Warren Beatty in McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Warren Beatty as John McCabe, enterprising gambler and pimp
Presbyterian Church, Washington, Fall to winter 1902
Film: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Release Date: June 24, 1971
Director: Robert Altman
Wardrobe Credit: Ilse Richter
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
There are moments every January where I envy the idiosyncratic wardrobe of John McCabe, warmly swaddled in hefty furs as he trots into the humble hamlet of Presbyterian Church, Washington, scored by Leonard Cohen’s mournful baritone.
One of the most prolific pioneers of the “New Hollywood” movement that began in the 1960s, Robert Altman followed up his maverick success with MASH (1970) and his artistic experiment with Brewster McCloud (1970) by setting his sights on one of the most venerated genres in American cinema. Altman and Brian McKay adapted a 1959 novel by Edmund Naughton to deliver McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which the director would ultimately deem an “anti-Western” for its subversion of genre conventions and expectations.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller was filmed mostly in sequence during the last months of 1970 as fall turned to winter, just as it does over the course of the film’s narrative, with the set in British Columbia being built up to coincide with McCabe’s expansion of the fictional town on screen.
John McCabe was merely a gambler when he arrived in town, though he quickly capitalizes on his self-aggrandized reputation as a feared gunfighter to grow his leadership position in Presbyterian Church, including partnering in managing a brothel with the Cockney madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie), forming a business partnership that evolves into a romantic situation. Unfortunately, McCabe’s fame earns him the ire of a competing mine that often resorts to ruthless means to quash competition, including a trio of hardened bounty hunters led by Butler (Hugh Millais). “Never did fit in this goddamn town,” McCabe utters to himself as Butler’s gunmen arrive in Presbyterian Church, resulting in the film’s now-famous snowbound shootout that—like so much of McCabe & Mrs. Miller—defies Western gunfight traditions.
Despite an unenthusiastic initial response from critics and audiences, it had contemporary champions like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael and resulted in an Academy Award nomination for Christie’s performance as the semi-eponymous Mrs. Miller. Time has been kinder to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, now regarded not just among the best revisionist Westerns but considered by some to be among the best films ever made.
What’d He Wear?
Outerwear: Coat, Hats, and Gloves
Arguably the most memorable aspect of John McCabe’s wardrobe is the comically massive fur coat he wore for his arrival in Presbyterian Church and many subsequent scenes. The knee-length coat is a soft, light brown fur—perhaps bearskin, as opposed to the sealskin coat that McCabe admires draped around his business rival Eugene Sears (Michael Murphy). The coat is loosely and unevenly structured, more a swath of furry hide than tailored outerwear, with only the grand monastic sleeves and the addition of a somewhat darker fleece hood suggesting that it’s been adapted for human use.
McCabe wears plain dark brown leather gloves that extend no farther back than his wrists.
McCabe arrives in Presbyterian Church wearing an all-black felt derby hat, a style characterized by its round crown. The hat originated in London, where it was designed in 1849 by hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler, hence it being known predominantly as a “bowler hat” in England.
Despite its English origins, the bowler grew quickly popular across the pond to the degree that Lucius Beebe cited it as “the hat that won the West” due to its predominance in the American West.
As McCabe establishes his leadership of the town, he adopts a new dark brown derby hat to replace the black one. This hat follows the same design and even has a black grosgrain band and edge trim.
Brown Frock Coats
McCabe cycles through two similarly styled brown frock coats over the course of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, beginning with one differentiated by its widely tufted woolen fabric (like a thick-waled corduroy) and narrow shoulders with significantly roped sleeveheads, reflecting period fashions.
Though it echoes similar design elements like the cutaway-style front and tails in the back with two decorative buttons at the waist, McCabe’s frock coat has a shorter length that’s consistent with the “lounge suit” jackets that were gradually becoming the norm in daily menswear. The single-breasted, three-button jacket has short peak lapels with swelled edges, a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and sleeves finished with two-button cuffs.
At the same time when McCabe debuts his new brown bowler hat, he has also evidently swapped out his jacket for another brown frock coat that—aside from its wider shoulders, smoother and lighter fabric, and three-button cuffs—follows generally the same design as his previous coat.
Since this frock coat only appears through the second half of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which we know Altman generally filmed in sequence, it’s possible that the first jacket was either ruined or misplaced at one point during the production and needed to be swiftly replaced by a relative lookalike. Or perhaps we’re just meant to understand that John McCabe is a fan of brown frock coats who fills his limited closet accordingly!
