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revisiting mccabe & mrs. miller (robert altman, 1971)

I last wrote about McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 2013:

The shaggy-dog feel of the movie, which is v.Altmanesque, also takes a while for the viewer to get accustomed to. You have to give yourself over to the rhythms. Once you do, a lovely movie emerges, one that messes with genre just as surely as does The Long Goodbye. And for all its loveliness, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a very sad movie. But not sad in the cheap way of a standard weeper. Instead, it’s sad because we see how tentative is McCabe’s outward bravado, because we know that despite her competence, Mrs. Miller ends up in the opium den. We want the titular characters to have a happier ending, but that isn’t going to happen. And everything sneaks up on you, because when Altman is at his best, his movies always sneak up on you.

That post including a good comments section with Phil, who loves the film. That discussion helped me understand that I had buried the wrong lede. Because I started with a rant about Leonard Cohen. Now it is true that Cohen's music is important to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and that many people who love the film think Altman's use of Cohen is one of the best things about the movie. I was ready to change my mind with this re-watch. But it didn't work. I liked the movie even more than I did before, but I still see Cohen as a flaw, not a feature. Back in 2013, I admitted that this was "something silly in me", and I still accept that. For me, the film would have played better without any Cohen songs. Even in the great and famous final scene, I found myself wishing there would be no Cohen song. But I can't be trusted here, so let me give Phil the last word: "I can't imagine McCabe & Mrs. Miller without Cohen. (And if I try, I get a movie that's hard to follow, harder to hear, and wouldn't be half as evocative.)"

Vilmos Zsigmond was the director of photography. Zsigmond had one of the great movie lives. Born in Hungary, he escaped after the Hungarian Revolution with his friend, László Kovács. Zsigmond went on to have a long and prestigious career, winning an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and being a part of some of the best American movies of the 70s and beyond. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was his breakthrough ... to say his resume before then was unconventional is an understatement. Among the films he worked on in the 60s: The Sadist, The Nasty Rabbit, Rat Fink, Psycho A-Go-Go, and other classics.

Finally, give it up for Manfred Schulz, who does a creepy-good job as a young gunslinger.  As far as I can tell, this was his only film. Here is his big scene:

Yes, that's Keith Carradine, in his film debut. This is as much as I can find about Schulz. Someone named Linda Berg commented on the above video, saying "I remember when this film was filmed here in Vancouver. The role of the gunslinger played by Manfred Shultz, from Richmond BC. My family knew his family, his dad was our plumber. There were high hopes held for Manfred but he didn't go much further in acting." #225 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

[Edited to add Letterboxd list, Top 5 Robert Altman Movies]



You've got me so interested about this film and the larger context of its reception. As soon as I'm back to myself I'm going to visit it. I just saw the ending and was blow away.

Steven Rubio

I couldn't find a copy online, but the Blu-ray includes an appearance by Pauline Kael on the Dick Cavett show where she champions the film. When she loved an Altman film, she really loved it (although you could probably say that for a lot of her faves).

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