Guest post by Craig Simpson, Manuscripts Archivist at Lilly Library.
“For me, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the standard for a sort of emotional purity, a movie whose feeling permeates you without ever once forcing a thing. Emerging from it, I always feel like the town drunk who attempts a jig on the ice in one scene: drugged, unsure of my footing, as if one step would send the whole enterprise crashing to the ground. I try to clutch the images to me even as they seem to evaporate like smoke.”
– Charles Taylor, Salon. March 21, 1997
A test of a great film is when you can tell it’s great even when it looks and sounds terrible. This was certainly the case for Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, released in 1971 and available only in a very poor transfer on home video for many years since. Even though watching it was like squinting through a smeared glass windshield, it remained one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen, all the more so when Criterion gave it a glorious restoration in late 2016. (The IU Cinema’s 2K DCP screening of the film on February 10 at 6:30pm is based on the same restoration.) Although the movie was not a box-office success, it has stood the test of time. Martin Scorsese is a fervent admirer. David Milch’s seminal HBO series Deadwood is a direct descendent. The late John Huston deemed it the best Western he had ever seen.
Although McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of the most accessible films of an often challenging filmmaker, it immerses you into its world so completely that the effect can be disorienting. To offer a lay of the land, then, here are ten pieces of contextual information about the movie:
1. Altman wanted to make “a Western that wasn’t a Western.”
Following the surprise success of the original 1970 movie version of M*A*S*H (Altman had nothing to do with the subsequent long-running TV series), most directors who had been struggling in the business for as long as Robert Altman would have “gone Hollywood” and started helming major studio productions, as he was urged to do. But Altman was a stubborn individualist and personal artist at heart. After serving as a bomber pilot in World War II, Altman returned home to Kansas City, Missouri and got his start directing industrial documentaries. Eventually this led to several years of toiling on 1960s television shows like Combat and Bonanza, as well as directing a couple of undistinguished early feature films like Countdown, during which he acquired a reputation for being talented but difficult. Altman was 45 when he made M*A*S*H, a subversive (and bloody) take on the military comedy genre that struck a nerve with audiences in the Vietnam War era. He would never be quite so in synch with popular taste again. Yet in a prolific career that endured until his death in 2006, Altman cultivated a reputation as a maverick who loved to upend genre expectations: The Long Goodbye (1974), Nashville (1975), 3 Women (1979), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Gosford Park (2001), and A Prairie Home Companion (2006) are among his most notable works.
Back in 1970, Altman’s agent learned that a producer, David Foster, had optioned an obscure 1959 pulp Western by Edmund Naughton, titled McCabe, about a would-be businessman going by the name John McCabe, who builds up the ramshackle settlement of Presbyterian Church with the help of high-class madam Constance Miller, only to encounter conflict with a ruthless corporation over control of the newly profitable town. Set in the year 1901, and in the Pacific Northwest rather than familiar locales like the Monument Valley of John Ford’s films, Naughton’s novel appealed to Altman’s desire to make a non-traditional Western. “There wasn’t anybody who spoke Texas,” Altman reflected on the movie years later. “‘Howdy, pardner.’ That didn’t exist.” An antiheroic, even foolish male protagonist (with the nickname “Pudgy”) and a strong, complex female lead also undercut typical archetypes of the genre.
2. A future writer of episodes for TV’s Wonder Woman helped with the screenplay.
Brian McKay, who had done time in prison for theft, had a colorful personality to rival Altman’s own. After an earlier, misguided draft by screenwriter Ben Maddow that attempted to turn McCabe into a traditional Hollywood Western, McKay, who had collaborated with Altman on a television commercial, was brought in to try his hand at the script. Now titled The Presbyterian Church Wager, McKay’s draft reinstated the unconventional elements of the story. Most crucially, it created what became the structure of the final film.
Clashing with screenwriters was common throughout Altman’s career, and ultimately he and McKay had a falling out. A “Revised Final” version of the screenplay at the Lilly Library credits Robert Altman as its sole author, with The Presbyterian Church Wager crossed out on the title page, and a better title (albeit without the ampersand), McCabe and Mrs. Miller, inserted at the top. Brian McKay went on to write for TV shows like Kojak, Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, Fantasy Island, and Cagney & Lacey.
3. The ampersand is important.
In a 1999 “Great Movies” piece, Roger Ebert pointed out that the ampersand in McCabe & Mrs. Miller emphasizes the business partnership of the two main characters, instead of a romantic partnership that the pair spends the movie trying to resist. This hasn’t stopped film critics and Altman biographers from calling the film McCabe and Mrs. Miller. You know you’re a movie buff when that drives you crazy.
4. The cinematographer flashed the negative before filming.
Vilmos Zsigmond, the Hungarian-born cinematographer who rose to prominence in 1970s Hollywood by shooting films like John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), was still relatively obscure when Altman hired him for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. After Altman explained what he had in mind for the look of the movie—“like antique photographs and faded-out pictures, not much color”—Zsigmond achieved this objective by “flashing” the film (i.e., slightly exposing the negative) before production began. It was a groundbreaking technique that gave the movie a faraway, dreamlike quality and burnished Zsigmond’s reputation as a virtuoso with natural light.
