McCabe & Mrs. Miller Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
The man rides on horseback, the blistering wind and rain beating down and across. On the soundtrack, Leonard Cohen tells of a man reaching for the sky just to surrender. The man steps from the horse and catches the gaze of the townspeople. Cohen sings: “I told you when I came I was a stranger.”
The man, the stranger, is John McCabe (Warren Beatty, BONNIE AND CLYDE). He has come to the Northwest to build and to make money. He is a skilled gambler, but will want to push his luck past the poker table and through the clouds of smoke that fill the bar. McCabe’s desire at this point is to establish a profitable brothel in the tiny town.
It is accomplished with the assistance of Constance Miller (Christie). The endeavor turns into such a financial success that a major mining company wants to buy out the business. This is met with stubbornness on the part of McCabe, too unaware just how dangerous a “No” is in a foreign town.
The western can have many faces—there are those John Wayne “pilgrim” pictures and spaghetti westerns and so many more. And there is MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, which tends to, even close to five decades after its release, stand on its own. It seems almost difficult to describe. There are many traditional themes present, such as greed and pride, and the setting, production design and costumes lend to a particular period and place, but there is something unique and almost peculiar occurring.
MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is a western seems so alien, even today when a number of filmmakers have taken the grittier route with the genre. It is so unclean (imagine a bearded Gary Cooper stepping up to baddies at high noon) and is set in what feels like a genuine place. There are whores because whores were around; there is vulgarity because that’s how people talked; there is poor weather because how many sunny days can there really be? In this, director Robert Altman (who made MASH and BREWSTER MCCLOUD just the year before) has not just created a unique film, but has set the genre behind a horse to be kicked in the head.
The film, written by Altman and Brian McKay, never flashes, although it seems well aware just how different it is. None of the technical aspects—the production design (by Leon Ericksen), the costumes (by Ilse Richter), the cinematography (by Vilmos Zsigmond, who would also lens IMAGES and THE LONG GOODBYE for Altman)—call attention to themselves and may not seem necessarily interesting to non-film buffs. Yet they are applied and executed so flawlessly that those who take notice couldn’t possibly forget them.
Music is also more prevalent here than it had been in most westerns. It is perhaps some of the most profound in all of cinema. It would appear that Cohen’s music is not merely using McCabe as the stranger. Instead, it the film is the stranger, emerging into established territory, leaving its mark and moving on on its own terms.
Video: 2.40:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new digital transfer was created in 4K 16-bit resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative. The color was matched to a reference print made by the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and timed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.”
This stellar video transfer offers excellent, fine details and healthy, natural colors and tones, showcasing MCCABE & MRS. MILLER in the best possible condition for home video. Additionally, the overall image preserves the filmic quality and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s work.
Audio: English Mono. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube’s integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4.”
Dialogue is clean, the atmosphere is natural and the score and Leonard Cohen songs come through nicely.
Audio commentary featuring director Robert Altman and producer David Foster: In this 2002 track, Altman and Foster offer a thorough recollection of MCCABE & MRS. MILLER that will please fans for the duration.
Way Out on a Limb (54:38): This documentary looks at the production, style, themes and more of MCCABES & MRS. MILLER. Interviewees include Altman collaborators Graeme Clifford (casting director) and actors René Auberjonois and Keith Carradine.
Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell (36:27): Film historians Beauchamp and Jewell sit down to discuss MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, its (mis)label as an “anti-western” and its director, described by the former as “the anarchist who wants to be loved.”
Behind the Scenes (9:32): Included here is on-set footage from the production of MCCABE & MRS. MILLER
Leon Ericksen (37:36): In this 1999 interview hosted by the Art Directors Guild Film Society and conducted by Jack De Govia, production designer Ericksen discusses his work on the film. Also featured is Al Locatelli, who served as art director.
Vilmos Zsigmond (11:30): Compiled here are two interview snippets—one from 2005 for the American Society of Cinematographers, the other from the 2008 documentary NO SUBTITLES NECESSARY: LASZLO & VILMOS—with director of photography Zsigmond, who touches on working with Altman and the production of MCCABE & MRS. MILLER.
THE DICK CAVETT SHOW: There are two segments here from the show: One with film critic Pauline Kael (10:34) from July 6, 1971 and one with director Robert Altman (11:49) from August 16, 1971.
Steve Schapiro Photo Gallery
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.