‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’ – James Joyce, “The Dead”
The new 4K restoration of Robert Altman’s sixth movie is something to behold. In the first few minutes, the image seems flat, unyielding, almost starched; the shadows aren’t so much shadows as poorly lit spaces. But the image improves through the film, matching the narrative – it gains warmth and depth as itinerant businessman John McCabe pumps life into the indolent snowbound mountain town of Presbyterian Church, shortly before a local mining company sets its sights on the town’s zinc reserves.
Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond knew what he was doing: his pre-fogging of the film stock, to create an old-timey look studio execs wouldn’t be able to undo, has been well-documented. The interior scenes later in the film, when the emotional stakes are a little higher and the protagonists’ hearts have thawed, benefit particularly from this process; a shot of the eponymous brothel madam (Julie Christie) huddled up in bed, and of McCabe (Warren Beatty) mumbling ruefully about his own inarticulacy, are particularly memorable for their muted but unmistakeable glow.
But the real visual masterstroke of the film is Altman’s decision to film on location in British Columbia. The town of Presbyterian Church is fictional, but looks and feels entirely real. The exterior sets were built as shooting went on, which is probably why the movie was filmed in chronological order; the set-builders played villagers in the background. Art director Leon Erickson deserves special mention: it looks entirely believable that the town’s revamped buildings were, within the film’s narrative, recently constructed. But it isn’t simply verisimilitude: the film’s fixed sense of place is psychological, hypnotic and unforgettable. It’s especially claustrophobic when the snowfall gets heavy, a counterpoint to the sun-scorched expansiveness of most Westerns. But even without the hostile weather, we as an audience cannot help but see, subliminally, that just as Beatty and Mrs. Miller built up the town and made it thrive, Altman built up a small settlement and birthed a teeming microcosm – which makes said microcosm’s deterioration unusually moving.
Adrian Danks, in an essay from 2000, was reminded by the film of the work of Bruegel the Elder; he quotes Auden on the apathy of the ploughman in Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, mirroring the townspeople’s apathy towards the plights of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But when it comes to the film’s aesthetic, Bruegel’s wintry scene The Census at Bethlehem resonates more strongly. (The Dutch master went on to have a solid cinematic pedigree: his Hunters in the Snow was visually referenced in two Tarkovsky films later that decade.) Other painterly touchstones are brought out by the new restoration: the snowfall is almost genteel enough, ironically, to recall Signac’s snow scenes, while several indoor shots have something of Renoir’s smudged grandeur and the shrouded mystery of a Rembrandt interior.
But this is no canvas: this is ’71-vintage Altman, with sound to match. The restoration comes with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, crucial to the proper evincing of the film’s noisy ambience. Remastering this film must have been like remastering Exile on Main St., another bastion of early ’70s Americana – how to optimise aesthetic clarity while retaining the muck, confusion and overlapping sounds? At first, as with the visuals, we’re unsure how much value has been added by the restoration, but the sound opens up as the film progresses and as the town grows into itself. Altman hadn’t quite mastered his famed technique of recording each voice onto a different microphone track and then remixing, but here it doesn’t matter: the secondary characters do have some depth, but they play second fiddle to the titular characters.
So the sound and visuals are unusual – it’s a revisionist film, subverting numerous Western clichés. But this has been exhaustively covered by film historians. We should revisit the film’s strengths as a straight-up movie, unburdened by meta-textual baggage. Hugh Millais’s turn as Butler, the six-foot-six bounty hunter, makes Butler one of cinema’s most indelible villains – and he has only one scene of dialogue. His performance is a masterclass of power. A hulking well-spoken Englishman, he’s first seen extolling the value of cheap Chinese labour for the nearby mines, his back to the camera. McCabe bumbles in, and Butler turns around and says, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’ Chilling stuff: it’s the first time in the film someone has told McCabe to wait, but as well as instantly kicking off the film’s fourth act, it’s a visceral reminder of the power of violence on the frontier. Money talks, but violence talks over it. McCabe is a big guy, made bigger by his laughably gigantic red fur coat; but when faced with Butler’s massive frame, we learn at the same time as McCabe does that he’s no longer the biggest guy in town. It’s a poignant moment: despite its inevitability, the scene is so well-blocked, convincingly acted and economically written that we feel a jolt of pity for our daft hero.
Such is Butler’s presence that even though he’s barely around for the final showdown (where three people get shot in the back, rather than in a more conventional shootout configuration), we feel him. It’s one of the tensest showdowns you’ll ever see: Zsigmond’s slow pans, combined with his sudden sniper zooms, make a dread-soaked world of pain out of a winter wonderland. (It began snowing as they began filming these scenes; most of the snow in the film is real.) There are few quick, sharp moves here: instinct is depicted not as a skill, as in conventional Westerns, but as an irrational need to survive. And when McCabe comes to rest in the unforgiving snow, the three bounty hunters dispatched, he has no idea why he’s struggled so hard. His beloved ensconced in an opium den, McCabe doesn’t seem to die from his injuries, but from his unrequited love. He doesn’t even get to be martyred, since he technically won the showdown.
The fact that McCabe gets to kill his three pursuers is not a victory. This is clear not only from editor Lou Lombardo’s famed cross-cutting between McCabe’s showdown and the oblivious townspeople extinguishing a church fire, but also in the film’s deviation from its source material, Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel McCabe, in which McCabe dies in Mrs. Miller’s arms. In the film, his death is simply a personal event. Altman resists the temptation to turn it into an American historical one: we know that it was hubris, not grand historical forces, that prevented McCabe from taking the mining company’s money when he had the chance. In the Western schematic, this pathos – for it is pathetic rather than tragic – is more Lonely Are The Brave than The Misfits. But the snow faintly falls upon all the living and the dead all the same.