who grasps the bleakness of the future is Constance. Altman captures John in several hilarious poses standing outside in the cold and snow, looking around in anxiety and confusion, unsure where to go. He zooms in on every moment where John is bested in an argument and humiliated for his vanity--or, in one wonderful scene, by Constance, for his inability to do basic arithmetic. For Constance, this brilliant businesswoman and natural leader, the role of high-class Madam in a pathetic burg at the turn of the century is her lot. John, an affable braggart and confessed dolt, is on his way to being President. Constance wants John to sell not because she wants a new boss, but because she's resigned to always having a boss. John doesn't get it. Someone always owns us, you see; no sense dying about it.
The film invites the sort of active participation that defines the best, most personal criticism of the arts: It provokes time spent in the study of love, loneliness, and how we measure happiness in the short stretch from dust to dust. The moment where John realizes he's closed a door he can't open again is as heavy with dread as when a kind, beloved kid (Keith Carradine), trying to avoid a fight, finds one anyway, and another when a widow (Shelley Duvall, in her second film) realizes at her husband's funeral that she's destined to become one of McCabe's whores. The dead husband, Bart (Bert Remsen), it bears noting, dies in the most senseless way, defending his wife's honour against a group of brutal morons. He's the only genuinely virtuous person in this film, the one who wants to be married and have a family. The universe responds by leaving him dead in the street. Constance gets it. That's why she's an opium addict. The closing shot of the film mirrors that of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the close contemplation of an alien landscape through a disconnected, omniscient perspective. In its mystery is the answer to everything. But what the fuck was the question? The father of contemplative American classics like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, with no hint of hyperbole, one of the best movies ever made.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion brings McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The film was mastered in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative. Because Altman and DP Zsigmond had passed away by the time the disc went into production, the colour was matched to an Academy reference print. Owing in large part to the abundance of film grain, this is, to put it mildly, a challenging source that hasn't fared well at home--until now. The result of Criterion's efforts is unbelievably gorgeous, if best appreciated by viewers already familiar with the film. All of the picture's dank flavour is present and accounted for, yet lacking the supplemental obfuscations introduced by the low resolution of inferior formats or second-generation prints. You can finally, for example, discern the labels behind the bar in the initial scene where the corporate bigwigs try to talk John into selling his brothel. When steam rises in the bathhouse, there's a particulate quality to it best described as tactile. And key colours suddenly pop, such as the green felt of a poker table or the infernal red of the whorehouse. But there isn't a trace of revisionism to this hugely cinematic presentation, and the compression never falters. The film's lossless, monaural audio, remastered from the 35mm magnetic track, is good enough to decipher John's mumbled monologues, though again not so good as to sound revisionist. Cohen's music has a lushness that transcends the spatial limitations of the centre channel. Just unimpeachable audio and video.
I realize I've hardly said anything to this point about Beatty and Christie's performances in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and that's mostly because they're almost subliminal in their effectiveness. While it's difficult to separate these actors from their legendary personas, in this film they are only ever to me McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Beatty deserves more credit than he gets for consistently subsuming his singular good looks throughout the Seventies in roles that either crucified him for being a shallow philanderer or, as in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, humbled his handsomeness beneath grime and idiocy. Christie is just superb. The script was fleshed out with her at the table to incorporate more of Constance's character--an elevation evidenced in the expansion of the title from the book's single moniker to include "& Mrs. Miller." The film is ultimately about Constance. She is Cassandra, knowing what the world has to offer and waiting in vain for everyone else to figure it out. It's her gaze at the end, regarding through her opium drunk the contours of a small ceramic thing as though it held the promise of escape to a better, smoother, prettier world. Praise for these actors continues effusively in a 2002 commentary track featuring Robert Altman and producer David Foster, who were recorded separately. Both heap voluminous praise on their stars, with Altman revealing that the mumbling was an idea introduced so that the vital monologue at the end of the film where John declares there's poetry in him wouldn't seem so out of place and awkward. Beatty hated it and after a while refused to do it. The actor rarely speaks of this film, Altman notes, but Altman believes it's maybe his best work. I'd be hard-pressed to disagree.
Foster, for his part, is a good storyteller, and his memory of how the film came about and the need to wait until MASH was released to announce the coup of getting Altman to direct his movie is charming. He touches on the film's hot critical but cool public reception. I like his theory that the picture wasn't a smash at the box-office because Beatty and Christie were a known power-couple and fans reacted against seeing them in these roles. Personally, I think the film probably failed at the box-office because it's a monumental downer that suggested every single person's dreams of living free of fear were founded on a lie told to them by those who stand to profit from their hopefulness. The yak-track as a whole is indispensable.
"Way Out on a Limb" (54 mins., HD) is a 2016 retrospective produced in-house at Criterion that features casting director Graeme Clifford, script supervisor (and eventual Nashville screenwriter) Joan Tewkesbury, and actors Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy (who plays one of the company men)--all members of Altman's stock company--reminiscing about the making of the film. I loved the story of how Tewkesbury, aspiring to become a director, wanted to shadow Altman and how Altman said she couldn't watch, but she could have a job. We learn herein that Altman didn't audition people, that he had musicians on set to form a rhythm and set a tone in the absence of Cohen's songs, and how so many key moments of the film were "discovered" during shooting. If you're wondering, Carradine really had to lie in a frozen stream and did his own falling off that bridge. They weakened the ice first, and he wore a thin wetsuit, but he stayed in the freezing cold for longer than he expected or wanted to. Somehow, I never wondered if it was real or if there was a stuntman or whatever, you know? In my mind, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a goddamn documentary.
