Color and cinematic Stimming

1\If you had to distill the argument of the article into one brief sentence (difficult, I know, but give it a shot), what would you say? Tip: try to locate the paper’s thesis.

2.Were there any film technical terms mentioned in the article that you didn’t know? please define 2.

3.Was there a specific argumentative point or paragraph that stuck out to you as insightful? What was that point, and why did it stick with you?

4.From a stylistic/structural standpoint, did you find this article easy to read and understand? Or difficult? Why? Are there any stylistic or structural techniques used here that you think could be helpful for your own paper?

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New Review of Film and Television Studies
ISSN: 1740-0309 (Print) 1740-7923 (Online) Journal homepage:
Orange is the warmest color: mood and chromatic
temperature in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs.
Rick Warner
To cite this article: Rick Warner (2017) Orange is the warmest color: mood and chromatic
temperature in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, New Review of Film and Television Studies,
15:1, 24-39, DOI: 10.1080/17400309.2017.1265419
To link to this article:
Published online: 23 Feb 2017.
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New Review of Film and Television Studies, 2017
VOL . 15, NO. 1, 24–39
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Orange is the warmest color: mood and chromatic temperature in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Rick Warner
Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,
This article examines the aesthetic, affective, and character-based significance
of the color orange in Altman’s revisionist western. Drawing on the concept of
Stimmung (“mood” or “attunement”), it focuses on the film’s interplay between
cool and warm tones, wherein different shades of orange contend with blues and
grays. The essay considers the ways in which this chromatic scheme describes the
inner lives of the two central characters; it also shows how this use of color opens
onto a politicized critique of the mortal violence, greed, and inequality that put
an end to their partnership.
KEYWORDS Color; Stimmung; film aesthetics; McCabe & Mrs. Miller
‘It’s the feeling tone that matters’
A solitary figure on horseback crosses a rainy late-autumn landscape and rides
into town, his pace unhurried. The mise-en-scène of this opening series of
long shots places the action somewhere in the U.S. Pacific Northwest – and
somewhere in the parameters of the western genre, where a stranger’s arrival
CONTACT Rick Warner [email protected]
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is a familiar way of initiating the plot. But in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs.
Miller (1971), this convention is made peculiar both by the non-diegetic music
and the very look and feel of the film. Instead of a period-appropriate score,
Leonard Cohen’s ruminative ‘The Stranger Song’ plays over this sequence: the
ballad’s contemporaneity with the time of the film’s creation stands at odds
with the story’s 1902 setting, but it uncannily matches the lugubrious tone of
the images in their radiant murkiness.1
Our stranger (Warren Beatty) walks into a congested tavern, sets up a poker
table, and presents himself as a man of promise who will see to it that this fledgling
town of Presbyterian Church begins to thrive. He does this while answering
to the name and ‘big rep’ of John McCabe, a businessman and, according to
hearsay, dangerous gunfighter. This narrative premise is clear enough, but the
cinematic presentation of this event leaves us not quite knowing where to look
or what to listen to at any given instant. McCabe’s introduction is at the center
of the scene, but Altman’s camera veers off course with errant zooms and cutting
patterns that highlight incidental objects, faces, and gestures. Much of the action
is visually indistinct; and a fair amount of the dialog is lost in a din of low voices.
Such willful disorientation has led some commentators to attribute to
McCabe & Mrs. Miller a program of opacity whereby Altman’s overt stylization
muddles the drama onscreen and keeps the viewer at a distance from the main
characters. In an overview of Altman’s films of the early 1970s, Hamish Ford
reads this post-classical western as deploying a strategy of extreme obfuscation
that creates a chasm between the spectator and dramatis personae who turn out
to be ciphers, little more than pretexts for Altman’s formalism and his tinkering
with generic norms (121–127). ‘The audience,’ argues Ford, ‘is left very much
facing, rather than entering, the alien and often unappetizing world on screen
only ever seen by means of an especially foregrounded, very murky image’
(2015, 123). I of course take Ford’s point that this style refuses us the advantage
of the catbird seat in which Hollywood films often situate us shot by shot, and
that this style actively troubles our engagement with the story. But I don’t quite
recognize Altman’s stunning, enticingly atmospheric film in Ford’s account of it.
A fuller description is in order, one that attends with greater care to an aspect
that negotiates a more dynamic relationship between screen and viewer: the
aspect of mood, and the key role that color plays therein.2
Pauline Kael captures the moody spirit in which McCabe & Mrs. Miller both
attracts and confounds us:
A slightly dazed reaction to the film is, I think, an appropriate one. Right from the
start, events don’t wait for the viewers’ comprehension […] and it takes a while to
realize that if you didn’t quite hear someone’s words it’s all right – that the exact
words are often expendable, it’s the feeling tone that matters. The movie is inviting,
it draws you in, but at the opening it may seem unnecessarily obscure […] and
later on it may seem insubstantial […]. One doesn’t quite know what to think of
an American movie that doesn’t pretend to give more than a partial view of events.