Shirts and Ties
McCabe rotates through a trio of shirts in varying degrees of formality. He arrives wearing a plain white cotton dress shirt with a front placket and two-button barrel cuffs. Per the standard practice for most men’s dress shirts in this era, the shirt itself is collarless with a neckband to which a detachable collar like McCabe’s stiff and sharp white wing collar could be attached, with brass studs in the front and black keeping the collar in place.
McCabe’s usual neckwear is a unique black satin silk cravat with a very short blade that extends just a few inches from his neck. The cravat is of the pre-tied variety, with its silver-toned metal clip visible from the back due to the exposed nature of the wing collar. Despite its almost comically short length, McCabe dresses the tie with a pearl stickpin.
McCabe’s second dress shirt is irregularly striped in pink and lilac against the white ground, though the neckband and two-button barrel cuffs are a contrasting solid white.
McCabe accessorizes the pink-striped shirt with both his usual short pointed black cravat as well as a now-conventional black four-in-hand tie, worn most prominently as he drunkenly stumbles through his initial meeting with Eugene Sears.
Finally, McCabe dresses down in a more utilitarian dark brown flannel shirt with an attached turndown point collar and a plain front that he buttons up to the neck.
McCabe wears a dark gray woolen waistcoat (vest), fastened with five black recessed buttons that close between the narrow notch lapels and the straight-cut bottom. The waistcoat has four jetted pockets, and McCabe keeps his gold pocket watch in one of the lower pockets, attached to a gold flat-link chain that droops across his mid-section to the fob in the opposing pocket.
McCabe regularly wears black-and-gray cashmere-striped “spongebag” trousers, a style now predominantly associated with old-fashioned morning dress. The “cashmere” nomenclature refers specifically to the specific track-stripe pattern rather than the fabric, which would have likely been wool.
When properly worn, these flat front trousers rise to Warren Beatty’s natural waist-line, where double sets of buttons around the outside of the waistband can be attached to suspenders (braces). McCabe holds up the trousers with wide cloth suspenders striped in black, tan, and white. The trousers have gently slanted “quarter-top” side pockets and jetted back pockets with a button-tab on the back left pocket. They are cut straight through the legs down to plain-hemmed bottoms.
McCabe wears black leather boots with tall shafts appropriate for riding and, as more of a city slicker than a cowboy, they have lower heels and less ornate shafts that remain covered by his trousers.
Befitting his reputation as a fearless gunfighter, McCabe responds to threats on his life by strapping a dark brown edge-stitched leather gun belt, his distinctive Gasser revolver holstered on the right side, with the requisite cartridge loops extending around the belt. As was the case for heavy-duty gun belts, the belt itself consists of a wide swath of leather that overlaps around the front of the waist, where a thinner overlaid strap buckles through a tall silver-toned single-prong buckle.
As McCabe dresses to get into bed with Mrs. Miller, we see that he wears an ivory cotton union suit, the full-length underwear that was most popular for men through the late 19th century into the early 20th century. McCabe’s long underwear lacks the “crap flap” on the back that allowed the wearer to relieve themselves without needing to fully disrobe.
For the snowy final act, McCabe swaps out his fur coat for a dark oilskin slicker that serves more practical purposes and offers him significantly more mobility for the gunfight. Oilskin was a relatively new development at the time, pioneered in 1898 by a New Zealand sailor Edward Le Roy who painted old sailcloth with linseed oil and wax (hence “oilskin”) to produce a waterproof layer to be worn during rough weather at sea.
McCabe’s long oilskin coat extends nearly to his ankles, with four silver-toned hook latches between the neck and waist to close the front, similar to those on firemen’s jackets and would be later adopted for U.S. Navy deck jackets during World War II. The collared coat has raglan sleeves that smoothly slip over his hefty frock coat, and the back has a storm flap and single vent.
Montenegrin Gasser Revolver
“Say, do you know what kind of gun that was? That was a Swedish gun,” Sheehan’s patrons gossip of the newly arrived John McCabe at the start of the movie. While the low-rent denizens of Presbyterian Church are accurate that his European-made revolver wasn’t one of the Colt, Remington, or Smith & Wesson six-shooters they’d be familiar with, the distinctive revolver holstered in McCabe’s gun belt is actually an Austrian design.
