McCabe & Mrs. Miller has such a striking look that anyone recalling it will immediately visualize an image or two—for me, it’s an exterior shot that conveys the moistness of the woody, perpetually overcast forest mining town the film never leaves for two hours and four roughly denoted seasons, so verdant where most cowboy settings are so sere. But high on anyone’s list of associations with this film is the music of Leonard Cohen, which suffuses it in memory, an impression nailed down by “The Stranger Song,” which plays over the titles for five leisurely minutes as the protagonist, an affably inscrutable gambler named McCabe (Warren Beatty), rides one horse and leads another up a mountain and across a rude bridge toward the shelter of the local saloon. Many reviewers complained about this musical tactic. The New York Times’s Vincent Canby linked the film’s “tired symbolism” to “a folk-song commentary on the soundtrack that recalls not the old Pacific Northwest but San Francisco’s Hungry i,” and John Simon doubled down in a Times feature: “There is not much to see in the film and even less to hear—often no more than a pretentious ballad by Leonard Cohen, the Rod McKuen of the coach trade, which has nothing to do with the matter at hand.”
The film version of “The Stranger Song” differs from the one Altman had played to death on successive copies of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s late-1967 debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen—produced, as it happens, by another John Simon (rather too schlockily, Cohen always thought). After starting off with the first three verses of the album version, the soundtrack interpolates a long, elegiac, Spanish-tinged guitar solo—amplified acoustic, I think—by David Lindley, for forty years now a go-to multi-instrumentalist but at the time merely a member of the California band Kaleidoscope, who were handpicked by Cohen to play behind him on the record only to be cut off at the pass by Simon the producer. Then the album version returns for two verses, after which it doubles back to the capper of the second verse, with the final three verses saved for a later scene. Thus the mood-setter ends: “That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder/It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder/He was just some Joseph looking for a manger/He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.”
When Simon the critic claims “The Stranger Song” “has nothing to do with the matter at hand,” he’s prevaricating with his customary brio. Not that Altman’s film or Cohen’s song invites one-dimensional interpretation. But both posit a protagonist who’s a stranger and also a gambler, with the word “dealer” and the image “smoke above his shoulder” hinting at the opium that consoles the film’s smartest and strongest character, the madam who becomes McCabe’s business partner, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie). More generally, both song and film gauze over a dark romantic pessimism, paradoxically inducing us to dream a happy ending neither song nor film ever actually implies is within reach. The hushed world-weariness of Cohen’s practiced sprechgesang—“Villon with frostbite,” a wag at Time joshed; his “drone,” an Altman scholar declared decades later—proffers a tenderness that can’t endure; Lindley’s guitar conjures a lyricism whose melancholy conquers all. Before Altman even tried to negotiate permissions, he laid Cohen’s songs over his footage, and the mesh amazed him. “I think the reason they worked was because those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs, as if they were written for them. I put in about ten of them at first—of course, we way overdid it—and then we ended up with the three songs that were finally used, and I thought they were just wonderful.”
Although Cohen has long been world-famous, he was strictly a cult figure when Altman tapped him—Songs of Leonard Cohen never charted above sixty-three. Nor did the skeptically reviewed and sparsely attended McCabe & Mrs. Miller boost his sales—Songs of Love and Hate, released a month after it in 1971, topped out at 145. But before too long the film was gathering serious acclaim, and its status burnished that of Cohen, though he wouldn’t hit his stride as a legend until the eighties, when his European success combined with his steadily accruing body of work to help him achieve critical mass. Nonetheless, he doesn’t pervade the soundtrack as much as we’re inclined to believe, as a few calculations make clear. The second Cohen song Altman retains is “Sisters of Mercy,” which plays for four minutes in four segments during the eight minutes when the whores arrive and get settled. That brings us just twenty-seven minutes into the film, however. For the next hour and a half, Cohen’s music doesn’t disappear—“Winter Lady,” linked to Mrs. Miller as “Sisters of Mercy” is to her girls and “The Stranger Song” is to McCabe, plays behind several scenes, although more sparingly. But for ninety minutes Cohen’s songs are mostly a memory as subtler music sidles in—music you really have to listen for. Just as Altman muffles so much crosstalk in this film, the non-Cohen music is so organic it seems incidental, almost ambient.
All over the place is fiddler Brantley Kearns, occasionally playing pizzicato but usually bowing, present even when half-heard in many snatches at many junctures, most memorably inspiring the ice dance that precedes the film’s most brutal murder, although his “Beautiful Dreamer” is a lovely touch. Then there’s Mrs. Miller’s music box—checking in with Brahms’ Lullaby, tinkling out a “Silent Night” transformed by her clientele into dance music, framing an opium high. There’s environmental Lindley guitar apropos of nothing and ominous Lindley guitar announcing the assassins and literally elegiac Lindley guitar reprising “The Stranger Song” at the close, where Bart Coyle’s funeral hymn, “Death of the Righteous” a.k.a. “The Last Repose,” also makes a repeat appearance.
Without question, Leonard Cohen dominates the soundtrack of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It’s hard not to suspect that something about his cultivated murmur seeped into Altman’s ideas about barely overheard dialogue, which come to fruition in this film and determine its aural gestalt more than Cohen does, rendering it as groundbreaking sonically as it is visually. But it’s worth remembering that definitive in some respects though Cohen’s songs are, they’re far from the only music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller—and that consciously heard or not, every bit of that music is both gorgeous and meaningful.
A rock critic since 1967, Robert Christgau grades and reviews albums for Noisey weekly in his Expert Witness column. His memoir, Going Into the City, was published in 2015.
Listen to Cohen’s songs in McCabe & Mrs. Miller in the playlist below: