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Warner Home Video presents
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

"So far, you've cost me nothing but money and pain. Pain, pain, pain."
- John Q. McCabe (Warren Beatty)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: June 04, 2002

Stars: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois
Other Stars: John Schuck, William Devane, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Keith Carradine, Hugh Millais
Director: Robert Altman

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: R for (language, nudity, sex, drug use, violence, gore, thematic material)
Run Time: 02h:00m:51s
Release Date: June 04, 2002
UPC: 085391105527
Genre: western

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+C-C- B+

DVD Review

In the 1960s and the 1970s the horse opera vision of the Western film underwent a massive change. While Sam Peckinpah was turning the genre into a gory ballet of violent death, Robert Altman gave the Western a modern sensibility in his seminal McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Defying conventions, Altman tacks violent and sexual themes onto a fairly pedestrian story, resulting in a well-respected picture that changed the field completely and made possible such later films as Unforgiven.

Gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) comes to the Washington hamlet of Presbyterian Church in 1902 aiming to supply the local miners with prostitutes and to establish a saloon and gambling house. When Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town, she proposes a partnership to set up a high-class whorehouse. Their success helps build the town, and when the mining company makes McCabe an offer, he refuses, thinking he can negotiate further. Unfortunately for him, the mining company has a more aggressive view of second-round negotiations, sending three killers after him.

The first part of the film tends to drag a bit, partly due to Beatty's deadpan portrayal of McCabe. That all changes once Christie comes onstage, however, and she provides the film with a great deal of life as the Cockney madam. As is usual in an Altman film, the supporting cast is highly enjoyable. Keith Carradine, in his first role, is terrific as a wide-eyed innocent making his way through the ladies of the brothel. Rene Auberjonois is also highly effective as the competing saloonkeeper, as is Shelley Duvall as a young widow who takes up prostitution out of desperation.

Despite Robert Altman's reported disdain for story, his concluding sequence is a masterpiece of storytelling and suspense. As Beatty tries to deal with the three hired killers, in a genuine blizzard, the editing and pacing work perfectly against the unique setting. Other than that, however, Altman largely jettisons genre conventions and simply focuses on character relations and their human failings.

The soundtrack boasts a number of songs by Leonard Cohen (only a short sequence was done expressly for the film), and they are fit perfectly to the mood of the film. In the commentary, Altman acknowledges that the lyrics of the songs may well have influenced his shooting of the picture. The rest of the score is provided by onscreen source music, such as a fiddler and a music box. The unorthodox music for a Western helps make this a memorable picture, as does the chilling conclusion.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture has some serious limitations, apparently as a result of the source print. This print features more grain than I think I've ever seen on a movie. Despite being allowed two layers of DVD for the film, such heavy grain (not to mention the concluding snowstorm) is a compressionist's nightmare, and the result offers a good deal of sparkling effect that's clearly not intended. Because it seems to have been shot in extremely low light, much of the film also looks murky and is difficult to make out. The color scheme is almost entirely variations on brown, apparently by intention, as if it were a living sepia-tone photo gallery. Thus the usual comments on color are not appropriate here.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: The audio has its problems as well. There is a ton of hiss and extraneous noise present, both of which I found extremely distracting. That's particularly unfortunate in an Altman picture, since you often have numerous people talking over each others' lines, and the result is even more difficult than was intended. The Cohen music sounds quite good, on the other hand, for a 1.0 mono track.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 33 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Robert Altman and producer David Foster
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:01m:16s

Extra Extras:
  1. Japanese subtitles to commentary
Extras Review: The disc boasts a commentary by the director and producer. The commentary is generally informative, though about halfway through there is a long dead spot where the participants resort to narration. The two must have been recorded separately and edited together, since they directly contradict each other a few times, without comment (notably, the producer says that the original book was great, while Altman dismisses it as clichéd junk). There are quite a few interesting stories, one of the best relating to how Cohen's songs came to be attached to the picture. There are also a couple of factual errors by Altman, such as claiming that the minister's confrontation with McCabe in the church is the first time he speaks, even though he does so at least twice earlier, in the tavern and at the funeral of Shelley Duvall's husband. But for the most part it contains interesting anecdotes and technical information regarding cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's look for the film. Oddly enough, the commentary has an optional and unadvertised Japanese subtitle track. Perhaps Robert Altman is more popular in Japan than I'm aware.

Rounding out the package is a 9m:32s studio puff piece, though it does contain a fair amount of behind-the-scenes footage. Brief filmographies for Beatty and Christie are included, as is a trailer that has much more color than the film proper.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Robert Altman's classic warping of the Western genre unfortunately doesn't translate all that well to the DVD medium. Some good extras make it worth investigating nonetheless.


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