McCabe & Mrs Miller: If a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass!

Last night, I watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and I was absolutely floored. I loved it. I’m still buzzing about it. I’m looking forward to getting home and firing it up again to listen to the Altman’s commentary track.

Roger Ebert’s Great Movies entry sells it better than I ever could:

It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971). This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come – not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem–an elegy for the dead.

Few films have such an overwhelming sense of location. Presbyterian Church is a town thrown together out of raw lumber, hewn from the forests that threaten to reclaim it. The earth is either mud or frozen ice. The days are short and there is little light inside, just enough from a gas lamp to make a gold tooth sparkle, or a teardrop glisten. This is not the kind of movie where the characters are introduced. They are all already here. They have been here for a long time. They know all about one another.

His description of one of my favorite scenes:

Life is cheap here. The film shows one of the most heartbreaking deaths in the history of the Western. A goofy kid (Keith Carradine) has ridden into town and visited all the girls in the house. Now he has started across a suspension bridge. A young gunslinger approaches from the other side and cold-bloodedly talks him into being shot to death. The kid knows he is going to get shot. He tries to be friendly and ingratiating, but the time has come. The town looks on, impassive. You don’t want to be caught on a bridge facing a guy like that. We realize at the end of the film that this episode on the bridge is the whole story in microcosm: Some people are just incapable of not getting themselves killed.

Had you never seen it before, or was this a rewatch? If the latter, what’s something you noticed this time that you hadn’t noticed before? If the former, what made you choose it? And, more importantly, I’m interested in hearing more about what you thought than what some other movie critic thought. : )

It was a first viewing for me. I’d picked up the Criterion release after it was mentioned in the documentary Z Channel, and put it on because, unlike Heaven’s Gate (which I got for the same reason), it wasn’t nearly four hours long.

I’m still trying to put my thoughts together about it, and I know it’s one that I’ll be revisiting. I needed to say something about it, but I feel like whatever words I manage to string together will end up being frustratingly inadequate.

It’s such a beautiful film. And not in the sense of being pretty–it’s cold, wet, muddy, and rough. I shiver a little thinking about it. But it’s beautiful in the way that the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest are; especially in fall and winter. It feels real in such a way that I forgot that I was watching a film. Which sounds silly or hyperbolic, but it’s true.

The sense of naturalness extends to both the plot and the characters, as well. It never felt like events were unfolding in a certain way in order to be narratively or thematically satisfying. Mistakes are made, but they felt like honest, human mistakes, and not the result of a screenwriter plotting their way to an emotional payoff.

It also managed to make me forget I was watching Warren Beatty, who, like DiCaprio or Cruise, I have a hard time keeping myself thinking I’m watching a character and not an actor acting.

Ugh. That’s still nowhere near complete, but at least it’s something.

Also, just look at these coats:


So three things:


You aren’t kidding, @anonymgeist. I certainly remembered the look of it, but not how absolutely lush it was with that classic 70s Vilmos Zsigmund cinematopgraphy (he’s also famous for Deer Hunter and Close Encounters). Gorgeous movie. And Altman’s staging is amazing throughout, the way the actors and the dialogue and the set design are all of a piece, threaded tightly into each other. Such a rich cinematic feast, shot as solidly on location as you can be!

In fact, I found myself wanting to just watch the minutiae of people’s lives. There’s a moment when the “Seattle whores” arrive and are sent into the bath house that Mrs. Miller has had constructed. The women are wet and cold and complaining as they file into the room and we see Chinese servants opening stopcocks and water running down sluices into the tubs. We’re getting a “bath procedural”! But then Altman cuts away.

And when we revisit the scene later, the women are all naked, playing around, clean, splashing, frolicking, happy.

So for all the stuff I remember about the greenery and mud and eventual snow, how it was so unlike other Westerns shot in Arizona or Spain or wherever, this time I was really drawn to the details of the production, to the sets, to the costumes, the cards they used, the cigars they smoked, the eggs Rene Auberjonois fries over a plate of stew for Julie Christie.

So for that scene of the Seattle whores arriving, I wanted to see how the women’s clothes worked! All those buttons and petticoats and ribbons and whatnot. That’s how alive and natural the world seemed to me, how “lived in” it felt. That I was expecting to see all the minutiae of what a bath would have been like, and how women would have had to carefully peel away all those layers, only to be deprived when Altman cut to a different scene. I’m guessing Altman cut away because the actual actresses on set would have had no idea how all the historical costumes worked, so Altman probably just shot them arriving, then had the costumers undress them for the next shot of the ladies frolicking. But to me, because the movie felt so lived in, that jump was conspicuous and I was deprived of the historical “undressing procedural”.

But, yes, a gorgeous movie on so many levels.


Do you ever see or hear something you’ve remembered all your life, but you didn’t remember where it was from? I’m sure I haven’t seen McCabe & Mrs Miller in, gosh, 20 years or more probably. But this rewatch jogged awake my recollection of the way Warren Beatty mutters “god-damn” through his beard. There’s something clipped about it, the way he pinches off the “god” in back of his throat and lets the “damn” serve as a kind of release valve for the percussiveness of the “god”. It’s very natural, almost a speech pattern, but it makes the “god-damn” sound qualitatively different from whatever else he’s saying. It’s nearly punctuation. It’s a calling card.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with cussing all my life, but that “read” of the phrase “god-damn” has always stuck with me, always echoed in my head, always been the most correct use of “god-damn”. You can say “fuck” any number of ways and they’re all good; but there is a single and definitive pronunciation of “god-damn”. Yet — until last night – I had no recollection that it was directly from Warren Beatty’s read in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I can’t tell you how sweet it was to hear that again! A little like coming home.


