Revisiting “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” Robert Altman and Vilmos Zsigmond’s Western Masterpiece

March 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

William Devane, Kathryn Altman and Keith Carradine at Ahrya Fine Arts Movie Theater, Beverly Hills on 3/2/16/Hope Anderson Productions

William Devane, Kathryn Altman and Keith Carradine at Ahrya Fine Arts Movie Theater, Beverly Hills on 3/2/16/Hope Anderson Productions

Two weeks ago, Laemmle Theaters screened Robert Altman’s 1971 Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in tribute to its cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who died on New Year’s Day. A prime example of the 1970s Western revival that includes such films as “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Pat McGarrett and Billy the Kid” and “Little Big Man,” “McCabe” was initially perceived as a showcase for its famous stars, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, a real-life couple at the time. Thirty-five years later, it is better known for Keith Carradine’s debut, Leonard Cohen’s beautiful songs and, perhaps most of all, for Zsigmond’s brilliant photography.

No one who has seen “McCabe” could forget its climactic shoot-out, or the opening scene, a long pan over the mountainous landscape that Beatty traverses on horseback, disguised by his huge bearskin coat:

The Q & A afterwards featured Robert Altman’s widow, Kathryn, and the actors Keith Carradine and William Devane. All spoke fondly of the shoot, which took place in Vancouver and featured real snow, real carpenters (some of whom lived on set) and communal living in a nearby subdivision. Carradine, only 21 at the time and fresh off the Broadway run of “Hair,” talked about his death scene (being yanked off his horse by a wire into freezing water) and the magic of the roughly six-minute, music-free shootout that ends the film. It couldn’t happen in movies today, he said, with their omnipresent scores. (I agree: the fact that the score of “McCabe” consists almost entirely of three Leonard Cohen songs seems in retrospect wildly, wonderfully new. Someone should try it again, dispensing with the sonic wall that too often serves as an emotional crutch in today’s films.)

Six days later, I was shocked to hear that Kathryn Altman had died suddenly of a heart attack. Though she was 91, she seemed far younger, and her death was unexpected. The screening of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” at which she paid tribute to the late Vilmos Zsigmond, was her last public appearance.

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