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McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Warner Home Video

Starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie

Written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay
Based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton

Directed by Robert Altman

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Robert Altman's style is an acquired taste — and even those who have acquired it can often find it grating.

Loosely structured and heavily improvisational, Altman's movies ramble underneath layers of overlapping chatter and unprojected mumbling, dwell on inconsequential and/or amateurish tangents, and mercilessly linger on scenes long after other directors would call 'Cut,' cruelly exposing the worst actors and sometimes even embarrassing a few quality performers. Altman's films, you see, are really more about texture than narrative.

However, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) — one of the best Westerns of the 1970s — is one of the finest marriages of subject and style for the enigmatic director.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides into the snowy mountain town of Presbyterian Church — wrapped in a thick fur coat that would make the Gabor sisters blush — settles down in the town's only saloon, breaks out a deck of cards, buys the room a bottle of whiskey, and instantly becomes the region's first entertainment tycoon. While the town's new church (and namesake) slowly progresses through its languid construction, McCabe quickly erects a popular saloon, gambling parlor and whorehouse, and establishes himself as leader of the community and an aggressive entrepreneur, symbolizing the pioneering spirit of the West. But what McCabe possesses in bluster, vision and charm, he lacks in practicality, so when high-class prostitute Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie, doing an Eliza Doolittle impersonation) proposes a partnership, he reluctantly accepts and their business goes through the roof, attracting a buyout offer from a large mining company that doesn't take kindly to rejection.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, like most post-'60s westerns, is about the death of the frontier. McCabe, every bit an icon of American ambition and individualism, simply can't compete or keep pace with the march of commerce, and the people of Presbyterian Church — Mrs. Miller included — are cruelly swept along, dislocated and discarded in its uncompromising course.

Although there are many poor moments in the film — like most of the half-hearted, irrelevant love story between Mrs. Miller and McCabe, not helped by Christie's stagey cockney accent — Altman perfectly captures the atmosphere: The weather-beaten landscapes, the tumult and discontent of a growing rural community in an uncertain industrial time, the fickle sympathies of the consumer, and the toll of maverick achievement are all vividly evoked. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of Altman's most beautifully shot films (Vilmos Zsigmond is the man behind the camera), mixing the director's penchant for grainy, verité-like spontaneity with some gorgeous landscapes and sunsets, and some truly empathetic imagery. Also vitally important to this film is the folky, haunting song score by Leonard Cohen, which — while it has been known to grate on some viewers — flawlessly sets the film's gloomy and elliptical mood with its spare guitar, resigned vocals, and weary lyrics.

However, the main reason that McCabe & Mrs. Miller works is Beatty. Always projecting an unsettled detachment, the actor is the ideal foil for Altman's easily overacted style. His McCabe always looks and behaves like he'd rather be somewhere else. While Christie awkwardly tries to play out and loud, butting up against Altman's introspective lens, Beatty's reserve pulls the entire film inward for a more intimate portrait than more boisterous performers would allow.

Also with Altman regulars Rene Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine.

Warner's DVD release of McCabe & Mrs. Miller offers an anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that is a marked improvement over previous home-video incarnations, although there is occassional print damage, and the gloomy, grainy visual nature of the film rarely gives way to a perfectly clear picture. The audio, in monaural Dolby Digital, is also improved, but the English subtitles are a useful aide for a film in which so much of the dialogue is thrown away as barely overheard mumbling. Includes a lively commentary with director Altman and producer David Foster, a 10-minute promotional featurette, and a trailer.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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