Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ is one of the most beautiful and emotionally stirring westerns American cinema ever produced

Robert Altman and Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1970 Photo: Sandcastle Productions

Confidently riding the waves generated by his highly successful satirical black comedy M*A*S*H, Robert Altman easily secured a directing job on the adaptation of Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel McCabe, and delighted with the director’s work on the aforementioned film, Warren Beatty readily accepted the lead role. It would be disrespectful to simply say Altman didn’t disappoint—indeed, what he created back in those cold and wet Vancouver days of late 1970 falls nothing short of one of the most beautiful and emotionally stirring westerns American cinema ever produced. Altman’s filmmaking handwriting is visible in every detail, as he fills the screen with complex, deep characters who give you that magical feeling in your stomach, the feeling that you’re not watching a film but are simply given a privileged position of peeping through the window into the lives of real people, of genuine personalities with hopes, dreams, fears and insecurities, the overwhelmingly satisfying feeling of using a portal and entering some forgotten time, when it was perfectly unsurprising to witness a cold-blooded shooting over business disagreements.

With Vilmos Zsigmond’s enchanting cinematography, with Leonard Cohen’s unforgettable, atmospheric tunes of Sisters of Mercy or Winter Lady, with Beatty and Julie Christie tuning in performances that render you speechless, with a story penned by Brian McKay and Altman himself that breaks your hope-craving hearts into little pieces, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a piece of anti-western poetry that’s impossible to shake off, a film so great in its execution, strength and significance it is literally impossible to convey what it means to us in plain words. Magnificent work by a true artist that provides abundant nourishment for film-loving souls.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Robert Altman & Brian McKay’s screenplay for McCabe & Mrs. Miller [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Excellent DGA interview with Robert Altman.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was shot with two cameras. It was efficient. We were getting away from the idea that once you lit a scene you couldn’t move the camera. If you moved the camera, you had to move the light. If you moved the camera just this much you’d fuck it up. I said, ‘I can’t deal with that.’ Suppose you come into a scene and you see a guy sitting at a desk. The audience knows the camera is on him alone. That’s the only thing you’re seeing. But suppose the camera is coming through the office and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody at their desk do something and you get sucked into that? That appeals to me more than the setup. Unless the setup is very specific and I’m using it as part of the storytelling. —Robert Altman

Robert Altman by Albert Mobilio.

M*A*S*H and The Player were made almost a quarter century apart and they’re both right on the money about their era. I don’t think many artists, let alone filmmakers, manage to embrace that long a period with so accurate a social reading.
I get to draw from the whole world. When we did McCabe somebody asked, “Why are you doing this? This is the most standard Western.” I said, It’s the most standard Western story we could find that has all the elements that everybody has already seen. So, I’ve got the three killers, the giant, the half-breed, and the kid. I’ve got the whore with the heart of gold. I’ve got the slimy merchant and then this kind of blustering hero who wasn’t really a hero—that was the only difference. So the audience knows the story, and they’re able to just go in. And I’m able to go in and say, “Yeah, you’re comfortable in this story, but let me tell you maybe they wore these kinds of clothes and maybe this sort of thing happened. Maybe they didn’t all wear big hats and speak with a drawl. Maybe the hero was just this normal, well-intentioned, blustering kind of guy who stumbles on the right thing to do.”

That’s certainly one film in which you create an atmosphere where everything is up for grabs at any moment. It’s a film where the entire mood, in fact, can shift at any moment.
Yeah, but you know when we first came out with McCabe it was probably the least successful of all my films. It didn’t do any business whatsoever. It grossed nothing. And Warner Brothers dropped it like a hot potato. Some critics were terrific with it, but the box office wasn’t. It’s the last thing I ever did for Warner Brothers. I don’t know how McCabe and Mrs. Miller managed to survive, but it did and I must say it’s thrilling to me. —Robert Altman by Albert Mobilio

Robert Altman visited the Dick Cavett Show for an episode that aired in its ABC Late Night slot on January 19th, 1972. The episode covered four directors, the star-studded roster also including Frank Capra, Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks. Altman’s films of note at this point, according to his introduction, were MASH, Brewster McCloud and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Cavett chats with Altman in his always amiable manner, discussing Altman’s relationship with these films after they’ve been completed, Hugh Millais in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the recently wrapped Images, Altman’s belief that the medium of film has not been fully explored and ultimately Altman’s drinking and partying habits. Altman would return again to The Dick Cavett Show in Fall 1978. —Robert Altman on The Dick Cavett Show

Director Robert Altman describes his working philosophy, often comparing filmmaking to painting, and discusses the sources of his storytelling and directing techniques he used on films like M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and The Player (1992). —Visual History with Robert Altman

Vilmos Zsigmond’s contribution is essential to the dreamy, melancholic beauty of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He flashed the negative of the entire film, giving it a suffused pastel look, and further distilled the image with double Fog filters, force developing and smoke. Vilmos laughs as he recalls his daring anamorphic cinematography: “I did everything I could to destroy the image! It’s all due to Altman, who was very adventurous.” —Zsigmond Zooms

I learned how to use the zoom lens with Robert Altman. The first week I was watching him all the time. I was only operating the second camera, so when only one camera was rolling, I was watching what he liked to do. The camera was always moving, dollying, slowly. —Vilmos Zsigmond

Zsigmond recalled many years ago in London when Altman and Stanley Kubrick ran into each other after seeing each other’s films, McCabe and 2001. “Robert,” gushed Kubrick, “those zoom lens shots are incredible. Did you do it yourself?” Altman replied, “No, my cinematographer does that.” “And you trust him?” Kubrick shot back. —Vilmos Zsigmond on McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Vilmos Zsigmond, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer and co-founder of the Global Cinematography Institute, joined the Higher Learning audience for an in-depth master class and a look back at his 50-year career at the forefront of the industry. Giving examples from his impressive resume, which includes collaborations with directors Woody Allen, Robert Altman, John Boorman, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma, and Steven Spielberg, Zsigmond described the intimate working relationship between director and cinematographer. Other topics included on-set improvisation versus strict adherence to a script; black and white cinematography versus colour; the emergence of digital technologies; and celluloid’s important role in the history of cinema.

Criterion’s edition of McCabe & Mrs. Miller includes a new behind-the-scenes documentary that features interviews with members of the film’s cast and crew. In the following excerpt, watch Joan Tewkesbury, who was Altman’s script supervisor on the film, and actor René Auberjonois discuss Beatty and Christie’s on-screen magnetism and their working methods on set.

On the 5 February 2002, Stephen Woolly interviewed Robert Altman for the David Lean Lecture series.

The great Robert Altman on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Photographed by Douglas Kirkland. Images courtesy of the U-M Special Collections Library, Sandcastle Productions, Steve Schapiro/Corbis, Bettmann/Corbis & AMPAS. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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