(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films that inspired George Lucas’ iconic universe. In this edition: Robert Altman’s 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller)
Roger Ebert called 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman’s only perfect film. Altman had made a lot of great films, but Ebert insisted that this was his only perfect one. It tells the story of the dopey McCabe (Warren Beatty) who arrives in the small, muddy mining town of Presbyterian Church to open a brothel. Soon, he’s visited upon by Mrs. Miller, a much smarter person than he is, a woman who knows how to run a brothel and knows a lot more about the world than he does.
Described as an anti-western, it’s really more of a character study, though it does fall into classic western tropes at the end with a shootout and a fire. I’m not sure I’m ready to declare the film perfect, but it’s certainly very good and its surprising influence on Solo: A Star Wars Story is undeniable. More than anything, it will help you understand Solo a lot better and make that film a richer experience.
The Look of Fort Ypso
McCabe & Mrs. Miller opens in a dingy frontier landscape with McCabe coming in from the cold in a massive fur coat, muttering to himself on horseback. Quickly enough, he finds himself in the warming embrace of a card game in a saloon. The lights are dim but cast warm orange light over the assembly. The heat of this town is in its people and in the card game itself. McCabe spins yarns about himself, overblowing his reputation as a gunslinger, and soon the awe and wonder of his reputation is enough to become a legitimate businessman in the small frontier town. In The Art of Solo: A Star Wars Story by Phil Szostak, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is referenced often and is the reason we get Han and Lando in these massive fur coats like the ones Warren Beatty dons in the film. (Interestingly enough, they wanted Woody Harrelson’s Becket to wear fur as well, but he had it included in his contract that he doesn’t wear leather or fur.)
Watching both films side by side, it feels apparent that Fort Ypso, the mountainous village where Han first meets Lando, is a direct inspiration from McCabe & Mrs. Miller. From cinematographer Bradford Young’s lighting to the design and feel of the frontier village itself, the visuals we see on Vandor are straight out of the Altman film.
The Visual Story
When making McCabe & Mrs. Miller, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond did a lot of fascinating things with the look and visual feel of the film and he collaborated with Robert Altman to bake those looks onto the negative so the studio couldn’t alter those decisions later. The used a process called flashing, which pre-fogged the negative, and they used a lot of different filters and lenses that helped get the look of the film locked in physically so it couldn’t be manipulated later. With all of this fogginess and special lenses, they guide you through the film to tell a story that goes unspoken. The film is foggy and muted to start with and as it goes on it comes into slightly sharper focus until the final shot is crystal clear. But, as the image itself gets sharper, the weather elements get worse. A snowstorm plagues the town in the final act of the film and adds a white haze over much of that newfound clarity.
Bradford Young admits this was the visual influence for his cinematography from the get-go, telling the Chicago Tribune, “I met with Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller, original directors of Solo], and their constant reference was McCabe & Mrs. Miller. They said they were making a Western. When artists like Ava [DuVernay] and Steve McQueen work in the studio system, you never want them to lose the thing that got them there. So I started to think, ‘You know, there is no reason why I shouldn’t make a Star Wars film.’”
Instead of playing with focus and fog as much as Zsigmond did, Young tells the story of Solo in colors. The film begins practically in monochrome. The dark, muted blues of Lady Proxima’s lair give way to the cold gray of the Imperial control zone. When we shift to the battlefield of Mimban, the fogginess from McCabe & Mrs. Miller plays a part, though it could just as easily be referencing the original descriptions of Mimban in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye or even a World War I film. By the final showdown scenes, the snow is replaced by high winds, but color has returned to the film as Han slowly comes into his own.
Solo & Qi’ra
It’s not a stretch to imagine Han Solo and Qi’ra in a situation not unlike McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Like McCabe, Solo pines for a woman who is too worldly to put up with the poetry in his soul, no matter how much he pays. And, like Mrs. Miller, Qi’ra knows how the world works and isn’t going to give that advantage up for a man. Their relationships are on very similar trajectories through both films and both end in betrayal and heartbreak.
In both films, as well, our heroes get in over their heads with powerful, monied interests. With McCabe, he rejects an offer from a powerful mining corporation who decide to send a trio of bounty hunters after him. For Han, he gets in over his head with Dryden Vos and Crimson Dawn. For both of them, they’re both too naive to take the danger seriously until it’s almost too late. And, in both cases, the woman in the situation is the one who knows how grave it is from the start and acts accordingly.
In his 1999 review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Roger Ebert calls it “one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come…” and looking at Solo through that lens, you can see it in Han’s character. You can see that influence pressing down on him, in his search for a loyal partner and a better life. You can see it wear down on the faces of all the ne’er-do-wells the film is populated with.
Sitting around the campfire on Vandor before the big job, another classic western trope, Chewbacca confesses to the group that he’s searching for something. Han says, “I don’t know if he said tribe or family…”
Han’s mentor, Beckett, asks quietly, “What’s the difference?”
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is available on streaming services, but the Criterion Collection has released it on Blu-ray in a brand new 4K digital restoration and is a must-see for anyone wanting to dig deeper into the themes and visual story of Solo.
The post How Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ Lives in the DNA of ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ appeared first on /Film.