The gaslight, the subdued, restful color, and Mrs. Miller’s golden opium glow,
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Leonard Cohen’s lovely, fragile, ambiguous songs, and the drifting snow all make
the movie hazy and evanescent. Everything is in motion, and yet there is a stillness
about the film, as if every element in it were conspiring to tell the same incredibly
sad story: that the characters are lost in their separate dreams. (1994, 377–78)
In what follows, I am going to illustrate how the ‘feeling tone’ that saturates the
fictional world onscreen is, despite its fogginess, by no means an impediment to
the spectator’s emotional and intellectual investment in the unfolding drama.
My sense is that, however much Altman’s visual and aural strategies deny conventional
identification, the palpable mood his style generates is precisely what
opens up points of access through the opacity, attuning us to the inner lives of
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie).
In particular, I am going to focus on how color works as a crucial element
in this mood-based esthetic. Although appreciations of the film’s visual beauty
and uniqueness are common in the critical literature, few have paid sufficient
attention to the chromatic significance of its compositions. Robert Kolker and
Robert T. Self have both made substantial headway on this score by discussing
how the film’s ordering of events oscillates between cool exteriors and warm
interiors. Kolker’s take on this logic of organization is that it insinuates a thematics
of ‘needed protection and desired community,’ even as this desire is sharply
complicated by the film’s ironic attitude toward the drama and its characters
(356–357). Self, for his part, interprets the color contrasts as supporting a ‘lyrical
and metaphoric style’ that taps into ‘the unspoken and unspeakable dimensions
of human interactions,’ articulating links between the two main characters but
doing so in oblique, ‘subliminal’ ways (141–142).
My reading will make a case for an understanding of the film’s tonal use of
color that falls somewhere between these perspectives, an understanding that
neither overstresses the cynicism of Altman’s authorial stance toward the film’s
narrative nor reduces the interplay of cool and warm temperatures to a static,
unambiguous code of representation. Self ’s description of the film’s style as
lyrical is indeed apposite, as I will confirm below, but I would like to go further
in showing how, in this revisionist western, the atmosphere enfolds us in an
intimate consideration of the two primary characters and their situations. As we
will see, the color orange has an especially important function and weight in this
disposition of atmosphere: it is constantly either counterpointed by cool tones
or modulated into yellows, rust reds, ambers, and warm pinks. Stark orange
is intermittently there in the film, often in the guise of fire, but in each case it
takes on expressive value with respect to this larger system of modulation and
alternation. Orange thus shifts across a variety of warm tints, while blues and
grays remain relatively less violable. I am going to examine how this varying
of orange relates to the characters in their delicate circumstances as they find
themselves up against forces they are ultimately powerless to oppose. Orange
provides an index to McCabe’s flawed and ridiculous masculinity, lending it
pathos in spite of his many shortcomings. And the same warm hues gather
around Mrs. Miller and play on her thwarted talents and desires.
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Color and cinematic Stimmung
McCabe & Mrs. Miller may at first glance appear inopportune for a study of color
esthetics, given that its images are famously rendered less pristine and bright
by the cinematographic method of ‘flashing,’ an unorthodox and risky procedure
whereby the negative is exposed to small, partially controlled amounts of
light before the footage has been processed in a lab. The film’s then-budding,
now-revered director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond, experimented with
this method in order to satisfy Altman’s demand for an aged, faded look akin
to ‘antique photographs’ (Zuckoff 2009, 215; Altman). He tried both pre- and
post-flashing the negative in an improvised process of testing the capabilities of
the chosen color stock. The result is a soft and fairly uniform graininess: details
are drawn out of the shadows, but at the same time, black values are grayed,
the contrast is flattened, and the colors are blunted. While this look approaches
that of old photographs and makes for a kind of era-specific authenticity, it
also converts the film frame from a transparent window into a more painterly
canvas whose streaked and gradated qualities strongly mark what we see with
emotional inflections. In an interview, Zsigmond recollects that for many of
the flashed scenes in the film, he and Altman strove to emulate the desaturated,
limited-range play of color found in Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. Zsigmond also
used a Wyeth art book as a visual reference for the laboratory that developed
the film (Schaefer and Salvato 2013, 326). Altman and Zsigmond, in close
consultation with Leon Ericksen, their equally virtuosic set designer, amplified
this effect through intensive lens diffusion. For a number of the indoor scenes
in particular, they ‘used a heavy #3 fog filter to create a blurred, “flarey” quality’
(Schauer 2014, 90). Altman’s insistence on carrying out these stylistic measures
during the act of shooting – that is, on searing this look into the negative
instead of obtaining a similar result in post-production – was in part a guard
against the studio cleaning up and clarifying the images after the fact (Altman).
All this may suggest a sepia palette, but color in fact maintains a certain
painterly richness and intensity in the finished film. To go back to the opening
scene, the kerosene lanterns within the tavern give off an orange-amber glow that
adds vibrancy to the event. The shadows consist less of pitch darkness than an
inky magenta that envelops the action as McCabe loses a few hands of five-card
stud. Commentators often describe the mise-en-scène of the film as dominated by
earth tones, which perhaps accurately holds for the sets, costumes, and wooded
exteriors, but such a view loses sense of this play of color onscreen. In a radio
interview with Gross (2016) for National Public Radio, Zsigmond disagrees when
she comments that McCabe & Mrs. Miller is pervaded by browns and grays:
Well, actually what it is . . . actually, we had two different tones in that movie. We
had the cold blue tones when it’s raining outside and it’s very dark, early morning.
And even in a winter day, you know, when the sun is behind the clouds it has a
sort of bluish look. So we had a lot of that in McCabe. But when we went inside,
in those days they had kerosene lanterns and candles, so obviously we warmed
up the interiors. So the mixture of this blue and orange or sepia tones gave you
the look of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. If you look back at my old movies – McCabe &
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Mrs. Miller, Heaven’s Gate and Cinderella Liberty – I always like to use warm tones
in movies. This is basically, I think, because I admire Rembrandt and Caravaggio,
and those paintings today have this kind of a look.3
To be sure, the film ignites a twofold expressive scheme in which warm tones
persistently vie with icy blues, silvers, and whites, within and between shots. The
very titles at the film’s outset appear in a yellow-orange script that stands out
against the dreary landscape – dreary except for the autumn leaves (yellow-orange
and rust red) that find their way into the frame. McCabe’s introduction
picks up this relay of warm colors, punctuated as it is by two chromatically
important moments of pause. En route to the tavern, he stops on a footbridge
to light his cigar, producing a flare of orange, which is caught in an exquisite telephoto
shot from a distance. His puffs of smoke concur with and echo Cohen’s
song lyrics (‘While he talks his dreams to sleep you notice there’s a highway/That
is curling up like smoke above his shoulder’). As this shot goes on, he crosses
the bridge and halts again, now pictured for the first time in close-up; there is
another fiery glimmer of orange as he takes a draw on his cigar and peers into
the tavern through a window, sizing things up, all this just as ‘directed by Robert
Altman’ letters the frame, and we realize that we have observed the stranger’s
approach through a grimy pane of glass. Altman recounts that the strikingness
of this shot earned him a congratulatory phone call from Stanley Kubrick, who
wanted to know not merely how the shot was achieved but how Altman knew for
certain that he could capture the desired result when he conceived it (Altman).
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My concern is to show how this thick atmosphere gives us access to and
remarks on the lead characters, but first let me make clear that the sort of
relation between figure and ground, character and setting, that I am out to
define is not a simple case of the transferal of thought and emotion onto scenery
that functions as an objective correlative. I wish to capture a more fluid dynamic
between filmic expression, character interiority, and spectator experience, a
dynamic that works in keeping with the concept of Stimmung, which I borrow
from German esthetic theory. Both Robert Sinnerbrink (2012) and Inga
Pollmann (2010) have indicated that Stimmung, which best translates as ‘mood’
or ‘attunement,’ is highly advantageous for grasping how certain films mobilize
a complex atmospheric interface between spectator and screen. According to
Sinnerbrink, who, like Pollmann, draws on earlier film-theoretical articulations
by Lotte Eisner and Béla Balázs, Stimmung names the way in which forceful
currents of mood pervade the filmic world – including its drama and its formal
gestures – while also radiating outward to encompass and intensely shape our
affective responses (148–153). At issue here is not a conventional dramaturgy in
which a scene’s plot-based content is shored up in a neatly psychologistic fashion
by a visual or acoustic backdrop. It is not that the setting externalizes something
that resides firmly within the characters. On the contrary, Stimmung has more
to do with vibratory resonances of feeling that move and filter dispersively
between human subjects and their environments and back again.
Altman’s idiosyncratic western needs to be understood as conveying, in its
flashed and fogged textures, a sense of Stimmung that emanates along warm
(orange) and cool (anti-orange) strands. As we shall see, this color-coding of
the film’s moodiness is by turns somber, comical, critical, and what I will call
lyrical. Far from setting up an impenetrable barrier, this atmosphere and its
surfaces largely work to attune us to the affective key of the spectacle, including
its most decisive elaborations of character.
‘I got poetry in me’
As regards McCabe, the seeming blockages to our investment go beyond style.
As embodied by Beatty, our ‘hero’ is rather unheroic for much if not all of
the film, a crass buffoon who exudes incompetence even as he succeeds in
convincing the townsfolk (not counting Mrs. Miller) of his resourcefulness
and sophistication. In the film’s color palette some of the warm accents piece
together his persona: the glowing orange cigar, his golden tooth, his enormous
orangey–brown grizzly bear fur coat, the raw, orangey–yellow egg yolk
he drinks with a glass of amber whiskey in a ritual show of his masculinity.
