Altman called it, “no great piece of writing," and his lengthy thoughts on the western script clearly outlined his objective.
"I get to draw from the whole world. When we did ‘McCabe’ somebody asked, “Why are you doing this? This is the most standard Western.” I said, It’s the most standard Western story we could find that has all the elements that everybody has already seen. So, I’ve got the three killers, the giant, the half-breed, and the kid. I’ve got the whore with the heart of gold. I’ve got the slimy merchant and then this kind of blustering hero who wasn’t really a hero—that was the only difference. So the audience knows the story, and they’re able to just go in. And I’m able to go in and say, “Yeah, you’re comfortable in this story, but let me tell you maybe they wore these kinds of clothes and maybe this sort of thing happened. Maybe they didn’t all wear big hats and speak with a drawl. Maybe the hero was just this normal, well-intentioned, blustering kind of guy who stumbles on the right thing to do.” —Robert Altman
In 1968, producer David Foster optioned a pulp Western entitled McCabe, written in 1959 by author Edmund Naughton. The manuscript would undergo several re-writes with the final shooting script written by Brian McKay who had recently been released from prison for stealing money orders. The original film title was The Presbyterian Church Wager until the time of the films release and the title was changed to McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
A gambler and a prostitute become business partners in a remote Old West mining town, and their enterprise thrives until a large corporation arrives on the scene. That logline pretty much sums up the story, but not the efforts cast and crew went through to create a visually stunning set and film. The town was built around them while they lived in it. Raw lumber, mud in the streets, rusty nails vs. new nails so they wouldn't catch the glimmer of lights. The town was built for its characters as was much of the dialogue which was driven by long sessions of improvisation before shooting began each day.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Julie Christie said, "Altman works in such an interesting way, letting things occur in the film even if he didn’t particularly plan them. We lived in that town, you know. Everybody lived there. We were up to British Columbia and built the town as the movie was made, all raw lumber and mud in the streets. And the cast and crew lived in the buildings. It was uncanny; I think perhaps Presbyterian Church seems like a real place to the people in the movie because it was a real place for all of us."
Christie, who rose to great acclaim after her role in Doctor Zhivago is a British actress whom Al Pacino calls the "most poetic of all actresses," plays the part of a prostitute who oversees one side of the brothel and partnership.
Warren Beatty who needs little to no introduction, plays the gambler and rumored gunfighter who comes to town and presents his ideas of success in drinking and prostitution to Mrs. Miller and the business thrives. Together with costume and the brilliance of the aforementioned build out of sets, created a timeless western that draws the viewer in - deeply.
Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine also star.
Leonard Cohen wrote the three songs featured in the film. “The Stranger Song”, “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” Having released his first album a few years earlier, McCabe and Mrs. Miller helped launch Cohen's career - and though he died in 2016, his music continues to be widely used in film and television.