McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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McCabe & Mrs. Miller
File:Mccabe and mrs miller.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Richard Amsel
Directed by Robert Altman
Produced by Mitchell Brower
David Foster
Written by Robert Altman
Brian McKay
Based on McCabe 
by Edmund Naughton
Starring Warren Beatty
Julie Christie
René Auberjonois
Michael Murphy
William Devane
Shelley Duvall
John Schuck
Keith Carradine
Bert Remsen
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond
Edited by Lou Lombardo
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
June 24, 1971 (1971-06-24)
Running time
121 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $8,200,000[1]

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a 1971 American Revisionist Western film starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, and directed by Robert Altman. The screenplay is based on Edmund Naughton's 1959 novel McCabe.[2] Altman referred to it as an "anti-western film" because the film ignores or subverts a number of Western conventions.[3] In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.


In 1902 Washington, a gambler named John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives mysteriously and mumbling to himself in the town of Presbyterian Church (named after its only substantial building, a tall but mostly unused [in the film] chapel), in the north-west United States. McCabe quickly takes a dominant position over the town's simple-minded and lethargic miners, thanks to his aggressive personality and rumors that he is a gunfighter.

McCabe establishes a makeshift brothel, consisting of three prostitutes purchased from a pimp in the nearby town of Bearpaw for $200. British cockney Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town and tells him she could run a brothel for him more profitably; unknown to him she is addicted to opium. The two become successful business partners, and open a higher class establishment, including a bath-house for hygiene, both of which are financially successful. A love interest develops between the two.

As the town becomes richer, Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland), a pair of agents from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company in Bearpaw, arrive to buy out McCabe's business, as well as the surrounding zinc mines. Shaughnessy is notorious for having people killed when they refuse to sell. McCabe does not want to sell at their initial price of $5,500, but he overplays his hand in the negotiations in spite of Mrs. Miller's warnings that he is underestimating the violence that will ensue if they do not take the money.

Three bounty hunters—Butler (Hugh Millais), Breed (Jace Van Der Veen) and Kid (Manfred Schulz)—are dispatched by the mining company to kill McCabe, as well as make an example of him, but he refuses to abandon the town. The climactic showdown is unconventional for a Western. McCabe is clearly afraid of the gunmen when they arrive in town, and initially tries to appease them. Reflecting back to very early in the film when he's reputed to be a gun fighter (aka Pudgy McCabe), who shot someone in a card game, Butler confronts McCabe about the incident. After hearing McCabe's story, with the addition that the gun was a Derringer, Butler proclaims that McCabe has never killed anyone in his life. McCabe later tries to find Sears and Hollander to try to settle on a price, but when he learns they have left the area, McCabe visits lawyer Clement Samuels (William Devane) to try to obtain legal protection from Harrison Shaughnessy. Although the lawyer agrees to help McCabe bust the mining company's monopoly on the area, McCabe returns to town convinced that he must face the bounty hunters on his own.

When a lethal confrontation becomes inevitable, McCabe arms himself and hides in the chapel during the early morning hours, but is evicted by the armed pastor, who is then shot by Butler in a case of mistaken identity. A broken lantern starts a fire in the church and the townspeople rush to help extinguish it. McCabe continues his evasion and, by shooting them in the back from hidden positions, kills two of the would be assassins, one of whom wounds McCabe as he falls. As the townsfolk mobilize to fight the chapel fire, McCabe plays cat-and-mouse with the last gunman, Butler. In a final twist, McCabe is shot in the back and mortally wounded but feigns death and kills Butler with a Derringer, when he approaches to confirm McCabe's identity. While the townspeople celebrate extinguishing the fire, McCabe dies alone in the snow and Mrs. Miller visits an opium den.[4]



Altman was introduced to the story by David Foster, one of the film's producers. Foster had been introduced to the story by the widow of novelist Richard Wright, an agent for Edmund Naughton, who was then living in Paris and working for the International Herald Tribune.

Altman was in post-production on M.A.S.H. and sneaked Foster into the screening; Foster liked the film and agreed to have Altman direct McCabe; they agreed to wait until M.A.S.H. became popular to take the pitch for McCabe to a studio for funding. Foster called Warren Beatty in England, about the film; Beatty flew to New York to see M.A.S.H. and then flew to Los Angeles, California to sign for McCabe.

The film was originally called The Presbyterian Church Wager, after a bet placed among the church's few attendees, about whether McCabe would survive his refusal of the offer to buy his property. Altman reported that an official in the Presbyterian Church called Warner Brothers, to complain about having its church mentioned in a film about brothels and gambling. The complaint prompted a name change to John Mac Cabe but it was released as McCabe & Mrs. Miller.


File:Mccabemiller 1.jpg
McCabe (Warren Beatty) and Miller (Julie Christie)

The film was shot in West Vancouver and in Squamish, almost in sequential order, a rarity for films. The crew found a suitable location for the filming and built up the "set", as McCabe built up the town in the film. Mrs. Miller is brought into town on a J. I. Case 80 HP steam engine from 1912; the steam engine is genuine and functioning and the crew used it to power the lumbermill after its arrival. Carpenters for the film were locals and young men from the United States, fleeing conscription into the Vietnam War; they were dressed in period costume and used tools of the period, so that they could go about their business in the background, while the plot advanced in the foreground.

The crew ran buried hoses throughout the town, placed so they could create the appearance of rain. Since the city of Vancouver generally receives a great deal of rain, it was usually only necessary to turn on the hoses to make scenes shot on the rare days when it didn't rain, to match those shot on days when it did.

It began snowing near the end of shooting, when the church fire and the standoff were the only scenes left. Beatty did not want to start shooting in the snow, as it was in a sense dangerous (expensive) to do so: to preserve continuity, the rest of the film would have to be shot in snow. Altman countered that since those were the only scenes left to film, it was best to start since there was nothing else to do. The "standoff" scene—which is in fact more a "cat and mouse" scene involving shooting one's enemy in the back—and its concurrent church fire scene, were shot over nine days. The heavy snow, with the exception of a few "fill-in" patches on the ground, was genuine; the crew members built snowmen and had snowball fights between takes.

The film, especially the final scene, is atypical of the western genre. The showdown between a reluctant protagonist and his enemies, takes place ungracefully in the snow during the early hours, rather than at "high noon". Instead of hiding indoors and watching the battle unfold outside, the townsfolk are bustling in the streets and largely unaware of the gunfight taking place in their midst. For a distinctive look, Altman and Zsigmond chose to "flash" (pre-fog) the film negative before its eventual exposure, as well as use a number of filters on the cameras, rather than manipulate the film in post-production; in this way the studio could not force him to change the film's look to something less distinctive.


The music for the film was mainly by Leonard Cohen. Altman had liked Cohen's debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), immensely, buying additional copies of it after wearing each one out. He had then forgotten about the LP. A few years later, Altman visited Paris, just after finishing shooting McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and rediscovered Cohen's album; he had it transferred and used the music to maintain a rhythm for the film (in effect using it as a "temp" track). Altman didn't expect to be able to procure rights for Cohen's music since McCabe was a Warner Brothers film and Cohen's album was released through Columbia Records. He called Cohen, expecting to trade off his recent success with M*A*S*H, but found that Cohen had no knowledge of it. Instead, Cohen had loved Altman's less popular follow-up film Brewster McCloud. Cohen arranged for his record company to license the music cheaply, even writing into the contract that sales of that album after the release of McCabe would turn some of the royalties to Altman (an arrangement which at the time was quite unusual). Later, on watching McCabe to come up with a guitar riff for one scene, Cohen decided he didn't like the film. Nonetheless, he honored his contract and recorded the music for it. A year later he called Altman to apologize, saying he had seen the film again and loved it. The three Cohen songs used in the film were 'The Stranger Song', 'Sisters of Mercy' and 'Winter Lady' They were released together on a 7-inch single in 1971.[5]


The film earned an estimated $4 million in rentals in North America.[6] Julie Christie's performance was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography received a nomination by the British Academy Film Awards, and the film's screenplay garnered a Writers Guild of America nomination. Greeted with muted praise upon release, the film's reputation has grown in stature in the intervening years. Roger Ebert wrote an appreciation in 1999, later included in his book The Great Movies, where he said "Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)."[7] In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its AFI's 10 Top 10—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was acknowledged as the eighth best film in the Western genre.[8] In a 2009 interview, the film critic A.O. Scott named it one of his five favorite films.[9] It is also the favorite movie of film critic Noel Murray.

In 2010, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".[10][11]

See also


  1. Box Office Information for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The Numbers. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
  2. Naughton, Edmund (1959). McCabe. MacMillan. OCLC 1856056.  Many editions of the novel in several languages were published subsequent to the release of the film; see "Search results for ti:McCabe au:Edmund Naughton". WorldCat. 
  3. As cited in Shapiro, Michael J. (2008). "Robert Altman: The West as Countermemory". In Phillips, James. Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema. Stanford University Press. p. 55. ISBN 9780804758000. He called his film an "'anti-Western' because the film turns a number of Western conventions on their sides" 
  4. Monthly Film Bulletin; 1972; pp. 53-54
  6. "Updated All-time Film Champs", Variety, 9 January 1974 p 60
  7. Ebert, Roger (November 14, 1999). "McCabe & Mrs. Miller". Chicago Sun Times. 
  8. "Top 10 Western". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2014-10-29. 
  9. Scott, A. O.; Ryan, Tim (September 17, 2009). "Five Favorite Films with A.O. Scott". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2013-06-03. 
  10. "Hollywood Blockbusters, Independent Films and Shorts Selected for 2010 National Film Registry". US Library of Congress. January 4, 2011. Retrieved 2012-11-26. 
  11. Barnes, Mike (December 28, 2010). "'Empire Strikes Back', 'Airplane!' Among 25 Movies Named to National Film Registry". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2012-11-26. 

Further reading

  • Danks, Adrian (2000). "Just Some Jesus Looking for a Manger: McCabe & Mrs. Miller". Senses of Cinema.  An extended appreciation of the film in the broader context of film in the late 20th century.
  • Self, Robert T. (2007). Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American West. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0-7006-1551-3. OCLC 123285045.  A 216-page book on the film by Robert T. Self, an English professor at Northern Illinois University who has also written a biography of Altman.

External links