Film historians Carl Beauchamp and Rick Jewell form the crux of another 2016 doc (36 mins., HD) in which the two discuss McCabe & Mrs. Miller's place in history and Altman's work overall. There's more plot-recitation and build-up than I would have thought necessary, but a bigger issue is that, to be frank, I'm not buying almost anything these guys are selling: implications buried in other points about how someone like Kubrick was not as quintessentially a '70s director as Altman, how Altman was not a "traditional" auteur, and digressions about timelines as well as hollow chatter about how important it is to watch an Altman film multiple times. It's one of those dialogues I try to avoid, and I had a hard time making it through to the end. I love the idea of an exchange between historians; I wish these particular historians didn't spend so much time in untested waters and making obvious references to reach trite conclusions. There's even a weird left-field slam on Bernie Sanders buried in their observations. Maybe I'm the one showing my ass here.
Returning from the Warner DVD, a vintage, "behind the scenes" promo-reel (9 mins., HD), complete with narration ("A filming company has come to British Columbia"), contains precious footage of the set's construction and of Zsigmond sitting behind the camera. There's some good stuff here from production designer Leon Ericksen detailing his creation of a giant iron stove for the whorehouse/bathhouse, with Erickson pointing out that he hand-chiselled the bar therein. Ericksen gets a companion featurette, a Q&A (37 mins.) from 1999 conducted at the Art Directors Guild Film Society in LA, where he's joined by fellow production designer Jackson De Govia (Die Hard) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller art director Al Locatelli. Therein, find in-depth details about the dressing of the set and the consideration of sightlines, along with real excitement expressed by artists allowed to do their art because a smart-enough genius let them. As for Zsigmond, who died the year the new documentary shorts were produced for Criterion, he receives a dedicated piece cobbled together from interviews conducted in 2005 and 2008 (11 mins., HD). Zsigmond reflects on his sources in classical painting and the difficulties of shooting a film where the director was flying by the seat of his pants a lot of the time, and he's altogether too generous in calling McCabe & Mrs. Miller a "community effort" rather than giving any credit to his own specific and undeniable genius. He claims he doesn't remember whose idea on the film was whose and says that's how it should be.
A clip from "The Dick Cavett Show" with Pauline Kael (10 mins.) highlights the bizarre nature of Cavett's program. He's perhaps the weirdest host in talk-show history: fumbling, awkward, a bit twee and a bit smug--and yet the stuff he got from his guests is precious. Maybe his peculiar, sort-of-off-putting persona lulled people into a state of candidness. Hearing him champion the art and importance of film criticism is heartening, and such rare a thing in the current conversation I confess I was moved almost to tears. It takes a toll, constantly hearing what you do is worthless and easy. That being said, I have strong personal feelings about Kael that she doesn't do a lot to exorcise in this clip, though she does manage to come off as human and warm, so...win? She goes out of her way to champion McCabe & Mrs. Miller and champions it eloquently. When I think of Kael I think of a ferocious, gifted, elemental writer without equal in her ability to nail people but who too often got swept up into the cults of the personalities she so gorgeously, incisively understood. Only Kael would defend Mission to Mars, and that's fine, but her vitriol against the idea of auteurism rings eternally as this specifically disingenuous smokescreen on her worship of the same. She trashes gossip columnist Rona Barrett and that generation's Jeffrey Wells, Rex Reed, however, so fucking bully on her for that. It occurs to me that Kael's most vital function, then as it is now, is as the explicator of the critical arts to the masses. Her defense of Altman's film today carries with it the knowledge of her future involvement with Beatty and her flirtation with Hollywood. Taken in a vacuum, on the other hand, this is what film critics should be doing, and they should--the good ones--be invited to go on national programs to do it.
Altman appears on Dick Cavett as well (12 mins.) to talk McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He blames the tightness of the release schedule for a rough final cut, saying that his soundtrack was mishandled. I don't think it was, given that he claims the mumbling was the plan from the start in various interviews and on this disc's commentary track, but, you know, whatever. I'll go with "sounds weird on purpose," just because mumbled and overlapping dialogue was his whole schtick. Most of the conversation centres around the picture's failure and slow critical resurrection; I adore the moment where Altman says the best movie he ever saw was maybe John Huston's The Misfits--Jesus, Bob, you ain't wrong. Ultimately, this excerpt demonstrates two things: that even the great Robert Altman needed to run publicity to prolong his career; and that a film's director is sometimes the worst, and last, person to ask what the movie's about. Rounding out the platter: McCabe & Mrs. Miller's theatrical trailer (2 mins.), hauntingly scored to Cohen's "The Stranger Song" and "Winter Lady," plus an extended, step-frame gallery--haven't seen one of those in a while--of production stills from photojournalist Steve Schapiro.
The slim insert booklet features an essay by Nathaniel Rich called "Showdowns" that offers a user-friendly introduction to Altman's major themes and those of McCabe & Mrs. Miller specifically. Although it will seem redundant if you visit it after all the other extras (or if you've read Robert T. Self's book on the film, or any of the numerous volumes on Altman), as an overview, for the neophyte, it's superlative.
121 minutes; R; 2.40:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 1.0 LPCM; English SDH subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Criterion