Robert Altman played around with genres such as the war movie (MASH), horror (Images), musical (Popeye), noir (The Long Goodbye), and even avant garde (3 Women), but he always seemed to be working in the singular genre of “The Robert Altman Film.” Because it was more intent on human relationships than gun-fighting, because of its lack of bombast and derring-do, because of its signature Altman-esque touches such as twitchy performances and unintelligible dialogue, his western McCabe & Mrs. Miller also seems like another genre-violator and has often been labeled an “anti-western.”
However, as is the case with Altman’s other genre pictures, there is fidelity to the given genre in terms of storytelling, mood, and visuals. There is the heroism and violence and antique feel of the classical western in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but all of that is balanced with its bigger-fish-to-fry ideas about the formation of the American North-West as we now know it.
At the center of the new settlement of Presbyterian Church, Washington, are the title characters: new brothel owner and longtime loser John McCabe (an incessantly mumbling Warren Beatty) and its self-possessed yet opium-addicted madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie). The brothel provides a center for Presbyterian Church more stable than its proprietors, and though it serves as the cornerstone of a newborn American community, there is an atmosphere of elegy that hangs over the entire film like a shroud. Perhaps that’s because something crucial and natural in America did die when white people citified it.
The look of the film contributes much to that shrouded atmosphere. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is deliberately hazy, soft, grainy, and dark. As such, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not the ideal high-definition showcase, though comparisons with the 2002 DVD reveal how much Criterion’s new 4k restoration of the film has brought back its color and clarity.
Criterion fleshes out the film with hours of supplements, the centerpiece of which is a near-hour-long documentary about the film’s casting, creation, characterizations, and cinematography, as well as the environmental and personality difficulties involved in making it (though clashes between the director and Beatty are downplayed). One can’t help but wish that Beatty and Christie had been involved in Way out on a Limb, but it’s still a solid piece, and it’s always nice when Criterion goes to such trouble to produce a substantial new supplement for one of its releases.
The rest of the stuff will keep McCabe-heads busy for hours: a casual conversation between two film historians on the film’s western status and place in the New Hollywood movement, a 1999 conversation with production designer Leon Ericksen, a splice of interviews with Zsigmond, a photo gallery, Pauline Kael’s special 1971 trip to The Dick Cavett Show to rave about the film, and a commentary with Altman and producer David Foster ported over from the old DVD. Originally scheduled for last August, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the rare Criterion release to be delayed, but its cult will likely feel the wait was worth it.