Release Date(s)1971 (October 11, 2016)
Studio(s)Warner Bros (Criterion – Spine #827)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A+
When Robert Altman set out to make an anti-western western in the early 1970s, he likely had no idea that he was creating something that would eventually become a part of the genre’s overall aesthetic and tableau. After McCabe & Mrs. Miller, there was no going back to the days of James Arness in clean, pressed outfits, having bloodless shootouts in saloons, and dealing with mustache-twirling outlaws in the middle of the desert. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was something new, a gritty character piece that threw conventions out the window, going more for authenticity instead. Altman had previously done the same with the hard-boiled detective genre in The Long Goodbye and the war film in M*A*S*H, but with McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he pushed it to its absolute limit.
Based on the novel “McCabe” by Edmund Naughton, McCabe & Mrs. Miller also contains memorable performances from Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Beatty, in particular, opted to shed his good looks and attempted to hide inside the character of “Pudgy” McCabe; bearded, gruff, and unpleasant, yet still magnetic to watch. Despite the fact that he and Altman didn’t get along very well due to a clash of their working styles, a strong piece of acting came out of the collaboration. Beatty’s co-star, Christie, carries the weight of the world on her shoulders as Mrs. Miller. Often hardnosed when it comes to matters of business, while exposing her humanity occasionally with a playful-like glee, she sells the role of a woman who has endured in an era dominated by men with the greatest of ease. Rounding out the main cast are René Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Keith Carradine, and William Devane.
Dominated by the music of the late, great Leonard Cohen, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is existential in a lot of ways, but honest and forthright in others. It’s also not necessarily a film that can be fully absorbed in one sitting. Loaded with small character moments, background activity, vast landscapes, and on screen dynamics, the film almost demands you to see it more than once. The basic narrative is laid out and easy to follow, but it’s the world and its vast array of characters that eclipses it. Perhaps that’s why the film wasn’t initially well received upon its release in 1971, by either critics or audiences. It didn’t help that the film wasn’t well supported by the studio at the time either.
Criterion bows their Blu-ray release of McCabe & Mrs. Miller with a brand new 4K digital restoration. Beautifully-photographed by another late, great of the industry, Vilmos Zsigmond, it’s simply the best the film has ever looked on home video, bar none. A word of warning though to those who have never seen the film before: It has a very intentional look. It’s grainy and the film negative was exposed prior to principal photography (otherwise known as “flashing”), giving it a soft, milky appearance. This new restoration captures that vintage aesthetic perfectly, in almost every possible way. The colors have also been thoroughly corrected since its DVD days, pumping in more green and desaturation into the overall palette. Black levels and shadow details contain low contrast while lacking subtle detailing. It’s a clean presentation, with not much more than the grain itself as the transfer’s dominating texture. The audio, which comes as an English mono LPCM track, also preserves the film’s well-known soundtrack. Altman often overlapped dialogue in scenes, making some of it unintelligible at times, but never at the behest of what an audience needed to hear in order to follow along. Nothing has changed, and the presentation is as front heavy as you can imagine. There’s some clarity to it all, especially concerning the music. The ambient moments, including rain and snow, also have surprising depth. Obviously, it’s the best the film will sound using as few audio channels as possible, though I would like to think that Altman would have made definite use of 5.1 for the film had he shot it today. The bottom line though is that the film looks and sounds amazing. If you’ve seen it over the years in lesser quality, this is definitely a marked improvement. Subtitles are also available in English SDH for those who might need them.
For the supplemental package, Criterion has managed to carry over the three extras previously available on Warner’s DVD release, which includes an audio commentary with Robert Altman and producer David Foster, a vintage featurette from the film’s production, and the original theatrical trailer. Newly-included is a terrific, one-hour making-of documentary, which features various surviving members of the cast and crew. There’s also a video conversation about the film between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, the Art Directors Guild Film Society Q&A from 1999 with production designer Leon Ericksen, various excerpts from archival interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, a photo gallery featuring stills from the set by photographer Steve Schapiro, excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring both film critic Pauline Kael and Altman himself, and a fold-out paper insert with an essay on the film by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.
It should be noted that Warner Bros. has had, for many years, a strict no-sublicensing policy in place when it comes to third party distributors. However, in the last couple of years, both Twilight Time and The Criterion Collection have found some leeway and managed to license a couple of their titles, the former at the behest of a director. Thankfully, Criterion has saved McCabe & Mrs. Miller and given it the treatment that it deserves. The film stands as one of the finest westerns ever made and an avant-garde piece of filmmaking that continues to show influence, most notably on the great HBO TV series Deadwood. As Criterion already has several Altman films in its catalogue, I can’t imagine a better place for it to wind up or a better package for fans, old and new. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons