No, it’s not Friday. Sorry to get your hopes up. Despite the fact it’s only Wednesday I wanted to take today and revisit the marketing for Robert Altman’s neo-Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Why? Because tonight The Music Box Theater in Chicago is hosting a screening of the movie in conjunction with the Sound Opinions podcast, which is focusing on the movie because it features songs and a score by the late great Leonard Cohen. So let’s take a look at how this 1971 classic was marketed.
The movie stars Warren Beatty as John McCabe, a drifter who finds himself in the small mining town of Presbyterian Church, Washington. He quickly becomes the subject of much interest and gossip for his big talk and loud personality. Sensing opportunity, he opens a brothel that winds up being run by another recent arrival, Constance Miller (Julie Christie). The two not only become business partners but also lovers but the good thing they have going is upset by the interest of a competing mining company who wants to take over operations in the town. Violence ensues as the intrusive company sends muscle to take by force what McCabe was unwilling to sell.
The movie’s theatrical poster is an interesting mix of concepts. The faces of Beatty and Christie loom large in the background of the stark-white one-sheet, framed by lines meant to invoke an old frame or woodcut design. Copy at the top explains this is “The story of a gambling man and a hustling lady and the empire they fashioned from the wilderness,” which is maybe a tad over-explanatory. The rest of the poster uses single-color images of some of the town’s residents and other characters to try and set the scene. It’s not a cohesive thing, it’s more just a collection of tinged pictures that have been dropped into the design, perhaps to create the sense of this being kind of a trip movie. That doesn’t mean it looks like the cover to a Pink Floyd concept album, just that it’s trying to evoke a bit of psychedelia conveying some notion of it being a bit far out. That’s contrasted by the title treatment which, along with the names of Christie and Beatty, uses an old-fashioned font that very much looks like a Western.
While the copy on the trailer reads like the better part of a full synopsis, the trailer is remarkably unconcerned with divulging almost any of the movie’s story. Instead it plays like a Leonard Cohen music video, with no dialogue, just a series of shots of Christie, Beatty and the rest of the cast moving around and talking to each other. You get that this is set in a ramshackle frontier town of some sort and that there’s some sort of relationship between the two leads but that’s about it.
There isn’t even a mention that the movie comes from Altman, which is surprising considering M.A.S.H. had already been a critical hit at this point. Instead it’s all about creating a mood and selling the audience on a style. Cohen’s plaintive lyrics and melodies do that in spades, adding to the bleakness of the footage being shown. So instead of trying to lay out the story, the trailer is just about atmosphere, counting on the audience being on board with Beatty and Christie, both of whom had decent filmographies leading up to this.
Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias have an excellent discussion of the movie from a couple years ago at The Dissolve that’s absolutely worth reading. And if you can’t make it to Chicago for tonight’s screening, you can find McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s Criterion Collection edition, which features Altman more prominently on the box art and supplemental material than the theatrical campaign did.