Tuesday, 23 May 2017

McCABE & MRS. MILLER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Heartbreaking Altman on Criterion Blu

Booze, brothels, love and tragedy in the Old West.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Dir. Robert Altman
Nvl. Edmund Naughton
Scr. Altman and Brian McKay
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, René Auberjonois, Michael Murphy,
Antony Holland, Bert Remsen, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, William Devane,
John Schuck, Hugh Millais, Jace Van Der Veen, Manfred Schulz, Corey Fischer

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Under the big grey skies of Washington State, a stranger slowly rides from out of the wet greenery of a boreal forest and heads straight for the tiny, squalid, muddy little mining town of Presbyterian Church. His name is John McCabe (Warren Beatty). On the outskirts, away from prying eyes, he removes the bulky fur coat he's been wearing to shield himself from the damp cold of the Pacific Northwest. He's all about appearances, you see. As soon as he reveals what's beneath the fur we know this all too well. Wearing a clean burgundy sport jacket, crisp white shirt, handsome black diamond-shaped tie and grey vest, he pops a smart bowler hat on his head - all in marked contrast to the grimy attire of the town's denizens.

In the old west, when a stranger rides into town, people notice. Anonymity becomes just a fleeting memory. John McCabe is a gambler, businessman and, it is whispered, a gunfighter. He wants to make an impression and he wants it to stick, like flies to shit, like peanut butter in the craw and the ties that bind.

Though his entrance is adorned with the surface tropes of the genre, director Robert Altman, like his protagonist McCabe, is all about appearances too. He wants us to know we're watching a western, but good goddamn, it's not going to be like any western we've ever seen.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a true original - the kind of movie we seldom see anymore, at least not from any major Hollywood studio. Ah, but it was 1971 when this picture first rode into town and it was, for all its bold, fresh innovation, a movie that was produced under the aegis of Warner Brothers, a studio which, up to that point always broke molds (think: the first major sound picture The Jazz Singer, Busby Berkeley, gritty dirty 30s crime pictures and, uh, Casablanca anyone?). These days we're more likely to see the Warners' banner in front of machine-tooled Harry Potter movies, the turgid Dark Knight turds of Christopher Nolan and (God Help Us!!!), Peter Jackson's unwatchable Hobbit series. (In fairness to the studio, they have, of late, delivered the unique Zack Snyder and David Ayer re-imaginings of the DC comic book universe, though all of those pictures have been panned by most of the contemporary scribes purporting to be "critics".)

Oh, but this was the 70s, the greatest decade in movie history and Warner Bros. (my personal favourite of all the studios) green-lit McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a haunting, leisurely-paced and decidedly elegiac western. I had, of course, seen several million westerns in movie theatres with my Dad, but at the age of twelve, as I sat in a first-run movie theatre (a 1500-seat picture palace, no less), positioned next to dear Pater, I knew, I knew even then, at that tender age, based solely on the aforementioned first few minutes, that I was watching something I'd never seen before and now, so many decades later, as I sat in front of my Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Robert Altman's movie, I thought, "You know, I've not seen anything like this since".

Of course it's different. These are not wide open dusty spaces with the phallic ancient outcroppings of Monument Valley rock under sunny skies. We're surrounded by mist, virtually claustrophobic greenery and most of all, as Vilmos Zsigmond's floating camera captures the rain intermittently pouring, streets filled with murky pools of water, soupy streets of mud, somber, peppery clouds above a ramshackle village, the soundtrack is neither Elmer Bernstein bombast nor, even, Ennio Morricone whistles and twangs.

We hear, Leonard Cohen.

"It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender,
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender. And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
you find he did not leave you very much
not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

Cohen's "The Stranger Song" is not only the opening theme music of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but its haunting lyrics and melody become a main theme throughout the picture. Along with other great works by the late Canadian troubadour, we hear lively fiddles as source music played by Presbyterian Church local musicians and a series of haunting guitar riffs performed by Cohen. Most notable is the location sound and very subtle foley, capturing the unique aural qualities of life in an isolated community during the latter part of 19th century America, but lest we forget, there is the unique Altman dialogue recording. When people speak, we hear what we'd hear in any crowded room - the blend of voices, overlapping conversations and the only time any words are crystal clear is when we absolutely need to hear them.

Mumbling is also a recurring auditory motif, but brilliantly, Altman uses it mostly for McCabe himself as a delightful character trait. McCabe mumbles - only when he's alone. He's a man used to being alone for large periods of his life and as such, he thinks aloud. (The first time McCabe speaks he's alone, on the periphery of the town and yes, mumbling to himself.)

Yes, this is a western. On the surface we've seen this story many times. A stranger comes to a small town, immediately spots the burgeoning glory of opportunity, sets up a successful business, spurns the advances of corrupt powerful corporate interests to buy him out and is then swiftly assailed by hired killers, their goal to rub him out permanently and secure his valuable holdings for zilch.

Ah, but that's merely the outward narrative coat hanger. The picture is so, so much more than this simple exterior. The heart and soul of the movie is a love story. After all, Altman has chosen to eschew the simple "McCabe" title of the Edmund Naughton novel the film is based on and append the "& Mrs. Miller" to the title of the movie itself. And then there are the songs by Leonard Cohen. In addition to "The Stranger Song" we also get to hear "Sisters of Mercy" and "Winter Lady" (all three released in 1971 as a 7" single on vinyl which, I still own). Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) is the gorgeous, classy (in spite of her Cockney accent) prostitute/madame who goes into business with McCabe, helping him wrangle a stable of women. Like the song says:

Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long.

Indeed, it is the whores who offer McCabe some fleeting glory and solace and in turn serve the needs of men in the village - those who stay, and those who pass through. Inevitably, and perhaps most sadly of all, it is the sisters of mercy who remain a constant presence. Others might come, and others, most notably McCabe himself, may go. The women, however, are ever-present.

Mrs. Miller, the "Winter Lady" of Cohen's song, will indeed remain.

Trav'ling lady, stay awhile
Until the night is over.
I'm just a station on your way,
I know I'm not your lover.

Ah, but he is her lover. Though they are business partners and though Mrs. Miller charges McCabe for all their evenings of bedroom gymnastics, she indeed experiences a love she's never known. The sorrow she eventually will feel is so devastating that she will be drawn to the mind numbing properties of opium. The town is misty, not just with the fog of the Pacific Northwest, but the haze of poppy seeds.

This is a movie that seems fuel-injected with sorrow and though it's set in a time and place so long ago and far away, Robert Altman has crafted a film that is not only perfect in every respect, but is as universal in its exploration of both corporate exploitation and humanity (specifically in the complexities of love) - now, as much as it was in 1971.

The character trait of McCabe mumbling to himself is not only a wonderful "quirk", but it's used to great effect in one of the most moving and tragic on-screen monologues in movie history. After McCabe has attempted to "reason" with one of the assassins, we find him in the deep darkness of an early morning winter, burning the midnight oil. Downing a few shots of booze, putting some final grooming touches to his appearance and slowly loading bullets into his gun before handily affixing his holster, he looks out his window and notices the warm glow coming from across the way at the whorehouse where Mrs. Miller is servicing a client.

Whilst performing his ablutions and the rituals of preparing for what will, no doubt, be a series of urgent encounters, McCabe does indeed mumble to himself, maybe for the last time:

"I tell ya', sometimes, sometimes when I take a look at you, I just keep lookin' and a'lookin' so I won't feel your little body up against me so bad I think I'm gonna bust. I keep trying' to tell ya' in a lotta different ways... well I'll tell ya' something, I got poetry in me, I do, I got poetry in me, but I ain't gonna put it down on paper. I ain't no educated man. I got sense enough not to try."

Eventually, Altman expertly stages one of cinema's most tense western showdowns. The church is burning down. The whole town is empty and desperately trying to quell the flames. Snow is falling heavily. Three armed dangerous killers are on the hunt. McCabe is alone. Guns will blast and blood will spill, spattering crimson upon the white blanket resting heavily upon the ground of Presbyterian Church, Washington.

There is no urgent musical score; only the sounds of breathing, footsteps upon the snow and the wind - oh, the howling wind. And every so often, we are jolted with shotgun blasts and the sickening sounds of shattering glass.

Mrs. Miller is nowhere to be seen. There is, you see, an opium den in town.

Well I lived with a child of snow
When I was a soldier,
And I fought every man for her
Until the nights grew colder.

A man of poetry is fighting for his life. A sister of mercy wants to forget.

Life is just like that sometimes.


McCabe & Mrs. Miller is available on the Criterion Collection and includes a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a 2002 commentary with Altman and producer David Foster, new making-of documentary, new conversation about the film and Altman’s career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, 1970 production featurette, 1999 Art Directors Guild Film Society Q&A with production designer Leon Ericksen, excerpts from archival interviews with Vilmos Zsigmond, gallery of on-set stills, excerpts from 1971 episodes of "The Dick Cavett Show" featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael, the trailer and an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.