McCabe & Mrs Miller arose out of Warren Beatty’s frustrations with Robert Towne over finalising a script for Shampoo, his next pet project with his then lover, Julie Christie. If he thought he was frustrated with Towne, wait until he butted heads with his chosen McCabe director, Robert Altman.
The stop-gap movie script was based on the 1959 novel McCabe, by Edmund Naughton, and was adapted by Brian McKay. “It was one of the worst Western stories you ever heard,” Altman said, “It had all the cliches. This guy was a gambler, and she was a whore with a heart of gold.” So Altman and Beatty took it apart and rebuilt it using very little of it. He wanted “to take a very standard Western story with a classic line and do it real, or what I felt was real, and destroy all the myths of heroism.” So, in this bleak tale, McCabe, a mysterious stranger, sets up a whorehouse, quickly falls into business with Christie’s wilier Mrs. Miller, and fights a company takeover of his holdings in the bleak wintery northwest frontier town of Presbyterian Church. DoP Vilmos Zsigmond and Altman decided the film should look like it was actually filmed back in the 1800s. “If they had movies in those days [they] would look faded away, scratchy, grainy and very soft and no contrast. That’s why we used the flashing technique to underexpose the film,” Zsigmond told an audience after a Q&A screening of the film in Toronto in August 2014. (“Flashing” means lightly exposing a negative before shooting).
Beatty quickly realised Altman just wanted his stars to free-wheel improvise through the thing. Beatty demanded at least something on paper: “I think Altman was much more happy with a kind of hit-or-miss approach. My approach was more linear.”
Altman and Beatty wanted a new take on cliché situations, so the McCabe character is a subversion of the typical hero, and by extension, Beatty’s own star persona. He is foolish, out of his depth, a flummoxed chancer who mumbles to himself (“I got poetry in me!”). Christie’s Mrs Miller is a woman with a voracious appetite for life, yet a pragmatist who makes hard choices – this fool she’s partnering up with would have the whole town “clapped up within a week” without her. Witness her silent, penetrating stare into Shelly Duvall’s widow’s eyes at her husband’s funeral – who else but Mrs Miller and her establishment can look after her now?
Altman’s crew carved a real town out of the wilderness near Vancouver, B.C, and shot around it in sequence as it was being built – we feel we are privy to a frontier town’s hard growth. The cast lived there for four winter months, the weather’s damp progression intended all along to finish in an enveloping blanket of snow. We’ll come to that in a moment…
Altman and Beatty’s method clashed as stated earlier – he preferred quick takes, Beatty, according to him, “wouldn’t start rehearsing until the camera was rolling on take four or five. Julie was always the best on her very first take, and after a while, she started losing interest, and you could see it. So finally I tried to put the camera on her first, and then try to get him in.”
Altman filmed several takes of a simple scene where McCabe reaches idly for a whiskey bottle in his office, knocks it over and catches it. Beatty wanted still more. “It was like a test of wills,” recalled production manager Jim Margellos. “There was so much tension between them you could cut it with a knife.” Finally, Altman called it a night and left his cameraman to work with the star – until forty takes later, at four in the morning, Beatty added his favoured takes to the three Altman was happy with.
Altman got his revenge for the final sequence of the movie. As planned, the company hired gunslingers arrive during a blizzard to get McCabe, who had foolishly in Mrs Miller’s eyes, turned down a buy-out. Not though, before subverting western myth and having the sneaky McCabe stalk them through the church that gives the town its name, shooting a man in the back through a window. The weather hadn’t been playing ball, and snow machines were in place in case. When the snow started to chuck it down, Beatty was not keen to shoot in it, fearing it would be too unpredictable for continuity. Altman’s luck was in, as it continued to snow for days, raising huge drifts. McCabe gets the gunmen but is himself fatally wounded. He tumbles down a drift, clutches at himself, and weakly sags back in the deathly duvet. “Warren was buried up to his ears, with snow blasting into his face from the wind machine,” recalled Margellos. “It was colder than hell. Bob kept saying, “Okay, one more time.” They dug Warren out, put him back, and did it again. He must have done it twenty-five times.”
Altman reinforces his theme that the film is about the absurdity of the Western heroic myth, by cross-cutting from the ignominiously dying McCabe, to the unaware townsfolk fighting the flames in the burning church, and the wind howling through the boards of the opium den, where an unconcerned Mrs Miller, resigned to his fate, and their inevitable business failure, has already shut down and zoned out in a druggy haze.
As Leonard Cohen laments on the soundtrack, Altman’s star has rapidly become even harder to pick out.
Originally posted 2014-09-03 18:17:41. Republished by Blog Post Promoter