A number of shots suggestively position McCabe in the vicinity of fire, shots
that at once rhyme with orange sunsets at dusk and foreshadow the orange
blaze that will erupt in the film’s closing act. This series of objects, events, and
gestures maps a trajectory that is common to several of Altman’s early films.
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Robin Wood points out that the typical Altman protagonist is ‘a combination of
arrogance and vulnerability’ that springs from ‘arrested adolescence,’ an unheroic
figure who embarks on a quest and is done in by his own ‘assumption of
control,’ which proves to be falsely based (1986, 31–32). This general theme
pertains to McCabe, whose grim fate results from his bungled pose as a shrewd
dealmaker, but the particular way in which his vulnerability registers is fairly
unique. Folded into the film are moments where we hear him muttering to
himself, usually in private, his words just audible. Now, Marlowe (Elliott Gould)
also does this in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) but the thrust is different:
Marlowe talks to himself in a glibly self-aware manner and offers a running – or
rather a ‘floating’ – gloss on the deceptive, brutal, and superficial persons he
encounters as a detective, this being part of what Murray Pomerance deems
his ‘super-ascendance over the film characterologically, structurally, narratively,
and above all tonally’ (2015, 236–239, 249). By contrast, McCabe gracelessly
vents irritations and rehearses arguments inside the orange envelope of his
self, wrestling half-formed thoughts into clipped phrases he can handle and
perhaps repeat at a later time.
This leitmotif of his mumbling, and of our overhearing, prepares us for
one of the film’s most gripping orchestrations of atmosphere: a soliloquy in
which each element of display conspires to bring forth and resonate with the
frailty of his being. This private moment follows a confrontation in the tavern,
where it finally dawns on him that the three men who have been sent by the
mining company he has failed to cut a deal with are contract killers sent to
murder him. Orange factors into the earlier scene by dint of its absence. The
tavern is partially dappled with white and gauzy daylight that rebounds off the
snow outside: McCabe’s orangish bearskin coat is chilled into a dull brown and
his golden tooth looks silver. He is unmanned by the personality of the lead
assassin, a tall, ominous, and charismatic figure called Butler (Hugh Millais),
who is wearing a white-and-gray fleece. The only flicker of subdued orange
in the scene occurs when Butler lights up his own cigar in a gesture meant to
intimidate. Upon forcing McCabe’s exit, Butler confers with the tavern’s owner
and debunks McCabe’s rep as a ruthless gunman, all but singing the lines: ‘That
man? That man never killed anybody.’
To us, if not to the townsfolk, Butler’s observation comes across as a compliment,
and it cues one of Cohen’s tender instrumentals as we cut to a scene of
McCabe pacing in his living quarters, now alone. The film thus shifts from the
pallid ambiance of the tavern to a more intricate chiaroscuro. His face in a patch
of darkness, McCabe loads his pistol in between swigging shots of whiskey, all
the while prating not about the grave fix he is in but about his feelings for Mrs.
Miller, the madam of the brothel they manage together as business partners.
They have slept together, but he has paid for her company, as any other client
would. He laments that she has not returned his affections, and also that his
(male) authority has been voided by the fact that she has ‘run the show.’ The
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kerosene lanterns in his room emit an orangey warmth that contends strikingly
with the icy blue exterior we can see through the windows. Much of his
monolog is staged with his back to us in a medium-long shot. His loading of
the gun – a stock gesture of intrigue in classical westerns – is so downplayed
as to seem immaterial.
Kolker reads this scene as yet another portrayal of McCabe’s pathetic self-absorption
and stumbling boorishness (355), as reflects Altman’s critique of the
masculine hero figure at the heart of the western. I find the scene – from its
compressed color associations to Beatty’s acting – more complex and more
genuinely poignant along tonal lines. ‘Well I tell you something, I got poetry
in me,’ McCabe insists in an imagined interaction with Mrs. Miller, twitching
his shoulders manically as he throws on his oilcloth jacket, a task that proves
more trying than it should be.
But I ain’t gonna put it down on paper. I ain’t no educated man, I got sense enough
not to try. Cain’t never say nothing to you. If you’d just one time let me run the
show, I’d – . You’re just freezin’ my soul, that’s what you’re doing. Freezin’ my soul.
Up until this soliloquy the interplay of cool and warm color temperatures
unfolds mostly through a scheme of alternating scenes, but here, it becomes a
matter of co-presence, a reverberant simultaneity that stages an elegant contrast
between the scene’s foreground and background, between the inside and
outside as McCabe’s shrouded figure blends into the mise-en-scène where these
orangey and icy colorings intersect, a Caravaggian strip of light from above
marking the slick shoulders of his jacket. His ineffectual speech is one of the
very themes of his tirade, and yet the Stimmung conveyed through the film’s
style does more to embrace than to counteract his claim to be a poetic being.
