Cast & Crew
In the autumn of 1902, brash, small-time gambler John McCabe arrives in the rough-hewn northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church and at Patrick Sheehan's saloon asks about buying property. Sheehan, Reverend Elliott, Mr. Smalley and several of the townsmen speculate that the overconfident McCabe might be a gunfighter, but McCabe insists he is a businessman and announces his intention to open the town's first bordello. After purchasing a partially finished building with his gambling winnings, McCabe visits the neighboring town of Bearpaw where he negotiates for three whores. In a pouring rainstorm, McCabe returns with the women to Presbyterian Church where over the next couple of days, he struggles to maintain harmony between the loutish miners and the distrustful whores. Some days later, McCabe is startled by the arrival of British cockney Constance Miller who proposes that he back her in establishing a professional brothel. When McCabe points out that he already has a whorehouse, Constance responds that as a whore, she is in a unique position to understand the business of managing women and their customers, along with questions of hygiene and health issues that lie behind a truly successful business. Taken aback by Constance's assertive attitude, McCabe nevertheless agrees to the deal and is surprised when Constance insists upon improving the crude accommodations for the women, including erecting a separate bathhouse and providing the women with new linens and toiletries. Although the miners initially resent and resist the requirements to bathe before visiting Constance and McCabe's facility, they are soon tempted by the variety of women Constance has engaged from Seattle and settle into regular visits. Although outwardly querulous over Constance's brisk and efficient business manner, McCabe nevertheless is attracted to her and annoyed when she occasionally services customers for the extravagant sum of five dollars per visit. One night several weeks after the opening of the brothel, Constance joins McCabe in the bar with proceeds from their venture. McCabe is delighted by their success but Constance chastises him for his sloppy, inaccurate accounting and accuses him of losing money. Although several of the Seattle women know that Constance uses her proceeds to pay for her opium addiction, McCabe remains unaware of her habit, which she guards scrupulously. Just before Christmas, miner Bart Coyle is killed while defending his new, mail-order wife Ida from slander that she is a whore. The day after Bart's death, Eugene Sears and Ernest Hollander, representatives for the Harrison and Shaunessy Mining Company, approach McCabe and explain the company would like to purchase McCabe's holdings in Presbyterian Church. McCabe airily rejects the men's offer of $5,500, then goes to the bathhouse before paying a call on Constance. When McCabe boasts about his rejection of the mining company representatives, Constance calls him a fool, but he insists they will make him a higher offer. That same evening, Sears and Hollander locate McCabe at the brothel and increase the offer to $6,250, but are amazed when he again turns them down and suggests he will only entertain an offer of $14,000 or more. Pleased with his financial acuity, McCabe returns to bed with a now stoned Constance. Later that same night, Sears and Hollander dine at Sheehan's and Sears suggests they make McCabe a final offer of $7,000. Indignant over McCabe's high-handed conduct and the shabbiness of the situation, Hollander refuses, declaring that the company's hired gun, Butler, will handle McCabe. The next morning, McCabe is mystified to learn of Sears's and Hollander's departure. As the townspeople gather for Bart's funeral, Constance and several miners note the arrival of a lone rider, who proves to be a cowboy in search of women. As the funeral breaks up, Constance offers Ida a place in the brothel. Word soon spreads through town of the arrival of three strangers and Constance immediately deduces that they have been sent by the company. She pleads with McCabe to leave town, if only to protect their joint investment, but McCabe remains confident that the company representatives will return. Smalley reports to McCabe and Constance that the men, Butler, Breed and Kid, refuse to speak with McCabe, who nevertheless sets off to Sheehan's to meet them. Although daunted by Butler's enormous bulk, McCabe attempts to bargain with him, admitting his exorbitant demand was a joke. Declaring he will settle for $6,550, McCabe is bewildered when Butler states that he does not make deals. Having learned from Sheehan that the miners originally considered McCabe a gunslinger, Butler tries to provoke McCabe by accusing him of shooting an acquaintance. McCabe does not refute the claim, but nervously departs, prompting Butler to observe that McCabe has never killed anyone. That evening, an increasingly anxious McCabe frets about Constance's inability to appreciate his romantic nature, then early the next morning departs for Bearpaw, where he asks for Sears and Hollander at the mining company's main office. Learning they have departed, McCabe visits a lawyer to inquire about obtaining legal protection from the company. Although the lawyer agrees to help McCabe fight against the might of big business, McCabe returns to Presbyterian Church convinced that he must face Butler and the others on his own. That afternoon Kid confronts the affable cowboy and shoots him down in cold blood as Sheehan and the others watch helplessly. That night, McCabe struggles to apologize to Constance and she sadly reassures him that all is well. Early the following morning as snow blankets the mountains, Constance takes a long walk. Armed with a rifle, McCabe goes to the partially constructed church where, from the tower, he spots the killers splitting up to search for him. Elliott discovers McCabe and, after confiscating the rifle, throws him out of the church. McCabe hides nearby and witnesses Butler kill Elliott, mistaking the gun-carrying minister for McCabe. McCabe then sneaks to his bar where he retrieves a pistol. Upon creeping away to a neighboring building, he is confronted by Kid who wounds him in the stomach before McCabe kills him. Meanwhile, the newly wakened townspeople are alarmed to discover the church has caught fire and rush to fight the flames, allowing Butler and Breed to search for McCabe more openly. Although bleeding heavily, McCabe kills Breed then heads to the forest at the edge of town. Butler follows and shoots at McCabe through a cascade of snow and when McCabe feigns death, Butler approaches to investigate, after which McCabe shoots him between the eyes. As the townspeople rejoice over saving the church, a snowstorm builds and everyone returns inside. McCabe struggles to reach the brothel, but collapses in the snow and dies slowly as Constance settles into an opium daze.
Jace Vander Veen
Carey Lee Mckenzie
J. S. Johnson
Brantley F. Kearns
Robert W. Hamelin
Bill Yui Seto
Po Lam Lau
Anne C. W. Luk
John W. Gusselle
Barry P. Jones
William A. Thompson
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The movie's unique spell is largely visual: set in the late 1800s in the mountains of the foggy Northwest (but actually shot right over the border in British Columbia), McCabe exudes from its very first frame the quality of a gaslight memory, a diffuse, smoky, groggy return to the past. Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond attained the movie's distinct hazy look by flash-exposing the film stock before shooting, a daring experiment no other American film has ever dared to do. The result is a feeling for snowy dusks and damp forests and cold wind that no other film has ever approximated. You are there, in this germinating mountain mining town so small most of the buildings are still being framed from raw lumber, surrounded by mountains and paved entirely with packed mud. In this Old West, everything is new, because that was the reality - communities were just being formed and constructed, on the edge of the frontier. (In most Westerns, the buildings look a century old, which is just bad historical design.) Altman's camera floats into this dead-on milieu with wide-open eyes, piercing the mist and exploring as if it were one of the town's newcomers, half-hearing conversations (in the audio-deflective manner Altman made his own), squinting through bustling human fauna, and simply inhabiting the landscape. Altman built the town in the woods, and then asked his cast members to show up in character - the natures of which they were allowed to define for themselves. It's less a movie, finally, than a place you live in.
The story, from Edmund Naughton's novel McCabe, begins with character: McCabe himself (Warren Beatty), a somewhat clueless and drunken frontier gambler in a bowler hat and massive fur coat, riding unceremoniously into the nameless ersatz village and setting up a card table in the town's one bar. It doesn't take long, amid Altman's mumbly tangle of socializing and interrelationships, for McCabe to strike a deal with the bar owner (Altman stalwart Rene Auberjonois) to bring in a few girls and set up a brothel. Which he does, and with every scene change the bluff McCabe seems to own a little more of the town, with nearly all of its inhabitants happy to buy his whiskey, pay for baths in his tub, and blow their wages on sex with his whores. But nothing stays the same, even on the frontier, and news of enterprise spreads, attracting first Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a Cockney opium junkie with real brothel-running experience, who insists on partnering up with McCabe, and then, eventually, agents from the East, who have come to buy out McCabe, by hook or crook. Naturally, things turn bad soon enough.
All of this unfolds so organically it's like heavy snowing falling off a pine branch. But it's only part of the story - a huge portion of the film is spent roaming around on the edges of other stories: Shelley Duvall's vulnerable young widow (after her belligerent husband, played by Bert Remsen, is killed in a brawl), Keith Carradine's good-time cowboy, Auberjonois's wary attempts to play every business interest against the others, a young black couple's observant existence on the social edges, William Devane's vainglorious lawyer, a half-dozen other recurring personages, all alive and busy in the life of the town even when, it seems, they're not in the frame. Not that the stars aren't pivotal - Christie is playing an iconic type, but Beatty, honing his trademarked diffident-hesitant-but-defiant persona under a beard and behind a ubiquitous raised glass of liquor, became more than just a good-looking young movie star here, more than just the generational hot shot he appeared to be with Bonnie & Clyde (1967) four years earlier. John McCabe is a vulnerable, four-dimensional American loser trying to hide his past and recreate himself in the wilderness, and Beatty fills him out without telegraphing or telling us how to feel about him. Like Altman's film, which revels in the gaps and ellipses of what we don't see or know, Beatty is never less than authentic because we don't know everything about him.
An anti-Western that is in the end more like a classic capitalist tragedy-slash-morality tale, McCabe is more than the sum of its uncountable textures and details (notice how a few dancing whore-and-john couples pause and watch when the newfangled grandfather-clock-shaped player-piano changes its disc), but even if it weren't, it'd still be one of a kind. I haven't even yet mentioned the soundtrack - comprised entirely of three droning, dreamy, elusive Leonard Cohen songs, not of the period but hauntingly appropriate, and just as often faintly heard in the background, like something someone is remembering, as heard over the action. It's an idiosyncratic choice for this magisterial film, but once you're in the thick of it, nothing else would be as fitting. Altman was in 1971 still at the beginning of his amazing career-peak ascent, but McCabe & Mrs. Miller might remain the one film in his oeuvre (some would choose Nashville, but not me) that, if it stood alone, would still define its director as one of the era's great visionaries.
By Michael Atkinson
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
If a frog had wings, he wouldn't bounce his ass so much.- John Q. McCabe
Look Mr. McCabe I'm a whore!- Mrs. Miller
It's not so bad. You might even like it! You did just fine with Bart.- Mrs. Miller
But with him I had to. It was my duty.- Ida
You boys gotta make up your minds if you want to get your cookies. Cause if you want to get your cookies, I've got girls up here that'll do more tricks than a goddamn monkey on a hundred yards of grapevine.- John McCabe
Well, you'll have to forgive me, my kitchen ain't in operation yet, but I could take you up to the restaurant up there if you're hungry enough.- John McCabe
I'm hungry enough I could eat a bloody horse.- Constance Miller
Well, at Sheehan's place you probably will.- John McCabe
Ah, the frontier wit, I see.- Constance Miller
Many of the people playing small parts, bit roles, and extras were allowed to create their own characters for the movie.
Director Robert Altman's initial preference for the role of McCabe was 'Elliot Gould' , whom the studio producing the film refused to accept.
Warren Beatty loved to perform multiple takes of his scenes. Once, when Altman was ready to wrap shooting for the day, Beatty insisted on more takes. Altman left and had his assistant shoot them and Beatty did over thirty takes of the scene. Altman got his revenge by ordering Beatty to do 25 takes of a scene involving Beatty in the snow.
Editor Lou Lombardo complained that the soundtrack was too "muddy" and asked Altman fix it. Altman refused and later claimed the bad soundtrack was Lombardo's fault.
Working titles for the film were The Presbyterian Church Wager, McCabe and John McCabe. Louis Lombardo's onscreen credit reads: "film editor and 2nd unit director." An October 1968 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that producer David Foster, who made his motion picture debut with McCabe & Mrs. Miller, originally intended to release the picture through Twentieth Century-Fox with a screenplay by Ben Maddow, but Maddow did not contribute to the completed picture.
A biography of director Robert Altman states that Elliott Gould was originally considered for the role of "McCabe," but that Warren Beatty was necessary to secure financing for the film. Julie Christie was already cast and had a romantic relationship with Beatty at the time. The biography also indicates that Altman re-wrote almost half of Brian McKay's script and that writers Robert Towne and Joseph Calvelli also contributed. During filming, Altman encouraged both Beatty and Christie to rework their dialogue as well. The biography notes that shooting outdoors in constantly changing weather made it difficult to maintain consistent sound quality. Altman, who did not favor re-takes or dubbing, refused to make any other adjustments to the sound, contributing to a certain muffled quality compounded by the director's preference for over-lapping dialogue.
Several cast members in McCabe & Mrs. Miller either previously worked or would work in the future for Altman, among them Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck and Michael Murphy, who all appeared in the 1970 Twentieth Century-Fox release M*A*S*H (see below) and the 1970 M-G-M release Brewster McCloud. Keith Carradine, who made his feature film debut in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Shelley Duvall would also appear in Altman's 1974 United Artists' release Thieves Like Us and Paramount's 1975 release of Nashville (see below).
The film was shot on location in Vancouver, Canada, according to contemporary sources. According to Filmfacts, upon its initial release, the first two major prints of McCabe & Mrs. Miller for critical screenings on the East and West Coasts were rushed from a Canadian laboratory with poor sound quality and color fidelity, resulting in a hostile critical reception. Upon viewing corrected prints later, two critics changed their negative reviews. Since its initial release, many critics have listed McCabe & Mrs. Miller as one of Altman's finest films, made distinctive by its sound quality and evocative color tint. Julie Christie received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in the film.
Released in United States 1990
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States 1998
Released in United States June 24, 1971
Released in United States March 1998
Released in United States Summer July 1971
Re-released in United States January 21, 1994
Shown at 33rd Spoleto Festival (Cinema In The Bordello) June 27 - July 15, 1990.
Shown at Santa Barabara International Film Festival March 5-15, 1998.
Shown at WideScreen Film Festival in Long Beach, California October 23-25 and October 30 - November 1, 1998.
Based on the Edmund Naughton novel "McCabe" (New York, 1959).
Released in USA on video.
Re-released in London April 13, 1990.
Released in United States 1990 (Shown at 33rd Spoleto Festival (Cinema In The Bordello) June 27 - July 15, 1990.)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)
Released in United States 1998 (Shown at WideScreen Film Festival in Long Beach, California October 23-25 and October 30 - November 1, 1998.)
Released in United States March 1998 (Shown at Santa Barabara International Film Festival March 5-15, 1998.)
Re-released in United States January 21, 1994 (Film Forum; New York City)
Released in United States June 24, 1971
Released in United States Summer July 1971