McCabe & Mrs. Miller

January 28, 2012 8 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

The town of Presbyterian Church has been built from the ground up by the working-class people who inhabit it. It’s not a big town, there’s only a few businesses and the rest is for the workers of the mine. It’s not a pretty town, either; it serves its purpose. That’s it. And then John McCabe (Warren Beatty) walks into town, literally. McCabe is more of a businessman, the only other real "business" in town is the local restaurant/bar in which the town’s residents eat on a daily basis. McCabe plans to change all of that by playing some poker, winning money and setting up a little business of his own. Let it be said that in a town full of mostly men, there is one thing that’s constantly on their mind. Sex. McCabe takes his money and his winnings from a poker game and buys three women and literally hauls them into town for the sole purpose of prostitution. The women (and men, in fact) aren’t very attractive. One is so skinny it’s almost disgusting, one is the exact opposite. The women have one job and that’s to sell their bodies to the men of the town. They don’t mind. It’s a way of life.

And then Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) comes to town on a wagon, alongside a mail order bride. Mrs. Miller wants the same thing that McCabe wants. She wants to make a business out of prostitution, but unlike McCabe; she knows how to do it right. After convincing him to go in as partners (he fronts the money), she tells him of all of the horrors of an "uninformed" person running a brothel. "What if the women get pregnant?", "If left alone, they’ll turn to God…" and so on. McCabe is convinced and she ships in some much more attractive women for the town. Of course, with the "better" women, comes the higher prices. Even she is for sale herself, though she comes at a higher price–$5.00. Building some new buildings, a bath house for the women and men alike (at a price, of course), the town starts to experience some growth. And when things seem their best, some businessmen from out of town come in and try to buy them out. McCabe, thinking it’s just a higher-stakes game of poker, tries to bargain with them but quickly learns that he’s way out of his league.

Director Robert Altman has come up with some masterpieces in his time. From M*A*S*H and Nashville to more modern works like Short Cuts and The Player. Some call this his finest work, as the camera moves very methodically around the town of Presbyterian Church. Taking place in the barren outback of the Pacific Northwest, this movie isn’t happy. It’s depressing in fact. The characters are real, they’re established and Altman captures the mood of the town almost perfectly. The ending isn’t happy, even though in the commentary they toyed with the idea of making the "Hollywood Ending" happy and wondered if it would affect the gross of the film. Originally entitled "The Presbyterian Church Wager", the film’s title was changed due to a reaction from (you guessed it), the Presbyterian Church. Beatty is at his best and Julie Christie’s cockney accent, though out of place, works for her here. If you’re looking for an uplifting movie, this is not it. If you’re looking for one of Altman’s better efforts, this is it. McCabe & Mrs. Miller works on many levels, though it wasn’t a hit at the time, the film has gathered a lot of critical praise over the years. Give it a try, and appreciate how well this film works.

Video: How does it look?

As with most of Warner’s catalog titles, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has been given a brand new anamorphic transfer. A new High Definition master was created and it’s very obvious that some scenes benefit greatly from it. A majority of the film is shot in a dreary, grey backdrop with snow falling. Though some of the outdoor shots appear to be crystal clear, there are some more dimly lit scenes that show a lot of grain and some artifacting. The 2.35:1 image is perfect for framing the town and all of it’s residents as well. Flesh tones vary, as they are shot in many different types of light, but I’ve only seen this on home video on a full-frame transfer and the difference is amazing. While it’s not reference quality, it’s a giant step forward and another testament to anamorphic DVD.

Audio: How does it sound?

Not many of Altman’s movies would really benefit from a strong soundtrack, as such the original mono mix is included. To say that the movie is dialogue-driven is an understatement and the only real depth comes from the folk music ballads of Leonard Cohen. To hear the songs and dialogue of the movie, you can tell it’s an early 70’s film. It’s dated. Still, the audio is about the least important thing here and the audio is just good enough to not be a nuisance. The sound suffices, but it’s what is going on screen that is important.

Supplements: What are the extras?

While not a full-blown special edition, there is a rather informative commentary track with Altman and Producer David Foster. Most of their banter is talk about the actual production (they actually built the town from scratch for the movie) and some details about the film do come up. They talk of the film’s lack of success and of work with Beatty and Christie. It’s a good track and true fans of the movie will find it very interesting. Also shown is a featurette (the box calls it a documentary). It focuses on the building of the town, the crew that built and designed the set and the timeframe that they shot in. It’s shown in full-frame and was made at the time of the film’s release. A nice touch. A theatrical trailer is shown in anamorphic widescreen and some very limited cast bios are included as well.

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