4K UHD Review: McCabe & Mrs. Miller | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, April 16th, 2024  

McCabe & Mrs. Miller [4K UHD]

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Feb 14, 2024 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

To call Robert Altman’s 1971 masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller an “anti-Western” would be a bit reductive. Or so says film critic Rick Jewell when discussing the film with fellow historian Cari Beauchamp on one of the many special features on the new Criterion 4K edition of the film. McCabe & Mrs. Miller initially appears to be a long shot from the gun-slinging, jingoistic idealism of a John Wayne film. In actuality, the “stranger comes to new town and is able to save it from the clutches of the antagonist” arc of the typical Western narrative more than perfectly fits the bill of Altman’s early-career gem of a film.

Referred to by Altman as a “Western with no dust,” McCabe & Mrs. Miller takes place in the snowy, rainy, and generally gloomy town of Presbyterian Church, Washington right at the turn of the 20th century. Warren Beatty stars as the titular John McCabe, who with the help of a certain Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), establishes a brothel in the town and is able to bring in a considerable stream of revenue from it. An offer from a large mining company, however, proves to become the impetus for McCabe’s downfall.

In traditional Altman style, the film features an ensemble cast and was one of the first of his films to include his signature use of overlapping dialogue. In his classic review for the film, Roger Ebert pointed out that while McCabe is being introduced to patrons at a saloon, someone can clearly be heard asking, “Laura, what’s for dinner?” In an Altman film, there is no one particular string of conversation more important than another at any given time. People talk whenever they want, as they do in real life, and it’s not critical that you understand every little bit of information. Even Beatty complained to Altman during the making of the film, stating that the footsteps were more audible than the actual dialogue. In an Altman film, the viewer has to put in the footwork and become an active participant in the film to get a grasp of the narrative.

Just as important to the singular world of an Altman film is the cinematography and usage of music. Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shoots the town of Presbyterian Church with a soft, hazy glow. Interestingly enough, the unique look of the film comes from Zsigmond pre-flashing the film’s negative, giving it a grainy, earthy feel that reminds one of an old photograph. The film’s anachronistic usage of Leonard Cohen’s poetic folk songs, however, make the film feel timeless and not constrained to a single period or era.

All of the film’s visual and aural elements that make it so unique are enhanced and sharpened on the new Criterion 4K edition. Details such as the scruffiness on the beards of men and the dirtiness of the environment in which they live are vividly rendered in the new remaster, and the film’s original mono soundtrack comes with even more detail, while still keeping its signature hazy hum, matching the gauzy fuzziness of the cinematography.

The new 4K comes with all of the extensive special features from the 2016 Blu-ray. Among them is a 2002 audio commentary featuring Altman and the film’s producer, David Foster. There is also a near hour-long featurette on the making of the film, which features actors René Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy, along with the film’s casting director, Graeme Clifford, and script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury. All involved have nothing but praise and respect for Altman and the instinctive way in which he worked on his films.

Other features include an interview with Zsigmond, a vintage featurette shot during the film’s production, and two separate episodes of The Dick Cavett Show. The first episode is somewhat humorous, featuring renowned (and controversial) film critic Pauline Kael defending McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which opened to largely tepid reviews. The second one features Altman discussing the film as well as aspects of his personal life.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a Western for people who don’t like Westerns. The way it hits traditional narrative beats but subverts expectations in just about every other aspect is truly remarkable, and this new Criterion 4K edition does it complete and utter justice.



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