McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

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Director: Robert Altman

Producers: Mitchell Brower, Robert Eggenweiler, David Foster (Warner Bros.)

Writers: Edmund Naughton (novel), Robert Altman and Brian McKay (screenplay)

Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond

Music: Leonard Cohen

Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Corey Fischer, Bert Remsen, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Antony Holland, Hugh Millias, Manfred Schulz, Jace Van Der Veen, Jackie Crossland

“Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another,” Roger Ebert wrote. “But only one can be called perfect, and that’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” (C)

In today’s aftermath of Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), the anti-western seems very much like a familiar friend. But imagine the freshness, the jolt, when Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller pioneered the idea 21 years earlier. This was the real west, with the myth stripped away. Gone was the moral John Wayne figure set against the spread of impressive frontier formations. In its place was a dreary world, full of wet browns and greens, gritty, dirty and covered in snow. Gone also was the adventure subject matter of Cowboys and Indians, and in its place stood a tale of greed and prostitution.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller dares to differentiate truth from legend, to stand the western on its head and ask viewers to follow both an anti-hero, in this case a cowardly, conniving brother owner, and an anti-heroine, in this case a hopeless, opium-addicted whore. The hero doesn’t rise to a moment of heroism in a climatic final gunfight like Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper, but rather fears the men he’s facing and ends up shooting them in the back. And when it’s all over, the one cause for which he seemingly stood — the best interest of the little man — wasn’t really his to begin with. His only cause for action is, as he puts it, “Well, I just didn’t want to get killed.”

That “hero” is, of course, John “Pudgy” McCabe (Warren Beatty), whose namesake comes from Edmund Naughton’s source novel McCabe. A drifter-turned-entrepreneur in the early 1900s Pacific Northwest, McCabe opens the film by riding into a coal-mining settlement called Presbyterian Church, named after the big church in town.

With him, he brings charisma and a “big rep,” surrounded by a (probably false) legend that he was the one who shot Bill Roundtree during a game of cards. Insisting he is only a businessman, McCabe decides to start his own establishment — “McCabe’s House of Fortune” — a combination saloon-casino-whorehouse that banks on the promise that guys in town will “have something to do at night besides go home and play with Mary Five Fingers.”

Soon, his business is booming, drawing the attention of Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a beautiful British madame who travels all the way from Bearpaw to ask McCabe if he wants to go into business with her. Together, the two turn the brothel into a profitable partnership, while engaging in their own romantic relationship on the side. Obviously, it’s not the most promising condition for love. “That’s just my luck,” McCabe says. “Only woman that ever been one to me ain’t nothin’ but a whore. But I never was a percentage man. I suppose a whore’s the only kind of woman I’d know.”

His hurt only continues when two corporate fellas from the Harrison Shaughness Mining Company come looking to buy him out. Refusing their offer and demeaning more money, McCabe leaves Harrison Shaughness no other option that to hire a trio of bounty hunters to kill him. This leads to a memorable three-on-one shootout, but one that unfolds as the exact antithesis of High Noon (1952).

If the flawed characters of McCabe and Mrs. Miller seem much less sympathetic than Gary Cooper’s lone sherif, it’s because they are. However, it’s the complexities within their flaws that makes them fascinating characters. Forget likable. Fascinating is just as well. And both Beatty and Christie give two of the best performances of their respective careers.

For Beatty, it was a return to familiar territory, playing the male half of an anti-heroic romantic duo as he had four years earlier with Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). And though not as famous as Clyde, his McCabe is a sight to behold — the bowler hat, the giant fur coat, the scruffy beard, the nuanced movements, the unique grunts and laughs.

As he would with Diane Keaton a decade later in Reds (1981), Beatty makes beautiful on-screen chemistry with his then-real-life lover, Christie, whom Al Pacino called “the most poetic of all actresses.” (A) Christie earned her second Oscar nomination for the role, losing to Jane Fonda for Klute (1971) simply because Christie already owned a statue (Darling) and Fonda had not. Rounding out the cast is the usual group of Altman regulars, people like Rene Abuerjunois, Shelley Duvall, Bert Remsen, Michael Murphy and Keith Carradine, making in his film debut as the ill-fated Cowboy.

The biggest star of the film, however, is the atmosphere. As with Nashville (1975) and Kansas City (1996), Altman once again demonstrates an uncanny ability to select music that completely matches his desired tone and geographical location. Here, he looks to folk legend Leonard Cohen, whose voice at times seems to echo across the snow-covered grounds, his words enveloping the town like the wind. Just listen to how well the lyrics match the situation during Mrs. Miller’s introspective moment after her bedroom talk with McCabe: “I’m just a station on your way. I know I’m not your lover.”

Matching the cold sadness of the music are the visuals of Altman’s Vancouver-based shoot. Most memorable is the frozen landscape of the final gunfight, a look not originally planned, but forever beautiful. Arriving one day to find actual freezing temperatures on set, Altman instructed his crew to hose the entire thing down so that in the morning, the entire set would be frozen over. The result was what Altman called a wintery “fairyland,” a backdrop that melted just about the time the final church scene was done. This example, more than any other, is a testament to Altman’s directorial vision, to be the right guy in the right moment in time to make that call and capture the greatest potential of a specific moment on film.

The timing of the film was very important in Altman’s career trajectory. It came just a year after his breakthrough success M*A*S*H (1970) and at the height of his abilities, preserved forever in his Nashville masterpiece. Right from the start of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, one can sense he or she is in a different world, an older world, thanks to Altman’s idea to have cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond flash-expose the film. The technique instantly dates the film, giving it a grainy, hazy appearance. But can a film really be considered dated when it purposely set out to date itself?