“The final years of the 19th century saw innovations in the way pistols and revolvers were designed,” summarizes The Complete World Encyclopedia of Guns by Will Fowler, Anthony North, Charles Stronge, and Patrick Sweeney. “Among them were firearms made by Leopold Gasser who operated factories across Europe, which reputedly turned out 100,000 revolvers annually in the 1880s and 1890s.”
McCabe carries a Gasser M1880, also known as a “Second Pattern Montenegrin” in tribute to its Balkan target market. The weapon evolved from the original open-framed Gasser M1870 that had been adopted by the Austro-Hungarian military in August 1870. The Gasser M1870 had a gate-loading mechanism to load the cylinder with up to six rounds of the formidable 11.25×36mmR centerfire cartridge that was developed three years earlier for the Model 1867 Früwirth repeating carbine.
Gasser continued refining the design through the decades to follow, including a swing-out cylinder in the M1873 and M1870/74 models that was easier to load but reduced the capacity to five rounds. The M1870/74 was the first Gasser to be nicknamed the “Montenegrin”, a moniker that continued to the development of the Gasser M1880. This “Second Pattern Montenegrin” Gasser M1880 differed from its predecessors with its top-break mechanism that made it even easier to load than the swing-out variations. “A star-shaped automatic ejector [pushed] cartridges out of the cylinder when the barrel was tipped down for reloading,” described Martin J. Dougherty in Small Arms Visual Encyclopedia.
The weapon’s history grows more complex in 1910, when King Nicholas I of Montenegro decreed that all male citizens were thus members of a national militia with not only the right but a duty to own at least one Gasser Pattern revolver. While it makes sense that a Balkan country would be so focused on national defense in the “powder keg” era leading up to World War I, it was also rumored that the king’s partial ownership in Leopold Gasser Waffenfabrik may have significantly influenced his specific stipulation. That said, the immediate demand placed on Leopold Gasser resulted in the Austrian manufacturer needing to outsource production of the “Montenegrin Gasser” pattern revolver to other European firms, most often in Belgium and Spain, resulting in a wide range in operational quality from excellent to dangerous and significant differentiations like barrel lengths, five- vs. six-round cylinders, or single- vs. double-action triggers.
“The revolvers became status symbols among the Montenegrin population,” wrote Phillip Peterson for Gun Digest, and the variety of cottage companies churning out Montenegrin Gassers allowed owners to modify their appearance to their specific taste, including silver and gold inlay on the engraved frames or finishing the distinctively rounded “broomhandle” grips in ivory or bone.
McCabe’s bone-handled Montenegrin Gasser was likely produced at some point during the 1910s after King Nicholas’ proclamation, making it slightly anachronistic for the turn-of-the-century setting, though this pattern had existed since 1880 and it could be argued that an eccentric like McCabe may have made his own modifications to a period-correct revolver to further his reputation as a gunfighter.
After McCabe’s unsuccessful attempt to negotiate with Butler upon their first meeting, Patrick Sheehan (René Auberjonois) assures Butler of McCabe’s killer reputation by telling that he shot Bill Roundtree “with a derringer,” prompting Butler to respond “That man? That man never killed anybody…”
In a twist of delicious irony, McCabe uses his dying energy to kill Butler by shooting him with a derringer. The term emerged in the 1860s after it was widely reported that John Wilkes Booth had killed President Lincoln with a Deringer, at that time a specific brand of muzzle-loaded single-shot .41-caliber pocket pistol that had been manufactured by Henry Deringer of Philadelphia since 1825. Like “Kleenex” and “Xerox”, the misspelling “derringer” became a synecdoche for easily concealed pocket pistols that widely varied in design, including two- and four-barrel models by Remington and Sharps (respectively) that shared little in common with the single-barrel Deringer.
The small size of derringers made them popular backup or “holdout” weapons in the old west, particularly associated with gamblers like McCabe who may have been dissuaded or disallowed from wearing their guns to a game but would need a quick means of defense when accused of cheating. The derringer that McCabe produces while covered in snow has a silver-toned frame and a single barrel, similar to the Colt Theur and Iver Johnson Eclipse models that were produced through the second half of the 19th century.
While anticipating the confrontation against Butler’s gunmen, McCabe takes a long double-barreled shotgun to the church, stashing it when he ascends to look out on the town from the steeple. He climbs back down to find the shotgun in the hands of Reverend Elliot (Corey Fischer), who protests that “this is a house of God!”
