Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons from Criterion’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

“Masterpiece” is a word that gets bandied around far too often, to the point of devaluing its meaning. In reality, few moviemakers have a masterpiece in them. In the grand scheme, most people’s best work still falls short of transcendent greatness. 1971’s McCabe & Mrs Miller arguably marks the first of numerous masterpieces from the late Robert Altman.

An uncompromising moviemaker, Altman took the aural experimentations that he began with M.A.S.H., and ramped them to 11. While initially condemned, the film had a few champions—including renowned critic Pauline Kael—who helped to elevate the films status over the years. Now, 45 years following its theatrical debut, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not only a testament to American auteurism and the independent spirit but also remains one of the most important pieces in the Western film canon.

After wallowing in home video hell for years, the film has finally been given the restoration it deserves courtesy of The Criterion Collection’s 4K scan. This collection also contains an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich; a new making-of documentary that features both cast and crew anecdotes and an interview between historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, both of which help to position the film’s cultural and historical context; and various archival footage, as well as the 2002 audio commentary with Robert Altman and producer David Foster.

Lessons in Trusting Your Intuition

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a deep, complex film that explores humanity, corruption, authority and love through the prism of a developing area in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a Western but void of nearly all the trappings that film fans come to expect. Warren Beatty toys with that duality, creating a character in John McCabe that is ostensibly the iconic cowboy—rugged, handsome, confident and charismatic—but just beneath the surface lies a frail and scared man that threatens the archetype. His opposite in Mrs. Miller—performed to near perfection by Julie Christie—rises above the shackles that have bound her cinematic precedents, and emerges as the film’s toughest and smartest character.

In the extra features, Rene Auberjonois (who plays Sheehan) regales that it wasn’t so much that Altman had developed a certain amount of directorial power by 1971 (Warner Bros. still fought him tooth and nail on creative differences), but that, by the time he was ready to make McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he had learned how to get what he wanted. In this light, moviemakers still have a lot to learn from Altman, a director who quite literally broke the rules in order to achieve his brand of greatness. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a testament to this tendency. Altman didn’t trust the infallibility of cinematic conventions; Altman trusted Altman.

The importance of an intuitive approach is restated by nearly every member of the cast and crew that worked on McCabe & Mrs. Miller in these special features. Whether it be in hiring an inexperienced script supervisor (Altman never listened to them anyway); eschewing traditional auditions in favor of discerning the essence of people; or even the bold (and very successful) move of casting real-estate developer Hugh Milias to play McCabe’s foil (a lynchpin to the film), everything that works in the film works because Altman trusted his gut instincts. Perhaps not every moviemaker will have the instincts that Altman cultivated, but learning to trust your vision and being willing to overlook instant success can take you far. In a world of instant gratification, be mindful about the longevity of your craft.

Warren Beatty (L), Vilmos Zsigmond (C) and Robert Altman (R) on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Courtesy Warner Bros.

Altman’s boldest experiments were (famously) in the way that he handled his audio tracks. As he recounts in the Dick Cavett interview featured on this disc, some of the complaints of the muddiness of the soundtrack were actually a result of a poor audio mix at an early press screening and have, over the years, taken on a life of their own outside of this original context. Perhaps Pauline Kael, in her own featured spot on The Dick Cavett Show (also included on this disc), said it best when she claimed, “You hear only what you need. Most of the words in movies aren’t worth hearing.” Regardless of the relative unimportance of the film’s dialogue, Criterion’s audio mix is a refreshing enhancement to the overall experience. 

Teamed with Vilmos Zsigmond’s foggy, tight and roaming cinematography and production designer Leon Ericksen’s beautiful yet dingy work, McCabe & Mrs. Miller delivers for viewers an authentic feeling of being a fly on the wall: You can smell the musk, feel the cold and experience the disorienting newness of the universe Altman develops. McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s lesson is that of innovation.

Special Features

There are a number of remarkable extra features included on this disc, but perhaps the most comprehensive is a 50-minute, newly commissioned behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. In this piece, it is quite unanimously apparent that McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s greatest strength is Altman himself. Together with the separate interview with the late Zsigmond, cast and crew members constantly recall adapting their styles to fit what Altman saw in them.

Altman knew his team. Rather than fight with the star when Beatty wanted to run more takes (despite Altman’s assertion that he’d gotten what he needed), he would leave the set with the crew to keep filming. It’s likely that none of those subsequent takes were ever used in the final product, but Altman got his way while still allowing Beatty’s ego to be stroked. It’s anecdotes like this—quite liberally sprinkled across all of the extras—that illuminate how intelligent and important a director he was. Applying Altman’s dogged approach to managing the multiple personalities of a shoot, moviemakers can hone an on-set leadership style that achieves efficiency without compromising aesthetic ambition.

Constance Miller (Julie Christie) runs her brothel with an iron fist. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Zsigmond humorously talks about how he has never been a fan of zooms, and how (even though he credits Altman in teaching him how to use the zoom by incorporating panning and dollying in order to hide the artifice) he remains unmoved by that kind of cinematography. But, it’s hard to argue with the results, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains one of Zsigmond’s most visually stunning features.

Though the 1999 Art Director’s Guild Film Society Q&A with Leon Ericksen is quite informative, especially in terms of opening up the far-too-often ignored world of production design, the real archival treats are the two aforementioned Dick Caveat interview spots. Kael’s piece in particular gives life to an iconic figure who is far more read than heard. In person, Kael’s hard edge comes off as far more sympathetic than her writing sometimes allows, and seeing her champion the film is a real treat. Likewise, Altman’s larger-than-life persona is captured effectively as he exchanges jokes with Cavett about the trials and tribulations of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which had, at that point, already begun to find its following.

The Takeaway

Aside from catching a screening on celluloid, never before have moviemakers and film lovers of all stripes been able to witness the power of Altman’s vision as strongly as on Criterion’s Blu-ray edition. With its hefty set of extras, this package was worth the extended wait. While M.A.S.H. and Brewster McCloud set the stage for his career trajectory and formal experimentation, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is Altman’s true original magnum opus. Every element of the film works together in unison and they all stem from deliberate choices from the director. One of his most quintessentially American films, McCabe & Mrs. Miller reveals Altman to be the quintessential American auteur. MM

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was released by Criterion on Blu-ray and DVD October 11, 2016.

Next week’s Criterion Crash Course: Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro, a lavishly designed Blu-ray and DVD box set with a deluxe hardcover book that includes writer-director Guillermo del Toro‘s dark fantastical trilogy of Spanish-language features: CronosThe Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Other titles in Criterion’s October line-up:

A new stand-alone Blu-ray and DVD edition of Guillermo del Toro’s haunting, fairy tale-fashioned allegory of Franco-fascist Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth // Ermanno Olmi’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs, an engrossing snapshot of rural Italian life at the turn of the 20th century // The Executioner, a pitch-black political satire by Luis García Berlanga, who moviemaker Pedro Almodóvar hails as “the true father of Spanish cinema” // Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s 12-year-spanning narrative of one boy’s journey through early childhood and adolescence, and a Blu-ray edition of Robert Altman’s multi-segmented adaptation of Raymond Carver stories, Short Cuts.

Criterion Giveaway: Every week, we’re giving away a different Criterion title to one lucky winner. To enter the draw, all you have to do is subscribe to our newsletter! Full instructions here, and follow @moviemakermag on Facebook and Twitter for announcements on every week’s title.

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