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  • Writer's pictureAndy Ross

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

The Criterion Collection continues revisiting some previous releases in new 4K blu-ray editions with an updated release of their 2016 release of Robert Altman’s anti-western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. This is my first time encountering the film, which Altman made the year after his breakthrough, “M*A*S*H.” This is also one of the more peculiar 4K blu-ray releases I’ve come across, but more on that later. 

Based on a novel by Edmund Naughton, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” centers on the small, Pacific Northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church. Beatty is McCabe, a businessman who shows up to start a brothel, and soon finds himself partnering with Mrs. Miller—Christie—an entrepreneuring prostitute with dreams of bigger and better business. Things run smoothly for the two, and their “hotel” is doing a fine business. 

Until the representatives of a large, corporate mining operation show up and want to buy McCabe out. McCabe is uninterested, so they send some heavies to town to help force McCabe’s hand. One of the ways “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” deconstructs the American West is with the setting. What do you think about when you picture a Western? A dusty town? Dessert? Altman moves this to a cold, frozen town. It’s not a glamorous place. The town is muddy, dirty, frozen, and desolate. 

In addition to Beatty and Christie, several Altman’s stock players appear as well. Shelly Duvall, John Shuck, and Rene Auberjonois. The film is most interesting and downright bleak. Now comes where I have to admit that I have a weird relationship with Altman’s work. I like and respect Robert Altman a great deal, but I find I tend to go either way with his work. This is one where it just didn’t work for me, I don’t know why. Maybe the fact that I don’t care for Westerns to start with. I love “The Long Goodbye,” which he would make after this, but this just didn’t do all that much for me, though I can respect the film for what it is. 

This new 4K release from Criterion is like many of their revised editions of previously released titles. You get the original blu-ray release, on its own disc with all the extras, plus a new 4K blu-ray disc with the film in the 4K format. Here is where this one takes an odd turn. The 4K restoration was made from the 35mm camera negative, with a 35mm reference print made by the Academy Film Archive and color timed by cinematographer Villas Zisgmond as a reference for the color pallet. 

This film was purposely shot and made to look a little degraded, Altman wanted the film to feel like an old photograph, even “flashing” the negative film to ensure it couldn’t be cleaned up by the studio after turning in the film. Most of Criterion’s 4K releases feature high dynamic range grading in Dolby Vision, which sends information to your TV to maximize the picture quality on the fly in real time. This disc doesn’t have that. It doesn’t even have any kind of high dynamic range grading. 

The 4K image is very good, and like some of the best 4K discs, does look very close to a 35mm projected image. However, the differences between it and the blu-ray are subtle. You get more detail in the images, but comparing the two it’s not a huge difference. The bit-rate is significantly higher, averaging around 93mbps vs the 34mbps on the blu-ray. If you’re happy with the 2016 disc, there isn’t much of an argument to be made for upgrading to this 4K edition. If you don’t have either, you might as well get the 4K version for your shelf. 

The bonus material is very good, all ported over from the previous 2016 release. A commentary with Altman and the film’s producer made in the early 2000s is included. We also have several features and a making-of documentary, archival interviews, and clips from two episodes of “The Dick Caveat Show” featuring Altman and then film critic Pauline Kale discussing the film. 

“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” is another one of the many fine productions from the 1970s American New Wave, for those who are fans of it and die-hards for Altman, this new 4K release will be most welcome. It’s nice to see more American classics come out in the format, so regardless if you upgrade or not, it’s nice to see more titles being revisited by Criterion. See you next week. 


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