Indeed, a lyrical mood surfaces in and through the relationship between the
film’s esthetics and this character’s inarticulateness.
As John Stuart Mill memorably put it, lyricism embroils the reader in a relation
of overhearing the speaker of the poem, a speaker whose thoughts do not
assume or directly address an audience (1967, 12, 36). We listen in, as it were,
without this speaker seeming to know it, absorbed as he is in his own reflection.
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In Altman’s scene, McCabe’s rant, despite the detachment of the camera and the
darkening of his face, occasions such an instance of lyric intimacy, whereby we
perceive the basic humanity of this character. As overhearers and overseers, we
become attuned to an orange glimmer of subjectivity that will soon be negated
in the film’s ending. If the film ridicules its protagonist here, it does so without
the condescension that is sometimes ascribed to Altman’s work. The soliloquy
elicits compassion for a crude but harmless individual who is both in over his
head and held captive by his own greed, chauvinism, and social awkwardness. It
isn’t exactly that the music and the visual style compensate for his stammering by
supplying an eloquence all their own; rather, the tonal mix of blue and orange,
that imbues content and form alike, is such that we find lyricism in the very
event of his failure to be eloquent. If orange marks a ‘soul’ in danger of ‘freezin’,’
it also marks the site where our empathic interaction with the film warms.
Winter lady
The film’s depiction of Mrs. Miller–Constance, as she has McCabe call her – is
just as thoroughly bound up with cool and warm color contrasts. Her initial
introduction to McCabe takes place in a dark nook of the tavern with a gaslight
votive between them on the table, its flame somewhere between light
orange and light gold. Shot-countershot editing cooperates with Rembrandtian
warm accents in the imagery both to convey a potential bond between them
and to emphasize an asymmetry within that bond. She overpowers McCabe,
first with her wolfing down a meal as he watches, taken aback, and then with
the acumen of her business pitch, which exposes how feebly he has planned.
Her dismantling of his haughtiness is drolly expressed as her ruination of his
egg-and-whiskey routine, which she interrupts with her proposal. Shots of his
right hand, tinted orangish gold from the lamplight, reveal that it is covered in
viscous egg fluid that didn’t make it into his glass. Visibly dismayed, McCabe
darts his eyes down to this glistening substance as he also struggles to get a
word of dissent in edgewise. Apart from her ravenous eating, Constance does
nothing physically to disturb his raw-egg ritual, but her aggressive display of
superior wit produces physical awkwardness in him. Nonplussed, he is unable
to raise the orange-amber drink to his lips.
As with McCabe, Constance arrives as a stranger in town, and the film suppresses
her backstory as well as any expositional dialog in excess of her business
proposal. For this reason, critics have defined her and McCabe as ‘ciphers’ (Beck
2015, 193), but this isn’t entirely correct. We might not be privy to personal
details (why McCabe used to be called ‘Pudgy,’ or who the Mr. Miller from
whom Constance has become estranged is), but the film’s atmospherics, and
Beatty’s and Christie’s performances, work to acquaint us rather closely with
their respective dilemmas and personalities. Though we are left to speculate on
their pasts, we nevertheless sense strongly that their earlier affairs weigh on their
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present ones, and that their partnership is fated to be transitory, a setback in a
long series of setbacks and departures (hence the appropriate lyrics of Cohen’s
‘Winter Lady,’ her theme music: ‘Trav’ling lady, stay a while/ Until the night is
over/I’m just a station on your way/I know I’m not your lover’). As regards both
characters, the contrastive color scheme is pitched to this moody imbrication
of a disappointing past, a tenuous present, and an ill-omened future.
Mask (2007, 55–56) and Robert Self (76–90) have cogently described the
ways in which the film’s portrait of Constance unravels the whore-with-a-heartof-
gold cliché and puts forth a feminist sensibility. This comes across not only
through the character’s frustrated exchanges with McCabe, a man of infinitely
lesser intelligence on whom she relies for her security and advancement, but
also through her connection to Ida (Shelley Duvall), a mail-order bride who
becomes a prostitute under Constance’s supervision. Color inflects the circuit of
events and associations that link Constance and Ida, who are mistaken for one
another when they arrive in town on the same train. Consider a key nighttime
scene in which Constance counsels Ida on how to embrace her new profession.
The indoor scene is bookended by bluish exterior shots of locals, all men,
imbibing and dancing on ice to fiddle music. Inside the bordello, where the
fiddle can still be heard on the soundtrack, subdued orangey-rose and gold light
warms up the palette while shots and countershots relate a private discussion
between Constance and Ida. The alternations do not just follow the cadences
of the spoken dialog but draw a physical comparison between the two women,
on the basis of their curly hair and petite frames, a parallel accented further
by the gold-salmon coloration the lighting makes on impact with their faces.
