The town of Presbyterian Church has been built from the ground up by the working-class people who inhabit it. It’s not a big town, there’s only a few businesses and the rest is for the workers of the mine. It’s not a pretty town, either; it serves its purpose. That’s it. And then John McCabe (Warren Beatty) walks into town, literally. McCabe is more of a businessman, the only other real “business” in town is the local restaurant/bar in which the town’s residents eat on a daily basis. McCabe plans to change all of that by playing some poker, winning money and setting up a little business of his own. Let it be said that in a town full of mostly men, there is one thing that’s constantly on their mind. Sex. McCabe takes his money and his winnings from a poker game and buys three women and literally hauls them into town for the sole purpose of prostitution. The women (and men, in fact) aren’t very attractive. One is so skinny it’s almost disgusting, one is the exact opposite. The women have one job and that’s to sell their bodies to the men of the town. They don’t mind. It’s a way of life.
And then Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) comes to town on a wagon, alongside a mail order bride. Mrs. Miller wants the same thing that McCabe wants. She wants to make a business out of prostitution, but unlike McCabe; she knows how to do it right. After convincing him to go in as partners (he fronts the money), she tells him of all of the horrors of an “uninformed” person running a brothel. “What if the women get pregnant?”, “If left alone, they’ll turn to God…” and so on. McCabe is convinced and she ships in some much more attractive women for the town. Of course, with the “better” women, comes the higher prices. Even she is for sale herself, though she comes at a higher price–$5.00. Building some new buildings, a bath house for the women and men alike (at a price, of course), the town starts to experience some growth. And when things seem their best, some businessmen from out of town come in and try to buy them out. McCabe, thinking it’s just a higher-stakes game of poker, tries to bargain with them but quickly learns that he’s way out of his league.
Director Robert Altman has come up with some masterpieces in his time. From M*A*S*H and Nashville to more modern works like Short Cuts and The Player. Some call this his finest work, as the camera moves very methodically around the town of Presbyterian Church. Taking place in the barren outback of the Pacific Northwest, this movie isn’t happy. It’s depressing in fact. The characters are real, they’re established and Altman captures the mood of the town almost perfectly. The ending isn’t happy, even though in the commentary they toyed with the idea of making the “Hollywood Ending” happy and wondered if it would affect the gross of the film. Originally entitled “The Presbyterian Church Wager”, the film’s title was changed due to a reaction from (you guessed it), the Presbyterian Church. Beatty is at his best and Julie Christie’s cockney accent, though out of place, works for her here. If you’re looking for an uplifting movie, this is not it. If you’re looking for one of Altman’s better efforts, this is it. McCabe & Mrs. Miller works on many levels, though it wasn’t a hit at the time, the film has gathered a lot of critical praise over the years. Give it a try, and appreciate how well this film works.
Video: How does it look?
This one has been a long time coming and Criterion even delayed this title to ensure they got it right. And they did. A brand new 4K restoration was done for this film and it shows, literally. The 2.40:1 AVC HD image is the best I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen this on just about every format out there. A majority of the film is shot in a dreary, grey backdrop so don’t think rainbows and blue skies – there are none. The biggest thing, to me, was the absence of the grain the seemed to plague the DVD release. Then again technology has improved significantly since that release. The color palette seems more well-balanced, flesh tones are a bit more natural-looking and detail has been improved. This is, hands down, the best the film has ever looked.
Audio: How does it sound?
Not many of Altman’s movies would really benefit from a strong soundtrack, as such the original mono mix is included. To say that the movie is dialogue-driven is an understatement and the only real depth comes from the folk music ballads of Leonard Cohen. To hear the songs and dialogue of the movie, you can tell it’s an early 70’s film. It’s dated. Still, the audio is about the least important thing here and the audio is just good enough to not be a nuisance. The sound suffices, but it’s what is going on screen that is important.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Audio Commentary – Included (it was part of Warner’s DVD) is a rather informative commentary track with Altman and Producer David Foster. Most of their banter is talk about the actual production (they actually built the town from scratch for the movie) and some details about the film do come up. They talk of the film’s lack of success and of work with Beatty and Christie. It’s a good track and true fans of the movie will find it very interesting.
Way Out on a Limb – New to this release is a documentary that focuses on the production of the film as well as some interviews with some of the cast and crew members from the film.
Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell – Also new to this release are two film historians: Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell who discuss some of the lasting influences of the film.
Behind the Scenes – This shows some of the progress of the actual town that was built and is as “vintage” as they come.
Leon Ericksen – From 1999 is a feature that has some production designers and other technical members of the crew as they reflect on the filming of the movie as well as dealing with Altman and his “counter-culture” Western.
Vilmos Zsigmond – Noted cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond discusses his work on the film and this is actually a combination of two earlier interviews (one from 2005 and the other from 2008).
Steve Schapiro Photo Gallery – A collection of stills from the movie by photographer Steve Schapiro.
The Dick Cavett Show – Two archived segments from The Dick Cavett Show.
1. Pauline Kael – Kael was probably best-known for “never giving a film a positive review” though she does defend some of the early criticism of this one. Originally aired on July 6, 1971.
2. Robert Altman – A much younger Robert Altman discusses the film, the crew (notably the performances by Beatty and Christie) as well as some technical aspects of the movie. Originally aired on August 16, 1971.
Leaflet – An illustrated leaflet featuring critic Nathaniel Rich’s.
The Bottom Line
If you’re looking for a feel good movie this is not it. Many consider this to be Altman’s finest work and though I don’t totally agree, I have to say that it’s one I watch every year or so. Criterion has, as expected, done this title right and fans of the film should run – not walk, to pick it up.