To begin, I’m not a huge fan of Robert Altman overall. In fact, many of the filmmaker’s stylistic touches that are popularly described as “Altmanesque” I find to be tiring. However, he has also made films that I enjoy immensely, this film being one of them and perhaps his greatest film.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman’s take on the Western genre, was part of the new, “experiential” western that pervaded Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s. Films such as The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid, and this film revealed a more internal and sensual aspect of the Western genre in contrast to the more externalized, active version of the genre that American audiences knew and loved. In these new Westerns, the West represented the final outpost of man’s free spirit and America’s original pioneer spirit. Unlike the old Westerns, the new Western portrayed death in a different light as well. In the old Western, the audience merely saw a man shot dead and the emotional effect came from the suspense before the shooting and the relief after it. In the new Western, the moment of death and the causing of death became an emotional experience unto itself.

Robert Altman was an amazingly prolific filmmaker in the 1970s. He made 15 feature films in the 70s alone! In terms of quality, however, Altman’s films were a bit inconsistent. Some were amazing while others were a mess. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is among his amazing films and it elevated his career to further heights after the already successful MASH. Consistent with the spirit of the era, McCabe attacks the myths of American life in the Wild West. Here, there is no mythic showdown between good and evil at high noon. The “good guy,” McCabe (Warren Beatty), is a drunken profiteer from gambling and prostitution. The town is a sunless muddy town where its always raining or snowing. The “bad guys” are not a group of desperadoes but rather methodical hired killers who are employed by a mining company. The “dance-hall girls” are not pretty innocent lasses but whores, plain and simple. Their madam, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) does not have a heart of gold, but is instead an opium-addicted woman.

I’ll refrain from discussing the performances by Beatty and Christie. They are among the greatest actors of any generation and McCabe & Mrs. Miller exemplifies their talents. Their performances in this film speak for themselves, making their characters one of the greatest screen couple in film history.  ‘Nuff said.

The look of McCabe & Mrs. Miller may throw you off at first if you are not used to watching films from the 70s. The movie has been described as a “naturalist” film, a style popular with Altman. It was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and he drowns the characters in nature. The characters are surrounded by nature whether it be walking through rain, snow, or mud. Even when they are inside a building, the structure is made out of wood and is never fully completed, which evokes a naturalistic feeling. The indoors are lit by natural light such as lanterns and log fires. The look reminded me of old photographs from that time era by the way the film appears scratchy and a bit tinted. Its a stunning looking film and a great reference for anyone into photography.

A word of warning: if you find yourself struggling to understand what the characters are saying in the film, especially in the first 20 minutes, its not your DVD or sound system. The sound mix of this movie is probably the WORST sound mix of any major studio production. Its practically unintelligible and very frustrating to listen to. However, please don’t let this prevent you from seeing this film. Despite this, it is a brilliant piece of work.

McCabe & Mrs. Miler is widely considered to be one of the greatest films in history and the AFI ranked it in its top 10 Westerns. Warren Beatty probably gives the best performance of his career here and he is definitely something to behold here. The climax showdown of the film is wonderful and quite suspenseful (but again, very different from the classic showdowns of the old Westerns). Highly recommended.

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