DVD Review: McCabe & Mrs. Miller

mccabedvdSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Robert Altman | CAST: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall
RELEASE DATE: 10/11/16 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: Robert Altman commentary, making of short, “Way Out on a Limb” documentary, Director’s Guild Q&A with Leon Ericksen, segments from The Dick Cavett Show, discussion between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell
SPECS: R | 121 min. | Western | 2.40:1 widescreen | mono 

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio   | Video | Overall

One of the many ways in which the iconic maverick filmmaker Robert Altman took on the Hollywood film industry was by transforming existing movie genres. In the Seventies he crafted his own variations on the war movie, the private eye genre, the “lovers on the run” crime drama, apocalyptic sci-fi sagas, and the musical. Although he “broke through” with M*A*S*H and crashed down to Earth with Brewster McCloud, it was with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) that Altman first showed exactly how much he could revitalize an evergreen film genre.

McCabe’s status as a “revisionist Western” (a phrase later coined to describe the amazing films of the late Sixties and early Seventies that up-ended the genre) is unassailable. In the supplemental materials included in the two–disc Criterion release, much is made of the fact that the film was a failure on its initial release, and only began to turn a profit after certain critics (most notably Pauline Kael) drew attention to it.

It’s easy to see why the film alienated moviegoers expecting a John Wayne-style Western. Like Peckinpah, Altman doted on the fact that his Western characters weren’t very clean, nor were they smart (clever yes, smart no). He reflected their raucous lifestyles on his soundtrack, on which all the characters talked over each other. He also worked carefully with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Blow Out) to make the film look “aged” and postcard-like — but he also had characters cursing, acting crudely and being shown as the victims of sudden, fatal violence.

The film remains both a great Western and a perfect love story about two damaged souls. The Criterion restoration does justice to Zsigmond’s gorgeous visuals and Altman’s intricate soundtrack, which included three startlingly appropriate songs by Leonard Cohen, written and recorded a few years before the film.

McCabe was previously out on DVD from Warner. The two supplements found in that release are also here: a short making-of doc showing the creation of the Pacific Northwest town in which the film is set (built in Vancouver) and an audio commentary from Altman in which he discusses, among other topics, how he considered a script merely a “blueprint” for a film.

mccabe1_optThe new supplements included here range from rambling to invaluable. In the former category is a discussion between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. The most interesting notion they pursue is Altman’s statement that he didn’t like classic Hollywood Westerns because “they lied” about the life of the cowboy and the world he inhabited.

A 1999 Q&A with production designer Leon Ericksen and other crew members explores the town-building that went on while the film was being shot (which became a seminal element of the storyline). Ericksen speaks about the way in which he encouraged his crew members to think of themselves as characters in the film — a notion Altman obviously approved of, as Ericksen’s crew became extras in the film, who are shown constructing the buildings in period costume.

Two interviews with Vilmos Zsigmond (one from 2005 and one from 2008) are blended into a single featurette in which we hear the late master cinematographer discuss how he got the “aged” look for McCabe by “flashing” the film (allowing a film negative to be exposed to a small amount of light before shooting begins).

The desaturated colors that resulted lent a “picturesque” look to the proceedings, but also reinforced the bleakness of the characters’ rainy surroundings and their lives (and the immediacy of the violence that breaks out between them).

The best original supplement is “Way Out on a Limb,” a featurette that contains interviews with five key participants in the film. Stars Warren Beatty (The Fortune) and Julie Christie (Don’t Look Now) are of course not heard from, but the interviewees here are able to reflect on McCabe and its place in Altman’s filmography, since they each worked with him on several other films from his Seventies “golden period.”

The aspect of the production that gets a good share of attention is the fact that Altman shot the film in sequence, so the town being built was indeed growing day by day. Actor Rene Auberjonois discusses Altman’s overlapping dialogue by comparing it to things one overhears on the street from passersby; he and the other interviewees stress, however, that Altman ensured that viewers heard what they needed to hear.

Both Michael Murphy (Salvador) and Auberjonois admit that they were smitten with Christie, and that she was courteous and polite with everyone on the set. While Murphy says that Altman and Beatty didn’t feud, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury (Nashville) repeats the oft-told story (oft told by Altman himself) of how Beatty wanted so many retakes of one scene that Altman left him alone one night to shoot the extra takes — which Altman happily disposed of (he usually went with the earliest takes of everything on McCabe).

Auberjonois is the only interviewee to reflect on the aspect of Altman’s personal life that made him the bold artist he was. “Bob was a compulsive gambler,” he says, emphasizing how that particular addiction led to Altman’s more daring (and often potentially ruinous) moves as a filmmaker.

The documentary is the most information-filled supplement, but two vintage segments from The Dick Cavett Show are without a doubt the most entertaining. The first, from July 1971, finds Pauline Kael (sitting next to a Night Gallery-era Rod Serling) discussing McCabe with Cavett, urging people to see the film and praising its “difficult” techniques — also how she hoped that the film’s first two horrible reviews (by Rex Reed and Rona Barrett!) wouldn’t kill the film at the box office.

The other segment, from the following month, features Altman himself (seated next to comedian Milt Kamen) celebrating the fact that the film had finally turned a profit, due in part to Kael and other critics rallying behind it. Interestingly, Altman takes responsibility for the sound “problems” that initially turned off viewers (and are now hailed by people in the industry as innovative sound mixing). He is quite polite about Beatty, covering up their real discord with compliments about the ways that Warren got better with every take (which, he does note, Christie did not).

When asked by Cavett about using big movie stars as his leads, Altman says the advantage was that having Warren Beatty play McCabe “eliminated 20 minutes of storyline,” since viewers were already familiar with Beatty’s onscreen persona.


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”