Along with this visual tone, Altman cleverly establishes actual visual space, transforming the town of Presbyterian Church into a real space for these characters to inhabit. Yes, the script is cleverly written, full of what Mrs. Miller would call “frontier wit.” But the dialogue is really secondary to the visual space and the idea that the characters are themselves functions of this space. The cinematic eye (camera) does not merely follow their every moment, but instead lingers from a distance, like a cloud of fate watching over them, moving in and out of the action as it sees fit.

Technically, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is the epitome of the “Altman-esque” picture, chock-full of his trademark overlapping dialogue and auteur zoom lenses. The zooms serve for emphasis on both visual details — McCabe’s gold-toothed face; Miller’s opium device; the duo’s money box — and character emotions, like Beatty turning to see Christie with a tender zoom on her inviting eyes.

These zooms also serve as uniquely choreographed ways to move about the townspeople. Watch how Altman methodically covers the frontier interiors, beginning with a close-up of a fiddle player, then zooming out to see Auberjonois lighting an overhead lantern, then zooming out further past another oil lamp where three people talk, then panning left to follow Sheehan, only to pick up another group of people when he leaves the frame. It’s very complex blocking.

His handling of exteriors is no less impressive. Just look at the final gun battle — the high-angle long-shot that zooms rapidly in on the three bounty hunters; the 25-second long-take as McCabe runs for cover in the church; the priest’s subjective zoom to stare down the barrel of a gun; and the engrossing way the camera become McCabe’s eyes, panning back and forth to check his surroundings, leaning out to look around corners, and following blood trails in the snow until they lead to dead bodies.

The entire thing builds poetically until we see one of the saddest images every done — Beatty lifeless in the snow drift — and one of the more intriguing endings — a zoom in on Christie’s eyeball, where a pool of light on her iris gives way to a colorful backdrop for the credits, suggesting the film maybe have all been one of her opium dreams.

If indeed the film is to be interpreted as Mrs. Miller’s dream, it takes on another lawyer of sadness, as the characters then become physical manifestations of the social themes swirling in her head. These very same themes are the chief concern of Altman as filmmaker. As a socialist, he sets out to critique the free market system, particularly in the scene where McCabe seeks out a lawyer (William Devane), who in brilliant miss-en-scene has a photo of populist candidate William Jennings Bryan on the wall:

LAWYER: “Busting up these trusts and monopolies is at the very root of the problem of creating a just society,” he says, channeling Teddy Roosevelt. “Damnit McCabe, I’m here to tell you that this free enterprise system of ours works. And working within it, we can protect the small businessman and the big businessman as well. Until people stop dying for freedom, they ain’t going to be free.”

The joke is on him, however, as McCabe’s refusal to sell his company to the corporation has him killed by the bounty hunters. Altman’s message appears to be that capitalism may not be the best path for the future, but that it is the future, and those who try to fight it will be crushed.

The film’s other big theme is, of course, the role of religion. Altman seems to suggest that religion is a substitute for loneliness, as The Beatles did in “Eleanor Rigby” singing, “Al the lonely people, where do they all belong?” Such hints are there from the beginning, as a woman stabs her husband on top of two boards that fall neatly together to form a cross, as Cohen sings, “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.” By the final scene, the entire town rushes to save the burning church, even though many of them likely never visited it in their daily lives.

The flaming church comes with high symbolism — that 20th century “progress” will threaten to destroy traditional Christian views of the past, and that some people will feel compelled to preserve their religion even if they no longer live by those principle. As for die-hard faithfuls, like the priest character, it’s a constant uphill battle to maintain traditional order in a changing society:

MRS. MILLER: “I’ll tell you something, Mr. McCabe. When a good whore gets time to sit around and think, four out of five times she’ll turn to religion because that’s what they was born with. And when that happens, you’ll find yourself filling the bloody church down there instead of your own pockets.”

Viewers really shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out such themes, as Altman is quite blatant in his imagery. But McCabe and Mrs. Miller remains at least partially inaccessible, be it the fragmented dialogue, purposely dreary look, poor sound quality (which Beatty hated) or ambiguity of a dream explanation. But as with all of Altman’s best work, the more you see it, the stronger it gets. While some critics originally hailed the film a “revisionist western” and an “exquisite mood piece,” it was not fully appreciated it its day, receiving only one Oscar nomination. (B)

“Each time I start a film, while I’m doing it, while I’m editing it, by the time it’s finished, I think this is the greatest thing since hash,” Altman said. “Everybody’s gonna love this film. This is going to be a smashing success. This is going to win every Academy Award, everything. And they don’t. … I’m shocked by the success of some of these films, and I’m shocked by the lack of success of others. And I finally decided that I had deluded myself all these years in what the business of this film business is all about. And I don’t understand it.” (B)

Thus, Altman becomes a fascinating case study in The Film Spectrum dilemma, a raging visionary who knows he’s groundbreaking in artistic expression, but perplexed by the commercial imperative of his industry, not winning an Oscar until an honorary Lifetime Achievement Award. If there’s any consolation, after Altman’s death, his films are recalled very fondly by academia in a sort of positive revisionist history. Any film course would be just as wise to show McCabe and Mrs. Miller as it would The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in discussing the separation between western fact and myth.

The film’s greatest vindication may have come in 2008, with a sort of double whammy. On a Saturday night, the AFI handed Beatty its AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. The next night, it ranked McCabe and Mrs. Miller at No. 8 on its AFI Top 10 Westerns of All Time.

Citations:

CITE A: IMDB Biography: Julie Christie
CITE B: “The Directors; Robert Altman” on Reelz Channel
CITE C: Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” rogerebert.com.

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