Orange thus manifests itself in a slightly diluted and diffusive fashion, passing
into gradients of gold, pink, and beige. Ida declares what she sees as a disparity
between sex in marriage and sex with a john, claiming that in the former case,
she acted out of duty. ‘It weren’t your duty, Ida,’ Constance responds. ‘You did
it to pay for your room and board. But you do this to pay for your bed and
board, too, only you get to keep a little extra for yourself and you don’t have to
ask nobody for nothing. Which is more honest in my mind.’ Constance’s advice
thus resituates prostitution as relative emancipation from the more enslaving
contract of marriage under patriarchy (Mask 56).
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The chromatic complexity here serves to connect different plot events and to
comment on how the characters’ lives are thematically entangled. The appearance
of the gunmen calls back to the earlier arrival of the mining corporation’s
delegates who were sent to make a deal with McCabe: both of these nocturnal
events are shown as bluish exteriors set in roughly the same stretch of road,
against warm accents of orange and gold light in the windows. In the former
scene, the delegates’ arrival takes place simultaneously with the killing of Ida’s
husband in a petty street scuffle, an incident that not only compels Ida to turn
to prostitution but also augurs the murder of McCabe. By extension, this use
of color insinuates, over and against the myth of Manifest Destiny, a mutually
reinforcing link between the lethal inhumanity of corporate capitalism and the
ensnarements of patriarchal culture. As a correlate of mood, orange propounds
a theme of fragile, desperate, and desiring lives under threat; it suggests embers
of tenderness in the face of bleak odds.
Hunters in the snow
McCabe’s shootout with the three bounty hunters transpires under falling snow
in broad daylight, in and around the town’s rudimentary, unfinished buildings.
In place of a musical score, we have the ambience of wind, and Altman and
Zsigmond here yield their flashing procedure, such that the images have a
disquieting clarity and crispness that denies the onscreen violence any hint of
romanticism. McCabe at one point uses the church steeple as a lookout tower,
provoking the town’s surly minister to appropriate his rifle and force him to
leave at gunpoint. A minute later, Butler shoots and murders the minister, causing
a massive fire to break out in the church. The rest of this scene is presented
through crosscutting as the hunt for McCabe coincides with the townspeople’s
group effort to douse the orange flames, which overtake the screen in contrast
with the snowy landscape.
As Kolker (2000) observes, the crosscutting in effect does away with the
bond – so fundamental to the classical western – between the individual gunfighter-
hero and the larger community, whose frontier civilization is preserved
through an act of violence the audience is urged to accept as just (352–353).
The settlers rush to save an emblem of their town that up until this point in the
narrative they have completely disregarded; and they leave McCabe to confront
the three assassins by himself. If McCabe is at all heroic in this final scene, then
his heroism, Kolker contends, is futile: his death in the snow is for ‘absolutely
nothing,’ and the community he has built up is oblivious to it (352). Kolker
supports this claim by arguing that the contrasts of cool and warm chromatic
values that have played out across the film end on a cynical note. If in prior
scenes, warm luminance has been charged with connotations of shelter against
the cold, such connotations are now suddenly overturned:
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Golden warmth is replaced by destructive fire. The gold light proves to be false,
fooling the viewer as it has the characters in the fiction. When seen for the last
time, in contrast to the blue cold in which McCabe dies, it is suffusing the opium
den where Mrs. Miller … has withdrawn,
a space that signifies bitter ‘withdrawal, avoidance, and isolation’ (353).
Certainly this ending needs to be grasped in a cumulative sense with regard
to the film’s color philosophy, but the underlying mood is less uniformly nihilistic
than Kolker’s account suggests. Altman of course dismantles and critiques
the western genre and its traditional attitudes from within, but this happens
with greater emotional nuance and esthetic intricacy, that is, with less negating
snideness. First of all, the chromatic interplay is multivalent in a poetic register
all the way through. With each expression, it keys itself not simply to a
binary logic of warm = security/cool = insecurity, but rather to its protagonists’
never-fulfilled yearnings for ‘love and warmth and shelter,’ as Cohen’s lyrics
express it. No doubt the flares of orange, from McCabe’s cigar to the setting sun,
prefigure the burning of the church, but the film doesn’t fool us into embracing
a system of color symbolism that it suddenly undermines near the end, the
joke being on us. Through fateful anticipations at the level of mood, the film
prepares us for what comes to pass.
Further, as Stephen Teo argues, it should not go unnoticed that McCabe
does perform courageously in the one-against-three gunfight (2015, 260–263).
