Altman’s Anti-Western: McCabe And Mrs. Miller

A small but up-and-coming town is the focal point of Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs. Miller, taking us back to the Old West. Set in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, we find ourselves in the company of John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a cigar smoking, bearskin-wearing, gambler who quickly finds his place at the poker table. Upon seeing the bare surroundings of the town, McCabe fancies to open his own hotel and whorehouse, complete with accommodations. As McCabe, Beatty carries an aura of bravado,  allowing the townfolk to believe he’s a wanted gunslinger, when he really just lives off what he can with gambling. He’s a fake, he gets by based entirely upon how he looks and his attitude toward everyone. It’s a facade, but one that works well, and we can enjoy the game being played by McCabe as we learn more about who the man really is. McCabe successfully sets up his businesses and things are going well when Constance Miller (Julie Christie) comes to town with her own plan in mind. She offers a 50/50 partnership to McCabe, who balks at this idea at first. Mrs. Miller convinces him by pointing out that he doesn’t have the first clue how to deal with the real world problems of running a whorehouse. She calls his gambler’s bluff – he needs her more than she needs him – by selling the idea of a mutually beneficial partnership. This is a woman who’s been around the block a few times, being a former prostitute herself. She matches and exceeds McCabe’s bravado and beats him at his own game. He almost looks shocked after agreeing to the terms, and a beautiful relationship is born.

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The first thing I notice about McCabe And Mrs. Miller is how the film is shot and just how beautiful it is. I may be biased as I am a resident of the Pacific Northwest, but it is one of the most awe inspiring national treasures of this country as well as Canada. Like he did in 1973 with The Long Goodbye, Altman worked with historic cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to craft a distinctive soft light hue and composition. The effect is a mesmerizing visual landscape simultaneously natural and surreal, most of the time cloaked in rain or snowfall. The music of Leonard Cohen haunts the soundtrack.  I felt that Altman might have been a bit indulgent with the use of the music through parts of the first half of the movie while McCabe’s establishment is being built. But it wins you over through the course of the film, especially as it moves into its second hour, cementing a downer and melancholic feeling that sets the tone of the entire picture. The atmosphere created for this small town in the Old West makes it feel distinctly non- western, like an independent film that just so happens to be set in the same time and location. The film’s biggest accomplishment is that it immerses you into a world that feels totally tangible and accessible while drawing us into it’s drama.

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Unknown to McCabe, Mrs. Miller partakes in opium smoking, something she never disclosed prior to their business agreement. This is but one element throughout the film that builds a quiet dread and suspense as to what these people don’t know about one another. It’s what you don’t know that matters most. McCabe is approached by two men representing the local mining company, Harrison Shaughnessy.  The town has grown larger since McCabe and Mrs. Miller have arrived, and the company seeks to purchase all of McCabe’s holdings, calmly and respectfully offering him $6,250. McCabe rebuffs them, in a smart ass and sarcastic way, trying to negotiate as high as $15,000. This insults the two men, who quietly leave town without saying a word. Relaying the situation to Mrs. Miller, she tells him there are harrowing consequences for not selling to a corporation as ruthless and underhanded as Harrison Shaughnessy. Over the next few days, three hired guns show up in town, one of them a 7-foot-tall Brit named Butler (Hugh Millais), whose physical stature delivers on the promise that he is an imposing gunslinger. He threatens and bullies McCabe out of the saloon where all the town folk are gathered. McCabe knows these men are after him. The final scenes entail McCabe hiding, surviving, and tracking down his would be assassins. Beautiful white snow falls liberally on the mountain landscape as everyone has either boarded-up inside their homes or fled, due to the fear of oncoming violence.


McCabe is able to get the drop on two of the men, killing both. We feel every death as Altman takes his time to showcase its barbaric and senseless nature. A coldness is utilized in these scenes, so wonderfully crafted by Altman for the maximum impact. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, we’re made to feel it – this isn’t fun violence or justified in any way. It sinks into our guts watching it happen, unable to prevent it’s carnage. Near the very end, McCabe, while trying to climb up a snowbank is shot in the back by Butler. Thinking he’s killed the slouched down McCabe, Butler walks up to his prey only to be surprised by McCabe raising a small pistol and killing him with a headshot. This is a wonderfully choreographed scene that genuinely shocks with its trajectory and leaves me absolutely stunned. McCabe, fatally wounded, can only lay there as he dies in the burrowing snow. One of the final shots of the film being his body disappearing under the falling snow, all traces of him vanishing from sight. Mrs. Miller, in the final shot of the film, is smoking her opium pipe, looking lost and somber. I found myself surprised by this film, a Western that isn’t really a Western. As a big fan of the genre, I really love the Spaghetti Westerns and Neo-Westerns from the late 60’s through the late 70’s. Altman always did something a little different from the traditionalists, and he keeps with the pessimism of the 1970’s that infused the mood and tone of the film. It’s a really beautiful, sad, and worthwhile viewing experience that rewards you for hanging in as it builds it’s world and takes you on the journey. It does take awhile to get going, and in parts, it feels a bit whimsical, but that second half takes hold of you – you can’t help but be enamored with this world and its characters.


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