By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Some have called this 1971 Robert Altman gem an “anti-western”, but I’ve always thought of it as more of a “northwestern”. The setting is a turn-of-the-century Pacific Northwest mining town called Presbyterian Church. To call this burg “rustic” is an understatement; there’s definitely some room for urban improvement. All it takes is an entrepreneurial visionary, like gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who rides into town one blustery day to find his fortune.
He quickly gleans that the most assured way to profit off the motley (and mostly male) locals would be to set up a brothel. The only thing he lacks is business acumen, which (lucky for him) soon arrives in the person of an experienced madam (Julie Christie). Once the two cement a (mostly) professional partnership, their enterprise really takes off…until evil corporate bastards intervene, in the form of a ruthless and powerful mining company.
As he had done with the war movie genre with his 1970 hit M*A*S*H, Altman likewise turned the western on its ear with this entry. Thanks to the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the film is imbued with an immersive naturalism that wasn’t replicated until…well, Zsigmond (!) photographed Michael Cimino’s western Heaven’s Gate nearly 10 years later. Interestingly, Cimino’s film shares a similar “little guy vs. the Big Corporation” theme (sadly, we lost both Zsigmond and Cimino in 2016…both were giant talents).
Altman’s use of Leonard Cohen’s music remains one of the most wonderfully symbiotic marriages of sound and vision in American film (even more poignant now with Cohen’s recent passing). The new 4K transfer is stunning. Extras include a new making-of doc, and an Altman commentary track recorded in 2002.