Although he suffers two bullets, the last of which proves mortal, he disposes
of his attackers one by one, through no small measure of cleverness. When
McCabe defends himself against Butler, surprising him with a fatal bullet, it
is perhaps his one moment of physical agility in the film. He possesses nothing
of the steely bravery and indestructability of gunslinger heroes in classical
westerns, but this is precisely what heightens the spectator’s empathy toward
him. We look on in the knowledge that this unexceptional man can be killed,
and that in all likelihood he will be. After all, this vulnerability is what the
orange description of his subjectivity has emphasized; and this is what we are
reminded of when McCabe, after being wounded in the showdown, takes cover
in the saloon and drinks a consolatory orange egg yolk in whiskey. ‘He may be
a petty man or even a fool,’ writes Teo, ‘but he is no coward, and more likely
he has a code of honor that he is willing to die for’ (263). He may be fighting
to save his own skin and enterprise without much concern for a community
that abandons him to his fate, but to interpret his death as futile or absurd is
to exaggerate the film’s cynicism by half.
If the crosscutting between the snowy gunfight and the settlers’ attempt
to extinguish the orange fire at first makes McCabe’s situation seem empty of
social significance, the subsequent cut from his snow-covered body to a shot
of Constance lying on her side in the warm opium den – the coloration of
which isn’t ‘gold,’ as Kolker reports, but more a persimmon orange – reinstates
a sense of meaningfulness, albeit a melancholic one. The death of McCabe is
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perhaps without meaning to the townsfolk, virtually all of whom are portrayed
as small-minded, undependable, and groveling when it suits their interests,
but the event rings as tragic to both Constance and the attentive viewer. With
a zoom, the camera gradually closes in on McCabe’s lifeless figure in the snow,
and Cohen’s plangent ‘Winter Lady’ returns on the soundtrack, where it competes
with the wind. Cut to a shot that pushes in on a drug-dazed Constance
as she examines a small, burnished ceramic vessel, turning it in her fingers: it
is transmuted to orange in the warm light. The camera pushes in closer, until
one of her glazed eyes fills the screen, and this prompts a cut to an extreme
close-up of the object (a glare on her iris, which is caused by a stylish focus
pull, brings on this cut).
Even as this downbeat conclusion effectively severs the relational bond
proclaimed in Altman’s title, the filmic atmosphere of these parting seconds
involves us in a poignant contemplation of the loss of that bond. The cuts and
the camera movements draw us into Constance’s absorbed consciousness: the
close-up of the turning vessel, the hue of which matches that of her iris (the
warm lighting turns Julie Christie’s blue eyes orange–amber), is offered from
her point of view. This final shot in which, along with Mrs. Miller, we fixate on
an object is prefigured by a much earlier shot in which the camera dwells on an
egg lying on the bar, the egg suffused in Persian orange light. The earlier shot is
a still-life that breaks from the film’s narrative momentum and holds our gaze
as McCabe, offscreen, remarks inanely on the cold weather. The closing shots
with Constance remember the earlier shot and indeed culminate the series of
Stimmung–laden orange accents that have built up and gained force across the
film. Our alignment with her perspective renders her gaze ‘the screen of the
movie’s vision’ (Self 138), and the image track grows more and more abstract,
the vessel ultimately dissolving into an unfocused blur of amber and blue tones
as the gusts of wind from outside hold steady.
Although Constance says nothing in this last scene, the mood of the film
tunes us into the reasons and feelings that have motivated her tuning out, that
is, her retreat to the drug den, a space of refuge but also of exile from the greater
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community of Presbyterian Church. Before the camera pushes in to frame her
in close-up, we notably see that in the orange den, she is surrounded by Chinese
immigrants who have been maligned and ostracized, this being a comment on
her own marginal status in the aftermath of her male business partner’s death.
We are urged to view her withdrawal and intoxication as a medicinal response
to McCabe’s murder, the barbarity of corporate greed, and the innumerable
imbalances of a patriarchal system that, in the wake of her partner’s demise,
will send her back to the lowest rung in her quest for a life in which she can
enjoy at least a modicum of autonomy. Cohen’s song reminds us that our two
protagonists have not been ‘lovers’: they have been intimate and there have
been scenes where they have divulged a mutual affection that goes beyond their
commercial interests, but neither character seems capable of love, Constance
because of her guardedness (one senses that she has learned not to overinvest
in personal relations in such a precarious world) and McCabe because of his
almost cartoonish obsession with his masculine clout. This being said, the
warm-and-cold ending cues us to reflect on the larger social factors that have
kept love from emerging between these characters, and it aligns us with her
point of view as a means of framing her opium use as a sympathetic recourse.
These are the culminative resonances of theme, mood, and character that the
reappearance of orange light holistically underscores.
