Ever since the Criterion Collection announced they would be restoring and releasing Robert Altman’s radical revisionist western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) I’ve been in a state of euphoria. Now that it’s been released, and I’m sitting here in my family room with the Blu Ray in my hands, I’m still shaking.
I feel as giddy as a fanboy. The way hardcore “Star Wars” fans must have felt when it was announced that a new trilogy would be dominating the multiplex, or how they’re going to feel when/if the original, unaltered trilogy is finally released on video. Waiting for my copy to arrive via Amazon I felt like one of those “Star Wars” nerds that camped outside the theater for the next installment. If such a thing as “McCabe & Mrs. Millercon" were to exist I would be first in the door, wearing my bear coat and bowler hat, drinking my glass of scotch with a raw egg.
Am I being hyperbolic? Yes. Am I slightly embarrassing myself? Yes. Am I making inside references to the film that you probably don’t know? Yes. Do I care? Hell no.
I first encountered the film in high school (yes, you read that right) on the recommendation of an
older family friend. On the first viewing I liked it fine and moved on with my life. It didn’t immediately blow me away. However something about it must have stuck with me because sometime later I came upon a cheap DVD copy of it at a bookstore and figured I’d give it another spin.
It played a lot better the second time through and with each subsequent viewing I became more and more captivated by it. By its beautiful, rugged scenery. The soothing, lyrical folk songs by Leonard Cohen. The off beat humor as well as the sense of melancholy and impending doom hanging over everything like a thick, dark rain cloud. Warren Beatty’s delightfully scraggly, mumbling, foolish antihero. Julie Christie’s headstrong, whip smart and impolite Cockney Madam. Their effortless onscreen charisma.
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is one of the most unique, immersive Westerns I’ve ever seen and my favorite western. That’s right, favorite western.
There’s a lot I could talk about. So to keep this piece from being an overlong and rambling bulleted list about why this movie rocks, I’m going to focus on the aspect I love the most. The aspect that immediately draws me in; leaves me spellbound and brings me back again and again. That would be the film’s overwhelming sense of time and place. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller is set in the Pacific Northwest (you could call it a “Pacific Northwestern”) during the 1900’s. On a basic level, the film is about the literal construction/development of a frontier town called Presbyterian Church. The protagonists, John McCabe (Beatty) and Constance Miller (Christie) are entrepreneurs (among other things) and we watch as they transform Presbyterian Church from a few tents and dingy shacks out in the middle of an untamed wilderness, into bustling town. While all Westerns, on some level, deal with the creation and preservation of civilization on the frontier, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” may be the only one to tackle the theme in such a blunt manner.
This focus on the building of a town mirrors the film’s actual production. Shooting the film in Vancouver (back before it was cool to make Canada your stand in for the Pacific Northwest) Altman and his crew constructed a frontier town from scratch. The Presbyterian Church set was being built during the production, meaning the film had to be shot sequentially. Altman put the crew in period clothing so that they could continue to work; they can be seen in some of the early shots building the town brothel and saloon. Furthermore, Altman, the cast and the crew lived in the structures when they weren't filming. That’s right, no fancy hotel rooms or trailers to retreat to after a long day of filming.
While not an ensemble film the way Altman’s “Nashville” and “Mash” are, “McCabe” never the less emphasizes the collective. Presbyterian Church and its rag tag assortment of townsfolk is itself a primary character along with McCabe and Miller. In fact it even has its own dramatic climax of sorts, involving the communal effort to put out a church fire.
Altman creates a frontier world that’s deeply authentic and intimate. It’s as though Altman stumbled upon a real life frontier town* and simply followed the characters around, and Leonard Cohen stopped by with his guitar to provide the soundtrack. To achieve this, Altman uses image and sound in fresh and innovative ways. Starting with image, Altman and co. takes full advantage of this gloomy region. Leon Eriksen’s production design relies on an earthy, muted color palette; various shades of brown and grey dominate the exterior scenes. The viewer is constantly bombarded by heavy rain, roaring wind and snow, the ground muddy and damp. While the interiors are usually cramped and dimly lit--giving you a claustrophobic sensation. In terms of image, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” presents a vision of the frontier that’s dirtier and less attractive (especially when compared to the neatness and Technicolor polish of most studio Westerns) but one that more closely resembles the real frontier. You feel filthy and cold just looking at it.
Going along with this gritty, realistic look is the ingenious sound design. Altman is perhaps best known for pioneering the use of overlapping dialogue. That is, we hear snippets of multiple conversations happening at once. It’s closer to our own experience. When we’re at a party or in a crowded room we hear an amalgamation of various conversations. Critic Roger Ebert sums up this approach and its effect wonderfully: All of the characters know each other, and the camera will not stare at first one and then another, like an earnest dog, but is at home in their company. Nor do the people line up and talk one after another, like characters in a play. They talk when and as they will, and we understand it's not important to hear every word; sometimes all that matters is the tone of a room.” Altman takes various fragments of dialogue, whether they’re important lines or trivial small talk, and mixes them into a rich, fascinating symphony of small town life.
This fragmented approach to dialogue also informs the picture’s editing and overall construction. It’s deliberately paced and meandering; less a traditional three act plot and more a freewheeling collection of scenes depicting frontier life. The supporting townsfolk aren’t fleshed out the way McCabe or Miller are but through conversational snippets and scenes (that happen around the film’s central narrative) we get brief glimpses into their lives: for example, a bartender at the local saloon contemplates whether he should trim his beard or not, an older man named Bert gets a mail order bride and a young dopey cowboy rides into town to spend a weekend at the town brothel.
Fragments like these work to create atmosphere. Altman would rather linger on these miniature episodes and interactions than drive a plot forward. In the context of the Western genre, community has often played a substantial role— depictions of tight knit pockets of civilization in the midst of awe-inspiring landscapes and wildernesses. This loose, fragmented style is perfectly suited to the genre. In “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” the presence of the community and tight nit relationships between individuals is strongly felt. The performances (from pretty much everyone down to the one or two bit players) are natural and laidback, adding another layer of authenticity. The conversational scenes have a raw, at times improvisational, quality to them.
Ultimately, Altman’s frontier is rich and multi faceted—a densely populated, pulsing world that exceeds the bounds of the primary story or the film itself. It’s cheesy to say but I’m saying it anyway, you feel like you’re there, as one of the townsfolk watching everything unfold; the energetic conversations and mingling’s around the poker table or in the brothel, or the various business negotiations McCabe finds himself in.