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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 2.40:1 Widescreen
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Audio commentary from 2002 featuring director Robert Altman and producer David Foster
  • New documentary on the making of the film, featuring actors Renť Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy; casting director Graeme Clifford; and script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury
  • New conversation about the film and Altmanís career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell
  • Featurette from the filmís production, shot on location in 1970
  • Q&A from 1999 with production designer Leon Ericksen, hosted by the Art Directors Guild Film Society
  • Archival footage from interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, in which he discusses his work on the film
  • Gallery of stills from the set by photographer Steve Schapiro
  • Excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show Show featuring Robert Altman and film critic Pauline Kael
  • Trailer
  • An essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Robert Altman
1971 | 121 Minutes | Licensor: Warner Brothers Home Entertainment

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #827
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: October 11, 2016
Review Date: October 26, 2016

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amazon.com  amazon.ca

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SYNOPSIS

This unorthodox dream western by Robert Altman may be the most radically beautiful film to come out of the New American Cinema that transformed Hollywood in the early 1970s. It stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as an enterprising gambler and a bordello madam, both newcomers to the raw Pacific Northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church, who join forces to provide the miners with a superior kind of whorehouse experience. The appearance of representatives of a powerful mining company with interests of its own, however, threatens to be the undoing of their plans. With its fascinating flawed characters, evocative cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, and soundtrack that innovatively interweaves overlapping dialogue and haunting Leonard Cohen songs, McCabe & Mrs. Miller brilliantly deglamorized and revitalized the most American of genres.


PICTURE

Surely a dream come true for many, The Criterion Collection has managed to snag Robert Altmanís unconventional western McCabe & Mrs. Miller on Blu-ray, presenting in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 on this dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a new 4K restoration scanned from the original 35mm negative. To determine colour, Criterion referenced a ďprint made by the Academy Film Archive of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and timed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.Ē

From a visual perspective the film has a unique and oddly beautiful look. Altman and Zsigmond decided to ďflashĒ the negative film before filming (basically expose the film to light for a certain amount of time) to give the film a softer/foggier look, but they seemed to do this to varying degrees throughout, and apparently didnít do this at all for the filmís conclusion. That foggy look (which also weakens the blacks) mixed with a grainier film stock, and unorthodox methods of lighting (though a lot of the film looks naturally lit there are also plenty of uses of reds, greens, oranges, and so on in the lighting), you have a grittier, dirtier looking film. Though this would all, no doubt, look fantastic in a cinema, on home video, particularly a digital medium, it would be an encoderís nightmare. This is pretty evident on Warnerís previous DVD, which could look like a digital mess, especially during the climax in the falling snow. I give Warner some credit as I do believe they honestly tried to present the film as naturally as they could, but the limitations of the DVD format in the early days, at least in terms of the compression, were going to make that hard. Despite their best possible intentions the DVD can be pretty ugly at times.

With the filmís look in mind I was, I guess you could say, in suspense over how this disc was going to turn out. And I was happy to see that it appears Criterion has pulled it off.

Those expecting a typical ďhigh-defĒ experience will, no doubt, be disappointed but I really feel this captures the intended look of the film. Because of the flashing process most of the image never looks all that sharp, and is instead rather foggy, sometimes muddy in the dark sequences. This of course all lends to the intended dreamy look of the film, creating those muddy blacks, but it also lends a certain glow or aura around objects and people in the brighter scenes. The film is often referred to as a visual poem and if there is a definitive ďlookĒ to that I would say this is it. The climax of the film does look ďbetterĒ when it comes to sharpness and detail, and the features do point out that the flashing process wasnít incorporated during this part of the film, so that explains the difference. Other elements to the filmís look during the climax may limit it (like that falling snow that really didnít come off too well on the previous DVD) but detail is certainly better.

But even if the rest of the film isnít all that sharp, looks a bit muddy (again, caused by the weaker blacks from flashing the negative), and a bit dirty, it at the very least looks very much like a film. Itís a grainy looking image, and the level of grain can get intense at times, no doubt driving some people bonkers, but, for the most part, it looks like grain. Itís not a digital mess, not blocky. It moves naturally and cleanly, and even in the darker scenes it looks strong. Those concerned that maybe this film would be ripe for compression problems should have no fear: Criterion has pulled it off.

Colours also look particularly good. There is no real set tone or hue when it comes to the filmís colours from scene to scene, it really appearing itís just what the scene calls for. Filters and coloured lighting are used rather liberally throughout the film indoors, and I thought the colours are rendered well with some really striking greens and reds. Saturation levels can look a little less impressive during the filmís darker sequences (and details get crushed out a bit) but again it is the filmís look.

The restoration work has been shockingly thorough, really impressive considering just how grainy the film is; Iím sure that makes taking out specs and marks harder since you donít want to risk making any part of the grain in the frame look artificial. And as mentioned before the encode is very solid, keeping the film grain looking natural while also not adding any other distracting digital effects.

If there is one sequence that still looks off it is the snowfall during the climax. On the Warner DVD, thanks to poor compression, this sequence really stood out and, frankly, looked awful. Itís toned down here and not as bad, but it still looks off sometimes. I always assumed that part of the reason the snowfall looks artificial here and there is that they had to optically add the snowfall to keep the finale consistent: there are shots where the snowfall is obviously real, while there are others where it looks completely fake. The commentary track addresses this, though there is a bit of a conflict between the two participants: producer David Foster says the snow is real and that it looks ďso real it looks fake,Ē while Altman says that there was an overlay for the snowfall since they had to match snowfall from other shots. Iím not sure which is true (Iím leaning more towards Altman, though, since he would have been more hands-on than the producer) but whatever the case, that odd snowfall effect is still there, if in a less distracting form.

Past all of that, though, this is a really beautiful presentation. The transfer and restoration captures the filmís strange and beautiful look, keeping it digitally clean and very film-like. Itís an absolutely wonderful looking presentation.

9/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

Criterion includes a lossless PCM 1.0 mono track. Altmanís sound design can be a bit frustrating for newcomers: there can be a lot of mumbling and people talking over one another (what people need to remember, though, is if you are supposed to hear something, Altman makes sure you hear it). This can lend to a fairly muffled sound at times but I think overall itís intentional. When you need to hear dialogue itís still very clear and articulate. The track doesnít present anything in the ways of noticeable damage, and fidelity is strong when needed: Leonard Cohenís music sounds particularly full and rich, despite being limited to the center channel. For what the film is, itís probably the perfect presentation for it.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

When it comes to supplements Criterionís Warner licensed releases can sometimes feel lacking. This one proves to be one of the better of their Warner titles, carrying most everything over from the Warner DVD, while adding on a number of new features to further expand on it.

The wonderful audio commentary featuring Altman and producer David Foster is the first item to get carried over. Admittedly Altmanís commentaries can be a bit hit-and-miss (I guess it depended on his mood) but this is one of my favourites featuring the filmmaker. The two participants have obviously been recorded separately, so that explains some conflicts in the track (particularly when they talk about the snowfall at the end, as mentioned in the picture portion of the review), but the two nicely cover the filmís production from novel to final release. How Altman, Warren Beatty, and Julie Christie all came to be involved is a surprisingly lengthy backstory, and Iím somewhat amazed it actually all came together in the end, but hearing about the day-to-day on the set, which was literally being built as the film was being made (though that makes sense in the context of the story), proves to be the most rewarding aspect of the track: I was most fascinated by the fact set builders were in costume so they could appear in the film, and were forced to use tools from the period because they were being filmed as they built. Also, the cast and crew actually lived in those sets. Altman also shares his intent with the film, explains why he likes the filmís simple story (this allowed him to be more experimental since the story would already be familiar to the audience), and shares how Cohenís music came into the film. Foster looks at the film from more a financial perspective at times, but whatís obvious is that he loves this film, and the fact it did poorly upsets him.

I would have liked a scholarly track as well, but this one is still great on its own. Itís a very meaty, incredibly engaging discussion. If you havenít listened to it yet itís worth turning on.

New to this edition is the Criterion produced documentary, Way Out On a Limb, featuring casting director Graeme Clifford, script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury, and actors Renť Auberjonois, Keith Carradine and Michael Murphy. Running 54-minutes it nicely expands on what was already covered in the commentary. One of the aspects I most enjoyed was hearing about the casting choices that could have been: Auberjonois, for example, recommended Ned Beatty for the role he would play, and Elliott Gould was also considered to play McCabe. What I most enjoyed, though, was listening to the actors talk about not only the experience of this film, but working with Altman overall (the three have appeared in a number of his films). Carradineís contribution is the most amusing, though, since this was his first film appearance, and it sounds as though he was probably lucky to live through it. Itís a fairly standard talking-heads documentary but itís a really good one, and goes by very quickly.

For the scholarly angle Criterion next presents a new interview between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. Itís not a bad discussion, the two addressing both criticisms and accolades thrown at it throughout the years, even some of the labels that have been applied to it: they both disagree with the label of ďanti-westernĒ since the film really does play into a lot of the expectations of a lot of westerns, it just takes away from the myth of the genre. This bit of discussion does lead the two into comparing certain elements of the film with how other westerns would present them, and then they talk about the more unique aspects of the film from its use of Leonard Cohen music to Vilmos Zsigmondís photography. There isnít much in here thatís new or really surprising but itís a fine enough academic track.

Also from the previous Warner DVD is a 9-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, filmed at the time of production. Itís actually a rather fascinating short piece, looking at the filmís sets, costumes and overall production design (complete with a working corn whiskey still!) We also get an interview with a crew member, who discusses living on the set. These types of things are usually throwaways on DVD and Blu-ray releases but this one is terrific.

Criterion next digs up a footage of a Q&A done at a screening of the film in 1999, featuring set designer Leon Ericksen, accompanied by art director Al Locatelli. About half of the 37-minutes is devoted to Ericksen talking about the filming location, with Locatelli chiming in here and there to offer some other details about the filmís look and sets. The last half has Ericksen taking questions from the audience about various aspects of the sets and the props, and then other general questions about the film, like ďhow much scriptĒ was actually there when filming started. The feature is informative and expands on the commentary and documentary a bit more, but the audio is a bit rough and it can be hard to hear what is being said at times. I do sometimes wish Criterion would include optional subtitles for features when the audio is a bit shoddy.

Director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond unfortunately passed away earlier this year, so Criterion has actually put together a short 11-minute feature made from two separate interviews with him: one from 2005 recorded for the American Society of Cinemtographers and the other from a 2008 one made for the documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos. Itís here where Vilmos talks about the filmís look and how it was achieved, giving more details about the flashing process (and the risks that came with it) and why the film can look so different from scene to scene (he particularly likes the fact the film doesnít look the same throughout). Itís a shame Criterion was unable to get Zsigmond to sit down with them again for this film (he did sit down for their edition of The Rose) but this feature, nicely edited together, is the next best thing.

Criterion includes a short photo gallery featuring around 27 photos, which is then followed by two excerpts from the The Dick Cavett Show. The best excerpt (if only because I havenít seen a lot of interviews with her) is one featuring an interview with Pauline Kael from July 6th, 1971 (Rod Serling sits next to her). Here Kael talks a bit about film criticism before championing McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film she feels is being unfairly dumped by the studio and dumped on by critics. Sheís very passionate about it and addresses the criticisms being thrown at it from others. The second one features Robert Altman and was recorded a little over a month later. Here Altman talks about the film and also explains why critics were especially hard on the filmís audio (the screening apparently had bad audio to begin with) and shares a couple of stories from the set (like an illegally buried grandmother). Iíve been loving Criterionís digging up of these Cavett interviews (theyíve all been great so far, the Godard one on Every Man For Himself being the highpoint I would say) and both of these interviews are wonderful inclusions.

The disc then closes with the filmís theatrical trailer (it opens with a newer Warner logo so Iím not sure if itís actually for a rerelease or is supposed to be the original trailer) and then the insert features an excellent essay by Nathaniel Rich on the filmís more experimental nature.

In the end I was quite pleased with the content of the disc. The supplements wonderfully cover the filmís unorthodox look and intriguing backstory.

9/10

CLOSING

This is an absolutely fantastic edition. The supplements are all very good, but the real story here is the filmís presentation: it looks absolutely wonderful. It has a very unusual look, and in the wrong hands it could probably look like a digital mess. But Criterion pulls it off. An easy recommendation.


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