1971 Oscar Nomination for Best Actress, Julie Christie.
Even upon its original theatrical release, director Robert Altman's original spin on the western was applauded by a handful of vocal critics - particularly Pauline Kael - and remains a refreshing, if not wholly successful attempt to avoid familiar genre conventions.
Photographed in what was then a novel location, the production recreated an emerging township in a small valley, nestled in the wilds of Vancouver (yet amazingly, in a locale flanked by hidden, million-dollar homes). The DVD's commentary track aptly describes the unique production aspects, including shooting the film entirely in sequence (to coincide with the actual erection of every town building - integral to the story); working with a cast of big stars, amateurs, and actors making their screen debuts (namely Keith Carradine, and William Devane); the film's extraordinary set design, which incorporated oddball antiques, like the authentic steam tractor, and a primitive vacuum cleaner; and more important, Altman's working methods, articulated by the director himself, and then first-time movie producer David Foster.
There's a lot of information from both participants - recorded separately and fairly well edited into a single track - and Altman fans won't be disappointed by the director's candor and wry anecdotes (the "sewing of patches" and the 14-gallon hat key favourites). Foster occasionally repeats information, sometimes with a bit too much reverence - he's a bit close to the material, having co-nurtured "McCabe" through its difficult production and release schedules - but his perspective and admiration for the qualities that made many seventies films now highly regarded classics have to be respected.
Visually, Warner's DVD is an improvement over the previous widescreen laserdisc edition, which had sharp contrast, and muted colours. The DVD transfer is surprisingly clean, and Vilmos Zsigmond's antique-styled cinematography (in which he flashed the film, exposing the camera negative to light before processing) shows some grain but minor artifacting. The warm colour spectrum is saturated to a natural level, and though interior scenes, like the opening card game, are still a bit too dim, the images are quite sharp. Things get a bit confusing, though, in later exterior sequences, where the contrast has been toned down; the final snowstorm chase now takes place towards the end of a long day, whereas the laserdisc's high contrast transfer made it appear the finale occurred around mid-day. The snow patches are no longer "hot," and subtle blueness does affect the sky shots; one has to assume this is the director and cinematographer's original intention.
Notorious for having one of the worst sound mixes, "McCabe" still contains utterly unintelligible passages that make the first half hour a frustrating experience. Altman's efforts to continue his overlapping dialogue technique from "M*A*S*H" was severely harmed by bad location sound, with footsteps and other assorted wild sound effects smothering any hope of clarity. The Dolby Digital mono track clips the high end, adding more warmth and bass but making a few early passages rather muddy; it's a tradeoff with the laser's old soundtrack, since the high end was somewhat sharper, but added unwanted hiss and pressed treble effects against the dialogue.
The DVD includes a vintage production featurette that hypes the film's unique shooting plan (with Vancouver and Canada often pronounced in the narration with an aura of suburban shock). Window-boxed, the worn but watchable 16mm "making-of" has slightly off-kilter colours, but the soft focus and modest grain are relatively minor. A fairly clean, anamorphic trailer rounds out the disc, with an emphasis on Leonard Cohen's moving, albeit overused songs.
Laserdisc collectors might want to hold onto their big platters, as the original Warner/Kinney shield used during the early 70s has been replaced with the current WB logo.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan