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‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’: Film Review

Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a disappointing mixture. A period story about a small northwest mountain village where stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie run the bordello, the production suffers from overlength; also a serious effort at moody photography which backfires into pretentiousness; plus a diffused comedy-drama plot line which is repeatedly shoved aside in favor of bawdiness.

MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, Warren Beatty,
Courtesy Everett Collection

McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Robert Altman’s latest film, is a disappointing mixture which succumbs to its liabilities despite some key creative assets. A period story about a small northwest mountain village where stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie run the bordello, the David Foster-Mitchell Brower production suffers from overlength; also a serious effort at moody photography which backfires into pretentiousness; plus a diffused comedy-drama plot line which is repeatedly shoved aside in favor of bawdiness that often becomes tastelessly vulgar; and a soundtrack which aimed for naturalistic, overlapping lines but wound up as largely inaudible mumbling. The Warner Bros, release, opening today in N.Y., will benefit from the star casting, and its commercial prospects may ironically be best among less sophisticated audiences, not those for which the film obviously was made.

Edmund Naughton’s novel, “McCabe,” was shot around Vancouver under the title, “The Presbyterian Church Wager,” named for a fictional town, itself named after a church built by eccentric Corey Fischer. Rene Auberjonols is top featured as a saloon-bordello owner whose monopoly on fun and games is broken by roving gambler Beatty. Miss Christie becomes Beatty’s partner in the flourishing enterprise. Michael Murphy and Antony Holland, repping a real estate and mining company, are snubbed in offer to buy up Beatty’s holdings. They send in a goon squad to kill Beatty, but he manages to outwit the trio of killers, only to suffer a fate worse than death.

Vilmos Zsigmond (with Rod Parkhurst on second unit camera) lensed In Panavision and a series of moody hues processed by Alpha Cine. Technicolor struck the prints (a careful and occasional distinction from being responsible for the negative quality). Leon Ericksen was production designer. The visual look of the film has what must be considered a sort of technical brilliance and consistency; however, the end result often resembles a 10th-generation pirated print which may infuriate some drive-in patrons.

Fully a quarter or more of the film’s 121 sluggish minutes pass before the story begins to move.

Though all supporting players (many used consistently by Altman) come across very well, Beatty seems either miscast or misdirected. His own youthful looks cannot be concealed by a beard, makeup, a grunting voice and jerky physical movements; the effect resembles a high-school thesp playing Rip Van Winkle. Miss Christie on the other hand is excellent.

Other strong performances include Hugh Lillais as the hired killer; Keith Carradine as a gawky cowboy; William Devane as a pompous lawyer; Auberjonois; and John Schuck, Beatty’s right-hand man.

Film’s pacing accelerates as time passes, and the plot gains some traction and audience interest.
Louis Lombardo edited (also directed the second unit). Other technical credits are good. It is entirely possible that this film, like “Paint Your Wagon,” may eventually find a receptive market which was not the primary target, but patience and probing will be necessary.

–Murf

1971: Nomination: Best Actress (Julie Christie)

‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’: Film Review

  • Production: Warner. Director Robert Altman; Producer David Foster, Mitchell Brower; Screenplay Robert Altman, Brian McKay; Camera Vilmos Zsigmond; Editor Louis Lombardo; Music Leonard Cohen; Art Director Leon Ericksen
  • Crew: (Color) Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Extract of a review from 1971. Running time: 121 MIN.
  • With: Warren Beatty Julie Christie Rene Auberjonois William Devane Shelley Duvall Keith Carradine
  • Music By: