McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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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. It stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as two 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 for 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, innovative overlapping dialogue, and haunting use of Leonard Cohen songs, McCabe & Mrs. Miller brilliantly deglamorized and revitalized the most American of genres.

Picture 10/10

The Criterion Collection upgrades its Blu-ray edition for Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, presenting the film in 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition on a triple-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The presentation is sourced from the same 4K restoration used for the Blu-ray edition, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative. A print timed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (made for the Academy Film Archive of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) was used to reference color timing. The release also includes a standard Blu-ray featuring a 1080p film presentation alongside all the video features. The disc is the same one released in 2016.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was not a title that immediately came to mind when considering 4K upgrades. Though I will argue any movie shot on film will undoubtedly benefit from the upgrade, this is one I would not have prioritized simply due to its look. The film features an incredibly hazy appearance with soft edges all around, a byproduct of Altman and Zsigmond experimenting with the picture’s photography by “flashing” the negatives (briefly exposing them to light before using them) and in turn, whether intentional or not, creating a dreamlike atmosphere and feel. This softer look managed to benefit from the bump delivered in high-def Blu-ray from standard-definition DVD. However, I couldn’t see the softer image looking much better with the increased resolution afforded by 4K, outside of the film’s grain looking a little cleaner. On top of that, there is no HDR grade, with the final presentation delivered in 10-bit SDR, so why bother?

Well, it’s fair to call me a horse’s ass because I was really, really wrong about all of it. The film looks glorious in 4K, and despite everything going against it, this might be one of my recent favorites to debut on the format. And it’s a bizarre thing to feel because the reality is the actual image isn’t that much sharper, outside of maybe the last portions of the film, which didn’t use flashed film stock (according to the commentary, anyways). Overall, it’s still soft, the finer details still don’t look much better, and that optically added snowfall during the film’s climax still looks off. Yet, there is no denying that it looks significantly cleaner and more like projected film overall. Looking back at the Blu-ray, the encoding was imperfect, but it handled the film’s complicated look and heavy grain well. It still looks fine, but this new presentation is on a whole other level. The grain is so clean, never coming off like noise, even when it gets chunkier in the darker areas. Also, that persistent fogginess always hanging over looks cleaner, blending into the settings naturally. This is even noticeable in the light as it blends and disappears into the shadows. Black levels are still murky, and I don’t think anything resembling a true black ever shows up (a byproduct of the flashing and photography), yet even then, there are just more shades present in those milky grays and browns, along with subtle gradations. It looks so much more photographic.

Would HDR have helped? It’s hard to say. I feel pumping the brightness on those highlights and blowing them out would have had a significant effect and worked with the film’s look, maybe even giving the image that silver-screen sheen that is otherwise missing. It’s also possible the wider range would have ever so subtly broadened some of the darker interiors. But I can’t see much detail being added in either case; I don’t think it’s there in the photography when it's all said and done. Ultimately, the dynamic range is about as wide as needed, and the image looks perfectly fine.

I’m happy to admit I was off initially estimating how this would turn out. I wasn’t expecting it, but this new 4K presentation delivers a significant and outstanding upgrade over the already solid Blu-ray.

Audio 7/10

I’m pretty sure the lossless 1.0 PCM monaural soundtrack here is the same one featured on the Blu-ray and, again, sounds perfectly fine for what it is. Leonard Cohen’s music still sounds deep and rich with excellent fidelity and range (as much range as you can expect, at any rate), and the dialogue sounds sharp. For the most part, anyway. Altman’s sound design in the film (and many of his movies) can be frustrating since he layers a lot of sound effects over scenes along with voices speaking over one another, but in the end, you can still hear what you need to hear, and it’s all clear.

Extras 9/10

Outside of a commentary recorded by director Robert Altman and producer David Foster, no supplements appear on the 4K disc; Criterion instead includes the standard Blu-ray used from their 2016 release to carry over all the supplements (alongside a 1080p film presentation).

The commentary, recorded originally for Warner’s DVD edition, is still great. The two participants have been recorded separately, which explains some conflicts in the track, particularly when discussing details like the snowfall at the end. Nevertheless, they cover the film’s production from novel to final release nicely. The backstory of how Altman, Warren Beatty, and Julie Christie became involved is surprisingly lengthy, and the day-to-day experiences on the set, which was literally being built as the film was being made, prove to be the most rewarding aspect of the track. Altman also shares his intent with the film, explaining why he appreciates the film’s simple story and how Cohen’s music came into play. Foster's financial perspective occasionally surfaces, but he clearly has a deep affection for the film.

While a scholarly track would have been appreciated, this commentary stands well on its own and is one of Altman’s better ones (his tracks can be hit-and-miss). It’s a meaty, engaging discussion that's worth a listen.

The Criterion-produced documentary Way Out on a Limb is the first video supplement and features casting director Graeme Clifford, script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury, and actors René Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy. Running 54 minutes, it nicely expands on what was covered in the commentary, getting the perspectives of others knee-deep into everything. Hearing about the casting choices that could have been made and the actors' experiences working with Altman adds further depth.

Criterion also presents a new interview between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. While not groundbreaking, it addresses criticisms and accolades thrown at the film over the years, providing insights into its unique elements and departure from typical Western tropes.

From the previous Warner DVD, a 9-minute behind-the-scenes featurette offers a fascinating glimpse into the film’s production design, complete with interviews with crew members who lived on the set. Criterion also digs up footage of a 1999 Q&A session with set designer Leon Ericksen and art director Al Locatelli, providing further insights into the film’s sets and props.

Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond's short 11-minute feature, compiled from two separate interviews, sheds light on the film's distinctive look and the techniques used to achieve it. Following that, Criterion includes a photo gallery and excerpts from The Dick Cavett Show, featuring interviews with Pauline Kael and Robert Altman, adding valuable context to the film’s reception and production.

The disc closes with the film’s theatrical trailer, while the insert features the same excellent essay by Nathaniel Rich on the film’s experimental nature found in the Blu-ray edition’s insert. I didn’t see any differences between this essay and the one included with the Blu-ray.

The supplements still do an excellent job covering the film’s unorthodox look and intriguing backstory and are all worth going through if one hasn’t done so yet.

Closing

I wasn’t expecting it, but Criterion’s 4K upgrade for Altman’s unorthodox Western looks magnificent. It’s worth upgrading to even if you own Criterion’s Blu-ray.

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Directed by: Robert Altman
Year: 1971
Time: 121 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 827
Licensor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 06 2024
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
2.40:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: None
 
 Audio commentary from 2002 featuring director Robert Altman and producer David Foster   Making-of documentary, featuring members of the cast and crew   Conversation about the film and Altman’s career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell   Featurette from the film’s 1970 production   Art Directors Guild Film Society Q&A from 1999 with production designer Leon Ericksen   Excerpts from archival interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond   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