McCabe & Mrs Miller Review

Robert Altman has a reputation for subversion as a filmmaker. His film M.A.S.H is a heart-breaking absurdist comedy of a war film and The Player is the perfect send-up of Hollywood. McCabe & Mrs Miller, while not funny, is similarly rebellious, and now available on Blu-ray courtesy of the Premium Collection. In the small frontier town of Presbyterian Church, McCabe (Warren Beatty), a lone gambler rides into town. While there he sets himself up as the owner of a saloon and brothel. Not long after, a madam called Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town with a business proposition, and the two become leading figures in the development of the town. However, a mining company with a reputation for murder has eyes on the business and attempts to deal with McCabe to buy him out.

Typical westerns are stories of horseback heroes amid the harsh wilderness setting often called upon to protect a town from Natives or ranchers; they are pivotal in the frontier myth of the Western. McCabe and Mrs Miller has none of this grand narrative. Instead we have an ensemble cast where McCabe and Mrs Miller, who happen to be the most interesting parts of story, head what feels like a truncated Television show along the lines of Deadwood (which clearly took inspiration from this).

From the abrupt climax, the poor decisions of our main leads and the general brutality of the time, place and characters, the reality grounds and adds a texture to McCabe & Mrs Miller that is unmistakable. Each actor, Beatty, Christie, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, René Auberjonois, et al disappear into the town of Presbyterian Church. Covered with beards and dirt, each character cannot be removed from the whole without a distinct lack being prevalent. It is through the presentation of these characters and the harshness of their lives that we see what living in the West was really like; the drug addiction, misogyny, disease, murder, prostitution, inhospitable climates and cruelty. All of of these systematically strip the romantic notion of the western down to its ugly, brutish bones. However, the thing that really encapsulates the tone of the film are the three songs written by Leonard Cohen which are a melancholy accompaniment to the lives we are peering in on.

The authenticity stretches past the story and into the construction of the sets -these were built as production commenced so the town grew as the film went on. Everything, the songs, sets, acting, and story combine to create something that is worthy of appreciation, not only for how it challenges grand mythic narratives of the American frontier, but also as a film in itself. The feats that the production crew performed, the overall tone and Robert Altman’s lead makes a film that you need to see at least once.

The disc itself I found to be a little odd. The visual track presented in a 1080p High definition 16x9 perfectly compliments the soft wooden interiors and at times cramped cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, and is without analogue or digital blemishes to marr the work. However, the soundtrack is a different story. Though it is presented in either a DTS-HD Master Audio or 2.0 Mono soundtrack, something in the transfer has made the audio sound muffled and quiet. This is coupled with an exaggerated hiss that you can get with the older film’s soundtrack and ageing equipment. While other releases of films of the same era or older have succeeded in removing that or minimising it, with McCabe & Mrs Miller, it is a mild disappointment at best and a distraction at worse.

Something else that I found odd about the disc was that not all the extras are on the Blu-ray. While the Blu-ray has the theatrical trailer and a 10-minute behind-the-scenes documentary made at the time of McCabe & Mrs Miller's release, it does not have the feature commentary track by Robert Altman and David Foster - that is included on the DVD only. It's a minor annoyance and as the set does also include the DVD and Digital download versions, it just means having to swap out the disc to watch with commentary, which in itself is insightful and entertaining.

Overall the Premium Collection release of McCabe & Mrs Miller is a fine disc. I would, perhaps, do some research on what other Blu-ray versions/restorations of this film are out there in order to get the most out of a great revisionist western and an excellent entry to the eclectic filmography of a master director, Robert Altman.

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Despite some issues with the audio and lack of extras of the Blu-ray Robert Altman's classic shines through.


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