When I think of Robert Altman, the first things that come to mind are typically the empathetic explorations of sprawling ensembles, best exemplified by films like Nashville or Short Cuts. Before he moved into these character-driven epics, though, Altman laid the foundation for his directorial style in a number of genres, riffing on war films with MASH and film noir with The Long Goodbye; the highlight of Altman’s exploration of traditional genre narratives, though, is the snow-banked Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is Altman at his best, making a genuine treasure of a film, and the recent Criterion release of the film only bolsters its reputation as one of the best works of Altman’s lengthy career.
The film opens in a muddy mining camp where prospects are dim until the arrival of McCabe (Warren Beatty), a mysterious man whose past is a topic of speculation almost immediately. As McCabe expands the camp into a small town, first building a brothel and going from there, he partners with Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), an aggressive madam with a knack for raising the bar for the men around her. Even McCabe finds himself entranced by Mrs. Miller, but the arrival of aggressive mining executives finds him scrambling to protect his territory, and eventually, himself.
With just a handful of films under his belt, Altman paired with bonafide movie stars for McCabe & Mrs. Miller; real-life couple Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, who had never worked together on screen prior to this film. Both of them turn in fantastic performances, particularly Beatty, whose rambling performance is essentially a blunt weapon used by Altman to demolish the mythical cowboy figure. Beatty’s self-serving bluster is hilarious, but the rare moments where McCabe displays a fumbling, inelegant vulnerability to Mrs. Miller are where he truly shines. Mrs. Miller is a sharp, assertive businesswoman, played with utter confidence by Christie, whose expressiveness and firecracker wit elevate the character far beyond the archetypical Western prostitute. The character’s opium addiction is an especially nice touch, and Christie plays it with complexity, letting Mrs. Miller’s drug-induced euphoria be both distancing and utterly charming.
The careful and surprising character work of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is representative of the many singular choices that Altman makes in this film. His work is unassuming yet inspired, especially for a director still finding his voice. This is far more an Altman film than a Western, going the bulk of its runtime without a single Mexican standoff or gunshot, yet there’s an inescapable quiet tension running through the film. Is it tied to McCabe’s possible past standing as a legendary gunfighter, or to his tender feelings towards Mrs. Miller, or to the inevitability of violence, this being a Western and all? Altman hits all of these chords brilliantly, but perhaps his strongest choice is the use of the music of the late Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s gentle croon is sparingly used but so effortlessly establishes the film’s gentle mood, striking quite the contrast to the joyous fiddle-driven frontier music Altman deploys throughout the film.
The legacy of McCabe & Mrs. Miller can be found in some of the Western genre’s most subversive masterworks, most notably The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and HBO’s Deadwood. The former borrows Altman’s patient approach and unusual Western imagery, and shares an overwhelming visual beauty with the film. Deadwood, though, is the film’s true descendant, even going as far to pay a subtle homage in its opening credits. Perhaps the most moving moment in McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a climactic beat where the community McCabe has built comes together to save the burning church that none of them have visited. Though Altman tempers that triumph with McCabe’s melancholy demise, it’s easy to see that arc reflected in Deadwood, which painstakingly depicts a community forming under the leadership of a gruff saloon owner and is laced with the same profound drunken cowboy poetry that McCabe & Mrs. Miller traffics in.
The new Criterion release of McCabe & Mrs. Miller comes with a well-curated stock of special features, including a pair of brand-new documentaries about the film. The best of the two insightfully collects interviews with the cast and crew, many of whom wax rhapsodic about Altman’s craftiness; Altman had the set of the town under construction as he shot, incorporating the process into the film’s story, and he boldly shot the climax on the first day of an epic snowstorm, gambling that the snow would last long enough for him to shoot the rest of the final sequence. There are also conversations with production designer Leon Ericksen and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who tell a number of fascinating stories about working with Altman, including a discussion of his ballsy choice to overexpose the film negatives in order to achieve the gauzy look of the film. The disc is rounded out by an audio commentary from Altman and producer David Foster, footage and stills from the Canadian set, and a delightful pair of appearances on the Dick Cavett show by Altman and passionate Altman fan Pauline Kael.
Some of the strongest moments for the vivid artistic voice of Robert Altman were when he riffed on genre, and it’s incredible how even across a range of genres, his young voice rang clearer than any disparate element of the films. His take on the Western is utterly brilliant, deflating its archetypes while finding grace and soul in that world, and the film’s excellence is solidified by the phenomenal performances from Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. But what truly makes McCabe & Mrs. Miller such a special, enduring film is the feeling you get from watching it; like you’ve unearthed some precious artistic artifact, and yet even on first viewing, it attains the rare sensation of being a film you’ve known all your life.