Re-watching Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) this week—the film recently made its Blu-ray debut, courtesy of Criterion—it occurred to me just how many of the great films are about the transportation of the viewer to some fabulously realized other place: the convent in the Himalayas in Black Narcissus, the wintry Venice of Don’t Look Now, the wilds of 19th-century New Zealand in The Piano, the verdant and enigmatic nowhere-space of Stalker. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the most atmospheric of any of Altman’s films and probably the most subtle in its tonality, is set in a world of animal skins and kerosene lamps, ice and rain—to whit, Presbyterian Church, a frontier shanty town attempting to take root in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a world that’s punishing, cold, damp. But there is an unlikely poetry there, and Altman regards it with the same blissed-out haziness of focus exhibited by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) herself when, at the very end of the film, she’s revealed to be strung out in the town’s opium den, transfixed by an iridescent vase that she turns over and over in her hand.
That haziness of focus could be said to be the defining feature of McCabe and Mrs. Miller: it governs nearly every aspect of the film, from Vilmos Zsigmond’s diffuse lighting to Leonard Cohen’s plangent, haunting song score. Like so many of Altman’s films, McCabe is less about plot than it is about the creation of a whole living environment, and less about individual characters than about communities of people. True, it’s hard to watch the movie and not come away remembering Warren Beatty’s rakish smile or Julie Christie coyly peeking out from the edge of a bedsheet. But you also come away remembering everyone else with whom these two movie stars share the spaces of Presbyterian Church. You remember the barkeep who’s debating whether or not to shave off his whiskers, and the wide eyes of Shelley Duvall as a widowed mail-order bride, and the winsomeness of Keith Carradine, with his beanpole frame and beautiful gormless smile, as the cowboy who enjoys a spree at Mrs. Miller’s whorehouse before getting shot and dying in the frozen river like a dog. And the flickering of Julie Christie’s eyes in the candlelight of the saloon and Carradine padding about the parlor of the brothel in his long-johns and the scowling, sneering faces of the whores and the men dragging their heavy bearskin coats through the snow. And that sagging rope bridge and the skeletal frame of the still-being-built church that almost succumbs to fire. Watching McCabe and Mrs. Miller you feel like Pauline Kael was onto something when she said that Altman was the only filmmaker who could have adapted the novels of William Faulkner, because he would have been sensitive to their material texture, their ugliness and their poetry. McCabe isn’t a film; it’s a world.