OMG, I had totally forgotten the ending, probably because I had been too young to appreciate some of the touches. For starters, the whole bit with the church burning, the town coming together to save it while Beatty dies in the snow, the haunting shot of the black barber and his wife withdrawing from the crowd, and the shots of the Chinese side of town where we learn (?) that Mrs. Miller probably doesn’t love McCabe and just wants to get high. That’s such a classic 70s cinema existential gut punch, complete with a side order of disaffected American politics! Incredibly powerful to me. And Altman just slips it in at the end. That leaves a mark.

And finally, that derringer reveal was a real delight. I had completely forgotten that plot point about John McCabe! And I bet you dollars to donuts I recognize how they did that headshot on the Oliver Reed-looking fellow! I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but when I got my SAG card, it was to work on a little Western that was being shot in Arkansas. My character gets shot and dumped in a cold river, which immediately came to mind when they had poor Keith Carradine floating in that icy pond. For me, they had a stuntman get rolled into the cold water! But my character gets shot in the head first, and someone on the production of this penny-ante Western being shot in Arkansas in the 90s had this idea that they were going to use a pea shooter to shoot a pea dipped in fake blood at my forehead, where it would make a red splotch, but the pea would be travelling too fast for the camera to pick up. That was headshot special effects in the 90s.

So a stagehand stood just out of frame shooting peas at my face while I tried not to flinch. They bounced off my cheek, my hat, and eventually the poor stagehand who was trying not to put my eye out connected with my forehead. More or less. I don’t think the shot was used, but I recognized the effect in McCabe & Mrs Miller!

So that’s what movie I watched last night. Thanks, @anonymgeist.

That film is next on my Altman movie watch through.

Can’t seem to find it on any streaming service at the moment.

Amazon had the 4k UHD criterion edition for 26$. (Includes Blu ray as well)

Looking forward to watching this soon.

Check out “Nashville” if you can, that was the most recent Altman film.

I’m still a little giddy with a bounce in my step from watching this. I can’t believe I’d waited so long before seeing it. Honestly, I think I’d avoided it because my mind just automatically conflated it with The Ghost & Mrs Muir.

Such a great call-out on “god-damn”. Reading that, I can vividly see and hear the line in my head.

The whole ending sequence is just a masterpiece. I feel I could happily spend hours dissecting each shot. There truly is no substitute for filming in real snow.

That shot slays me. We see the townsfolk celebrating after the church fire has been put out. A jug comes out and they start to pass it around, throwing hats in the air, whooping and hollering. And now Altman cuts to the black couple, the barber and his wife who had arrived with the Seattle whores. They have looks of deep misgiving on their faces. Altman tracks them as they surreptitiously move away from the crowd.

So much with so little.

Well worth it and here’s an Amazon link if anyone want to support the forum! It’s also got the Altman commentary track that I’m looking forward to listening to.

Yep, this seals it! Gonna throw this one into my current semester so I can watch it on the big screen. I’ve only seen it once, just a few years ago, but I loved it and immediately bought the Criterion Blu-ray. For the past few weeks, I’ve had it in my little pile of films I might want to screen in the coming weeks. (It was in a pile along with Ghost World, Roma, Still Walking and Summer Hours.)

I have no idea what 43 film-student teenagers from all corners of the globe will think of it but it’s time to find out!

That’s amazing. I know there was a period when some movie productions favored using the equivalent of very gentle paintball rounds to get some bullet effects done, (chests, limbs, and backs only - no face shots) but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of using a blotted pea.

P.S. I’m screening Raising Arizona tomorrow night (in honor of M Emmet!) and I just realized this line from the thread title shows up there too! :)

Was just about to post, but yeah, it shows up in Hudsucker Proxy too. I guess the Coens are fans of this movie…

The weird thing to me was that everyone was being super careful with the firearms – Bandon Lee had just died – complete with crew members outside the frame wearing protective glasses when dummy rounds were fired. Yet at the end of the day, there I was on-camera having peas fired directly into my face! I mean, seriously, no joke: I could have lost an eye!

I cannot wait for that thread bump to find out!

I had always known the line was from McCabe & Mrs Miller, but I had also been misquoting it for years based on those Coen bastardizations. So when I watched the movie last night, I was surprised Beatty was so straightforward with it! I had remembered it as something convoluted, like, “If I frog had wings, he could fly and he wouldn’t bump his ass on the ground when he hopped somewhere”.

Basically, I had stripped out all the Western laconic and turned it into some detailed theorem about frog transportation.

I’ll never see this scene again without thinking of peas hitting your face.

Tom’s story made me think of this scene in The Usual Suspects which, as I understand it, did actually involve a lit cigarette getting flicked into Stephen Baldwin’s face.

Oh god, no one click on that. I was not aware that sort of thing was available online! And with the Fandango imprimatur, no less.

Altman, Lynch and Kubrick are my personal pantheon of cinematic gods.

The Coens get to be demigods.

Ha, ha, you got close-ups with Rob Lowe.

How did we feel about the Leonard Cohen songs in McCabe & Mrs Miller?

To be honest, I’m not sure they hold up. I love playing The Stranger Song over the opening credits as Beatty rides though the woods towards town. But pretty much every other time Cohen started rasping lyrics over the action, it took me out of the world Altman was creating and dropped me right back into my college dorm. Probably not the intended effect and arguably a “me” issue.

I actually feel the same–I loved The Stranger Song (which I wasn’t previously familiar with), but I think maybe it would’ve been best to maybe use it twice as a bookend and drop the rest of it. It didn’t distract me terribly, but it just felt a little out of place.

I did like how sparse the music was generally, though.