DVD Review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/24/11
Two points ring out clarion when watching Robert Altman’s 1971 film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller: 1) Robert Altman is probably the most hit and miss major director in Hollywood history, with good films such as M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and Gosford Park on his resume, and really poor films like this one, Popeye, and Vincent & Theo. 2) One of the main reasons McCabe & Mrs. Miller fails is because it is badly dated, and this is so due to a horrendous soundtrack for the film. Poor acting, poor screenwriting, and poor cinematography certainly don’t help, but the sheer finger up the ass ludicrousness of scoring a de facto Western with the proto-folk balladeering of Leonard Cohen is utterly mind-boggling; especially since it’s BAD Leonard Cohen music.
But, think about it, what in the hell do any of the songs have to do with a Western? Granted, most folks who champion this film point to the fact that it subverts western clichés, such as having star Warren Beatty’s John Q. McCabe die in the final shootout, which is set in a snowstorm, not a desert; that the ‘bad guys’ of the film are not Injuns, cattle rustlers, or desperadoes, but corporate killers; or the film’s being set in late 19th Century Washington state (albeit filmed near Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada), but, so what? Beatty’s character acts in ways that are 1970sish, not late 19th Centuryish (all the PoMo self-referentiality), he does kill all the bad guys, yet the film makes you not care a whit for him; and the story itself is anomic, and fraught with Dumbest Possible Action tropes and dei ex machina, and far better films have been set in the high sierra regions of the western U.S. (such as Shane, from whom this film steals the idea of a pointless murder of a minor character by a sadistic killer). Yet, for as many tropes that the film subverts there are more that are fed: the mysterious stranger, a hooker with a heart of gold, ugly villains/killers, stupid townsfolk who are cowered into silence and irrelevance, and others. In short, the film bows to more conventions, that are far stronger, than its minor subversions; after all, does snow really make the chase cliché fundamentally ‘new’?
Perhaps the biggest booster of the film is Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who, incredibly, wrote these words on the film:
It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971). This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come -- not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem--an elegy for the dead.
The rest of the review recaps some of the film, but mentions little of its lack of character development, inane dialogue (of the famously overlapping Altmanian kind), murky plot, and utterly stereotypical bad guys and minorities. And, naturally, nothing of the horrid score, which is not only poor in terms of its musical selection, but in its deployment; usually after scenes of no power nor import, and scenes that should never have been included, for they add no humor, no character development (as example, we see nothing of how McCabe even ‘takes’ over the little town of Presbyterian Church, which likely would be more interesting than how we later see him lose it), and do not even push the plot forward. The worst example comes after one of the whores bends down to ‘go to the pot,’ and the score kicks in, as if her defecation is somehow worthy of an emotional cue to the audience: just bizarre.
About the only cogent thing Ebert writes is this:
Study the title. "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." Not "and," as in a couple, but "&," as in a corporation. It is a business arrangement. Everything is business with her.
But even that aspect of the lead female character is all we get of her, and we get that in the first minute she’s onscreen. A bit later we learn of her opium addiction, which ends the film, not unlike the end of the later Sergio Leone classic, Once Upon A Time In America. But, Altman’s film, and even his better ones, simply lack the realism of those of John Cassavetes, mainly because the characters we see are not ‘realistic,’ in any way. They do not talk as normal people talk, and they do not act as normal people act. They are all hyper-intensively posing. At no moment is one seeing what real bars or real prostitutes act like, but what a Hollywood film thinks they are, or were, like. They have late 20th Century attitudes in how they speak, walk, act, and even cogitate. There is nothing about the film that even reeks of the 19th Century, for all it reeks of is self-conscious ‘faux realism.’ Contrast this to Cassavetes’ films, especially those that are the best, like Opening Night, which realistically depicts how a drunk acts, yet controls herself, as well; or The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, which is easily the most realistic Mob movie ever made; lacking the forced hagiography of Goodfellas and the religious overtones of Mean Streets, both directed by Martin Scorsese; and deflating the faux-Shakespearean pomp of The Godfather films, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. In Cassavetes’ films, all the characters act as normal people do, and one could easily believe most of the scenes in them are culled from documentaries. There is nothing in McCabe & Mrs. Miller that evokes this. At all times you see a Hollywood leading man postmodernly winking and nodding at the other characters and audience, and a Hollywood leading lady, Julie Christie as Mrs. Constance Miller (whither the husband?), overacting in an annoying Cockney accent, obviously being goaded into being as outrageous and bitchy as Altman likely believed all prostitutes (especially Cockney ones) to be. And the vaunted ‘overlapping dialogue’ that Altman pioneered adds nothing to the realism, because it’s inane, and actually distracts from it, for it makes one forget the real important (in terms of the narrative) conversations to focus on.
As for that narrative? Well, I just sketched it out for you. The film merely expands that to two full hours. The screenplay, by Altman and Brian McKay, from a novel called simply McCabe, by Edmund Naughton, is really poor, and the ultimate source of the film’s woes, far more so than the bad acting by Beatty and Christie (who amazingly was Oscar nominated for this role, which is almost 180° from her turn in Dr. Zhivago), or any of the supporting cast who, out of generosity, I won’t name. The scoring, which is wholly consistent of the Cohen songs, picked by Altman, is utterly abysmal. They do not support the action, they do not comment on it slyly, and are simply not even good songs, in and of themselves. Even the cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond, who usually provides rich imagery, is flat, dull, and not interesting, which, give the locale, is amazing, in and of itself. It’s simply not a pretty film to look at. Reportedly, Zsigmond used filters and smoked the negative in order to create the look.
As for the Warner Brothers DVD features, the film is seen in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but the transfer is not good, perhaps owing to Zsigmond’s odd cinematography, and is very dark and muddy, with many defects. There is a vintage making of featurette, clearly shot in the 1970s, but it offers little insight into the film, and actually gives the impression of the film being something it is not. There is also the original theatrical trailer. The best feature is the audio commentary, featuring director Altman and producer David Foster. While Altman has some interesting remarks, the commentary really sparkles when Foster speaks. One gets the sense Altman almost regrets making this film whereas Foster sees it as a masterpiece, and is very thankful for it. It is his comments on the process of getting the film made (such as The Presbyterian Church Wager being the film’s original title) that is the thing to listen for, not Altman’s meandering and hit and miss comments. Foster believes the film would have done better with a more classic ‘happy ending, but I don’t think so; the fact that the film is so sloppy loses viewers’ interest early on; although the film mildly improves in the second half; if only because the familiarity with the characters increases and the constant addition of throwaway characters and plot points cease. By contrast, Altman rips the source novel as hackneyed, yet later on speaks on how the film shows fidelity to it. Perhaps the rumors of Altman’s excessive pot smoking on set were true and he simply did not recall a substantive thing of the film.
Too much of McCabe & Mrs. Miller tries to preach 1970s values at its audience, when it should be instead trying to recreate the virtues of the late 19th Century, and this schizophrenia is yet another major flaw of this film. A good example of this comes in an otherwise throwaway scene with William Devane as an unnamed lawyer that McCabe seeks advice from on how to battle the company that is trying to muscle him out of the action. Devane tells him that he can be a hero, and strike a stand for the little man against corporations that plunder the environment, but, as McCabe is an inveterate con artist, the idea that he would buy such hippy-drenched drivel is laughable; especially considering such advice is tantamount to a death warrant.
Overall, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not a terrible film, although a viewer does not care, much less identify, with any of the characters, but it is not a good film, even if one, Heaven forfend, actually finds Leonard Cohen’s songs somehow interesting, and it is certainly nowhere in the universe known as perfection, period.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Spinning Image website.]
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