I was drawn to Robert Altman’s unorthodox western by his use of Leonard Cohen songs in the soundtrack, especially “The Stranger Song” that accompanies the film’s opening credits. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) looks and sounds like no other film you’ve watched thanks, in large measure, to Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue recorded on 16 tracks and cinematographer Vimos Zsigmond’s “flashing” technique, which underexposes the negative and makes the audience feel like it’s watching a series of old fading images from a distant era.
And then there’s the music. “The Stranger Song” is one of the highlights of Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, released in 1967. It made an indelible impression on director Altman who used the music as a temporary track, to establish the rhythm of the movie, even before he had acquired the rights, an involved process in which Cohen himself was complicit. It would be many, many years before the Canadian poet/singer/songwriter/novelist would achieve the immense popularity he enjoyed in the final decade of his life (he died in 2016), but from the beginning he had a devoted following. Hard to believe today, but the plaintive, biblical “Stranger Song” that places you squarely in a one-building 1902 Washington State town was written years before the film was ever conceived.