by Frank Olson
Though he first came to prominence with 1970’s glibly populist M*A*S*H, it was with the following year’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller that Robert Altman first demonstrated the breadth of his talent. This off-kilter Western kicked off a hot streak that included such gems as The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, and Nashville, none of which are as consistently dryly funny or as poetically haunting as McCabe. The film is often referred to as a “revisionist” or “anti” Western, but while it undeniably approaches the genre from a non-traditional perspective, there is no need for qualifiers. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, by any standard, one of the finest achievements in the Western genre.
Director: Robert Altman
Producers: Mitchell Brower, David Foster
Writers: Robert Altman, Brian McKay, Edmund Naughton (novel McCabe)
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Editor: Lou Lombardo
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 Millais
US Theatrical Release: June 24, 1971
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
The story (adapted from Edmund Naughton’s novel McCabe) starts in a way that many Westerns start, with a lone hero rolling into a new town. Except that this time the man is John McCabe (Warren Beatty), and he is not a stoic cowboy but an inveterate gambler who quickly establishes himself as the business leader of the little town of Presbyterian Church when he starts up a makeshift brothel. When cockney madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town she swiftly takes over the business and turns it into an upscale bathhouse. McCabe is smitten with his new business partner, but too clumsy to share his feelings. Miller maintains a pitiable affection for McCabe but is too practical to think about love. Eventually a major mining corporation attempts to buy their business and the surrounding lands, but McCabe foolishly plays hardball in the negotiations, leading the company to dispatch three hitmen to kill him.
Where the film sets itself apart from other Westerns is in its mood and atmosphere. Presbyterian Church seems like a genuine, bustling town. In a brilliant economical move, Altman decided to use the production design crew as extras, so that the town sets could be built as scenes were filmed. As a result, there’s no need for dialogue explaining that the town is suddenly thriving. Instead, we simply see that there are more buildings in town and an ever greater number of tourists stopping in. As in the HBO series Deadwood there is a sense that the creators were constantly being inspired by the way that individual parts of the set or aspects of the costume design looked, and there are numerous little details throughout that one imagines were not part of the original script (much less the source novel). Minor characters played by Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall leave a major impression despite having little bearing on the main storyline. Simple Leonard Cohen folk songs gradually begin to feel like cryptic subliminal messages as they fade in and out of the soundtrack.
While the film is a great example of Altman’s off-the-cuff style, it never feels like the story is getting drowned out by extraneous tangents. The plot revolves around the building of the town, and the town creates the film’s atmosphere, so story, form and subject matter are inextricably linked throughout. The director’s trademark overlapping dialogue appears in more sophisticated and technically proficient form in later films, but the muddy cacophony of voices contributes to the sense that Presbyterian Church is an active community and not merely a backdrop for McCabe’s story.
But that narrative remains compelling throughout, and is aided immensely by the finest performance of Warren Beatty’s career. Beatty has always been ambitious in his choice of roles and often makes interesting decisions in his performances, but you can usually see the wheels spinning in his head as he acts. Here he seems natural and relaxed, even when delivering his character’s most bizarrely stylized dialogue (one repeated mantra: “if a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass so much”). Perhaps it helps that he is playing a character who is also visibly plotting (and often badly) while trying to present himself as something that he is not. Surely it didn’t hurt that he was actually dating Julie Christie at the time of filming and therefore had a genuine fondness for her. Regardless, Beatty shows a vulnerability here that isn’t present in his other work, and it’s hugely affecting. A scene where McCabe mutters to himself the declarations of love that he wishes he could say to Miller’s face is both the film’s funniest moment and the most tender scene in Altman’s filmography.
Altman’s primary skill as a filmmaker was building a convivial environment, but his films sometimes suffer from moments of sour cynicism that spoil the mood. McCabe gets plenty dark as the looming threat of a violently hostile takeover creeps in, but the film never loses its fondness for its characters or its setting. The film ends in tragedy for its main characters, but Altman is also careful to show the townspeople saving their community from a fire that breaks out as a result of the inevitable shootout between McCabe and the corporate hitmen. All Westerns reflect the values of their era, but thankfully this one doesn’t strain to make any grand statements about the state of America (a mistake made by contemporaneous anti-Westerns such as Little Big Man, and to a degree in the finale of Altman’s own non-Western Nashville). Instead of making any broad connections to the Vietnam War or the state of race relations in contemporary America, McCabe captures the zeitgeist of the early ‘70s by showing the ways that small-time idealists can be crushed by a cruel corporate establishment. But the film also keeps those hopes of a more loving community alive, like a half-remembered dream, clouded in opium smoke.