5. The set was constructed while the movie was filmed.
One of the film’s most striking elements is watching the development of Presbyterian Church from a shantytown to a thriving municipality, without any clear indicators as to how many weeks or months have passed between scenes. Filmed on location in Vancouver, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was shot by Altman in sequence so that the production designer, Leon Ericksen, could build the set from the ground up during production.
6. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie’s performances rank among their very best.
Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were an offscreen couple looking for an onscreen collaboration when McCabe & Mrs. Miller came along. Beatty could afford to choose his roles more selectively after the success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in which he had not only starred but nurtured the controversial project as producer against considerable studio resistance. In Vancouver, Beatty’s questioning and controlling demeanor clashed with Altman’s loose sensibility, but the result was a wonderful performance that depicted John McCabe as a cockeyed dreamer posing as a cynical huckster—as others have suggested, a character not unlike Bob Altman himself. Julie Christie had a more meteoric rise, winning a Best Actress Oscar at the age of 24 for Darling (1965) and starring in the smash hit Dr. Zhivago the same year. Whereas Beatty often liked to do 20-30 takes per scene, Christie’s best take was often her first. She was Oscar-nominated again for Best Actress for her magnificent performance, but lost to Jane Fonda for Klute. Of Beatty and Altman she reflected: “You had two very different types of ego working in a small area. I’m not going to go any further than that. To my mind it’s Bob’s best film. It needed the tightness that Warren brought to it and it needed the expansiveness that Robert brought to it… I think he’s a great director, a great, unique, adventurous, experimental, confrontational, provocative director.”
7. Overlapping dialogue is one of Altman’s signature traits.
More than any filmmaker since Howard Hawks, Robert Altman used overlapping dialogue in his movies. Only whereas Hawks featured two or more characters talking simultaneously primarily for comic effect, for Altman it was a stylistic preference embedded in his worldview: “You don’t need to hear everything people are saying to know the world they’re living in.” An innovator with sound design, Altman mixed the sound in McCabe & Mrs. Miller to the point where it alienated some viewers, including Warren Beatty. But like M*A*S*H, pieces of conversations along the margins of the ensemble are all part of the movie’s fabric (as are several actors from the former film’s cast, including Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck, Corey Fischer, and Michael Murphy). McCabe & Mrs. Miller was also a key early film for Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine, both of whom would become regulars in Altman’s repertory company. Altman didn’t cast actors so much as he “cast essence,” Carradine explained. “He wanted pure behavior and he wanted the essence of people and that was his genius.”
While Altman encouraged contributions to the screenplay (Christie wrote much of her own dialogue; Beatty came up with McCabe’s colorful jokes), he also frequently insisted that improvisation was misunderstood. “My films are scripted. I use improvisation as a tool during the rehearsal period before we shoot, but basically, once we start shooting, it’s a very set thing.” The Revised Final screenplay at the Lilly confirms that nearly all of the finished film was in the script, including a handful of scenes that were either cut or never shot.
8. The climactic snowstorm was unplanned.
One spontaneous sequence was the movie’s celebrated final act: a tense game of cat-and-mouse between McCabe and a trio of bounty hunters hired to kill him. The scene was already on the page, but the blizzard that hit Vancouver on the morning it was to be filmed was unexpected. Rather than wait for the weather to clear, Altman seized the opportunity to do something memorable. “It made the movie,” said Joan Tewkesbury, a frequent collaborator of Altman’s. “What would have been a gunfight, just another gunfight in the town of Presbyterian Church, became this event in the snow. They were like animals tracking each other, and it’s fascinating to watch.”
9. Leonard Cohen’s songs were not written for the film.
Few films have been identified by their soundtracks as indelibly as McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Yet Leonard Cohen’s contribution came about by pure happenstance. Largely unknown at the time, Cohen had just come home from a movie when he got a phone call from Altman asking to use some music from his 1967 album The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Altman explained that he had recently directed M*A*S*H, which Cohen missed. “I also did a small movie that nobody saw—Brewster McCloud,” Altman added. It was the movie that Cohen had seen and loved earlier that day. Ultimately three of Cohen’s songs were included in McCabe & Mrs. Miller: “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Winter Lady.”
10. Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert loved the movie from the start.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller received mixed reviews, but Pauline Kael’s contained only superlatives. A devoted champion of M*A*S*H and much of Altman’s body of work afterwards, Kael, writing in The New Yorker, described McCabe & Mrs. Miller as “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie.” (Although she famously declared that she never saw a movie more than once, Kael reportedly slipped in to see the film a second time to make sure that it really was as good as she thought it was.) Roger Ebert gave Altman’s movie four stars in his original 1971 review, and led off his 1999 “Great Movies” piece with: “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.”
Craig Simpson will introduce McCabe & Mrs. Miller, when it screens at IU Cinema at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, February 10, 2017. The film, which features a soundtrack of songs by Leonard Cohen, is being screened in commemoration of Cohen, who died in November.
During her 2014 visit Meryl Streep chose to share Robert Altman’s final film A Prairie Home Companion with IU Cinema filmgoers. During the Q&A following the screening she regaled the audience with stories of working with the famed director and the all-star ensemble cast.
Craig Simpson is Manuscripts Archivist at the Lilly Library. He has been a regular collaborator with the IU Cinema, including the Orson Welles Symposium and the John Boorman: Conjurer of Cinema series.