One last point. The mood of this finale, it must be acknowledged, issues from
the moment of the film’s making. Discussions of McCabe & Mrs. Miller have
insightfully understood its political attitudes in the context of the U.S. counterculture
of the 1960s and 1970s, from its distrust of institutions to its critique
of violence, through to its exposure of the ills at the core of capitalist society
(Cook 91–2, 174–6; Self 2007, 101–34; Graebner 2011, 69–77; Kirshner 2012,
110–13). The contrastive color scheme that we have been inspecting serves to
reinforce the way in which the film addresses itself to an early 1970s audience
disposed to recognize in this befogged western allegorical resonances with the
problems of its more modern civilization. When the film situates the viewer as
the sharer of the opiated regard of Constance – that is, when we are drawn into
the recesses of her orange-amber eyes – the screen becomes a site of intimate
contact between diegetic and extra-diegetic milieux. In the end, this is how the
film’s chromatic atmosphere brings us to sense, and value, the soulful stirrings
of two associated interiorities – McCabe and Mrs. Miller – that powers within
the fiction have deemed expendable.
1. The Leonard Cohen songs that Altman incorporates were previously recorded,
and not written with the film in mind. For a reading of how these songs pertain
to the film’s plot and themes, see Magee (2014, 61–71).
2. I will be examining the film with primary reference to the 2002 Warner Bros.
DVD edition. The 2016 Criterion Collection 4K restoration on Blu-ray improves
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legibility and texture, but features significantly different color grading: a greenish
cast sometimes awkwardly takes away from the coolness of the blues; and the
orange tones in a few of the interior scenes have been made less intense. These
color changes deviate from earlier versions of the film I have seen, including
a 35 mm print screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2014.
Furthermore, these changes run somewhat counter to statements by the film’s
cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, that I invoke later in the text.
3. Discrepant accounts of the color palette of McCabe & Mrs. Miller owe partly
to the fact that its main hues figure impurely on a spectrum. Brian Price notes
how the perception of color poses a challenge to film analysis: ‘[I]n assigning
an object the name “blue,” I am ultimately quieting the multiple aspects of the
object, forestalling the noise of other perceivers who might see it differently,
noise that might, in the end, better reflect the complexity of the object itself ’
(2006, 79). Altman’s style thematizes the very difficulty of perceiving sharply
and accurately, and this extends to the film’s use of color. Studied closely, the
changeable and adulterated nature of ‘orange’ obliges one to specify a nuanced
array of warm tones through which it passes.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
Beck, Jay. 2015. “The Democratic Voice: Altman’s Sound Aesthetics in the 1970s.” In
A Companion to Robert Altman, edited by Adrian Danks, 184–209. Malden, MA:
Wiley Blackwell.
Ford, Hamish. 2015.“The Porous Frame: Visual Style in Altman’s 1970s Films.” In A
Companion to Robert Altman, edited by Adrian Danks, 119–145. Malden, MA: Wiley
Graebner, William. 2011.“The Company’s Coming: The Hero, the Survivor, and the
Victim in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” In Robert Altman: Critical Essays, edited by Rick
Armstrong, 59–76. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Gross, Terry. 2016. “Remembering Oscar-winning ‘Close Encounters’ Cinematographer
Vilmos Zsigmond.” Fresh Air [online]. Accessed September 16. www.npr.
Kael, Pauline. 1994. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Pipe Dream.” In For Keeps: 30 Years at the
Movies, 375–378. New York: Plume.
Kirshner, Jonathan. 2012. Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies
Film in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Kolker, Robert. 2000. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg,
Altman. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Magee, Gayle Sherwood. 2014. Robert Altman’s Soundtracks: Film, Music, and Sound
from M*A*S*H to A Prairie Home Companion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mask, Mia. 2007. “Movies and the Exploitation of Excess.” In American Cinema of the
1970s: Themes and Variations, New Brunswick, edited by Lester D. Friedman, 49–70.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
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Mill, John Stuart. 1967. Essays on Poetry. Edited by F. Parvin Sharpless. Columbia:
University of South Carolina Press, © 1833.
Pollmann, Inga. 2010. “Kalte Stimmung, or the Mode of Mood: Ice and Snow in
Melodrama.” Colloquia Germanica 43 (1/2): 79–96.
Pomerance, Murray. 2015. “High Hollywood in The Long Goodbye.” In A Companion
to Robert Altman, edited by Adrian Danks, 233–253. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.
Price, Brian. 2006. “Color, the Formless, and Cinematic Eros.” In Color: The Film Reader,
edited by Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price, 76–87. New York: Routledge.
Schaefer, Dennis, and Larry Salvato. 2013. “Vilmos Zsigmond”, in Masters of Light:
Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers, 311–338. Berkeley: University
of California Press.
Schauer, Bradley. 2014. “The Auteur Renaissance: 1968–1980.” In Cinematography,
edited by Patrick Keating, 84–105. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Self, Robert T. 2007. Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American
West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Sinnerbrink, Robert. 2012. “Stimmung: Exploring the Aesthetics of Mood.” Screen 53
(2): 148–163.
Teo, Stephen. 2015. “Altman and the Western, or, a Hollywood Director’s History Lesson
of the American West.” In A Companion to Robert Altman, edited by Adrian Danks,
254–273. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.
Wood, Robin. 1986. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York, NY: Columbia
University Press.
Zuckoff, Mitchell. 2009. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
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