“Uh, that there’s my shotgun… could I have it please?” McCabe meekly asks. In response, Elliot cocks both exposed hammers and raises the shotgun, demanding that McCabe “get out!” The mixup proves briefly fortuitous for McCabe, who escapes just as Butler kicks in the door and—mistaking the shotgun-toting reverend as an enemy combatant—immediately blasts him, naturally causing the dead Elliot to drop his oil lamp and start a fire that burns in the background of the ensuing chase.
What to Imbibe
“Uh, I’ll just have my double whiskey and a raw egg,” McCabe orders from saloonkeeper Sheehan, though he also drinks plenty of straight rye without mixing the egg in. If you’re curious about McCabe’s go-to whiskey brands, the most common label appears to be the fictional “Jonathan Collier” brand that also appeared in Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma (1957), How the West Was Won (1962), 5 Card Stud (1968), Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), True Grit (1969), Unforgiven (1992), and the first episode of the Black Hills-set series Deadwood, as well as the noir Criss Cross (1949).
McCabe’s trademark drink seems like a waste of an egg, especially these days when eggs would probably be more expensive than whiskey! However, the combination has a long tradition as a “hair of the dog” hangover cure known as an Amber Moon, albeit often with the addition of Tabasco sauce for taste as prominently seen when the dutiful butler Beddoes (John Gielgud) arrives with his murdered master’s Amber Moon “pick-me-up” in the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. McCabe foregoes McIlhenny’s famous Louisiana hot sauce, simply drinking a raw egg dropped into double shots of whiskey.
McCabe frequently smokes stogies pulled from his frock coat’s breast pocket, identified by the box in his room as Marsh Wheeling, a product of M. Marsh & Sons cigar company.
Mifflin M. Marsh started his business in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1840, making it the oldest cigar manufacturing company founded in the United States. The National Road had arrived in Wheeling more than 20 years earlier, linking the Ohio River to the Potomac and establishing the city—then still part of the Commonwealth of Virginia—as a major transportation hub. Marsh reportedly capitalized on this location and found early success peddling his cigars to many frontiersmen, merchants, and settlers who were traveling west on wagons and steamboats during this age of western expansion.
Eight years into his business, Marsh developed the now-iconic Marsh Wheeling Stogie, a longer and thinner alternative to traditional cigars that measured seven inches long with a 34-ring gauge. Marsh named his new products “stogies” in tribute to the Conestoga wagons that carried many of his new customers west. Already affordable at less than a penny a piece, Marsh ensured that he would develop a customer base by liberally distributing free samples of his product, including issuing free stogies to Union soldiers during the Civil War. (When the Civil War began in 1861, Wheeling was part of the Confederacy in Virginia, though West Virginia split from its home state in 1863 to be admitted to the Union.)
Marsh Wheeling Stogies emerged as a favorite among smokers like P.T. Barnum, Abraham Lincoln, Annie Oakley, Mark Twain, John Wayne, and Ulysses Grant, who smoked up to twenty per day according to Frank Seltzer for Smokeshop Magazine.
How to Get the Look
John McCabe cuts a distinctive figure in the small mining town of Presbyterian Church, not just for his city dude duds of a frock coat, striped trousers, wing collar, and tie, but also the hefty hooded fur coat that keeps him warm in the wintry climate of the Pacific Northwest.
- Brown bearskin fur knee-length hooded coat
- Dark brown wool single-breasted 3-button frock coat with short peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and tails with decorative 2-button back
- White or pink/lilac-striped cotton neckband shirt with front placket and white contrasting 2-button barrel cuffs
- White stiff wing collar
- Black satin silk short-pointed cravat
- Pearl stickpin
- Charcoal wool single-breasted 5-button waistcoat with narrow notch lapels, four jetted pockets, and straight-cut bottom
- Gold pocket watch on gold flat-link chain
- Black, gray, and white “cashmere”-striped wool flat-front “spongebag” trousers with waistband suspender buttons, quarter-top side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black, tan, and white-striped cloth suspenders
- Black leather riding boots
- Ivory cotton full-length union suit underwear
- Black or dark brown felt derby hat with black grosgrain band and edges
- Dark brown leather gloves
- Dark brown leather gunbelt with ranger-style buckle and cartridge loops
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass so much.
They name-checked this movie when they designed the big fur coats that both Han and Lando wear in Solo: A Star Wars story. Great costumes, but I tried to watch this movie several times and I just can’t get through it, so ‘one of the best films ever made’ is a a headscratcher for me.