McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

A gambler and a prostitute become business partners in a remote Old West mining town, and their enterprise thrives until a large corporation arrives on the scene.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a 1971 American Western film starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, and directed by Robert Altman. The screenplay is by Altman and Brian McKay from the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton. The cinematography is by Vilmos Zsigmond and the soundtrack includes three songs by Leonard Cohen issued on his 1967 album Songs of Leonard Cohen. As one of Altman’s naturalist films, the director called it an “anti-western film” because the film ignores or subverts a number of Western conventions.

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. 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 sell his property.

Altman reported that an official in the Presbyterian Church called Warner Brothers to complain about having their church mentioned in context of a film about brothels and gambling. The complaint prompted a name change to John Mac Cabe but it was further changed and released as McCabe & Mrs Miller. The film was shot in West Vancouver and in Squamish, almost entirely in sequential order — a rarity for films. The crew found a suitable location for the filming and, as filming progressed, built up the “set” as McCabe built up the town in the film.

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 lumber mill 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 music for the film was largely by Leonard Cohen.

Altman had liked Cohen’s debut album immensely, buying additional copies of it after wearing each one out. Then he had forgotten about the LP. Years later he visited Paris, just after finishing shooting on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and rediscovered the album; he had it transferred and started the music to maintain a rhythm for the film (in effect initially being used as a “temp” track). He didn’t expect to be able to procure rights for the music since it 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 the film.

Instead, he had loved Altman’s less popular follow-up film Brewster McCloud, and 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, but honored his contract. A year later he called Altman to apologize, saying he had seen the film again and loved it. For the distinctive cinematography, Altman and Zsigmond chose to ‘flash’ (pre-fog) the actual film negative, 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.

“I thought it was a fine movie. That night I was in the studio and received a call from Hollywood. It was from Bob Altman saying he would like to use my music in a film. Quite honestly, I said, ‘I don’t know your work, could you tell me some of the films you’ve done?’ He said Mash, and I said that’s fine, I understand that’s quite popular, but I’m really not familiar with it. Then he said there was a film I’ve probably never seen called ‘Brewster McCloud.’ I told him I just came out of the movie and thought it was an extraordinary film, use any music of mine.” Leonard Cohen, from Robert Altman: Oral Biography)


Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me their song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.

Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned:
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.

They lay down beside me, I made my confession to them.
They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem.
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don’t turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won’t make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.

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