McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Review #1,464

Director:  Robert Altman
Cast:  Warren Beatty, Julie Christie
Plot:  A gambler and a prostitute become business partners in a remote Old West mining town, and their enterprise thrives until a large corporation arrives on the scene.

Genre:  Western / Drama
Awards:  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Leading Actress.  Nom. for 1 BAFTA - Best Cinematography
Runtime:  121min
Rating:  M18 for some nudity
Distributor:  Warner Bros

“That man never killed anyone in his life.”

The late Robert Altman was a filmmaker whom I really admire and like.  His ‘70s output remains to be his greatest period with films like the breakthrough M.A.S.H. (1970), the underrated The Long Goodbye (1973), the epic Nashville (1975), the dreamy 3 Women (1977), and of course, the enigmatic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the finest revisionist Westerns ever made—and this was about two decades before Clint Eastwood’s more acclaimed Unforgiven (1992) took to the screens.  

It is difficult to distil the cinematic impact of McCabe or its radical approach to genre in a standard review like this, but for a start, one needs to appreciate the film in context.  Picture 1971, post-M.A.S.H., which was incredibly successful, leading Warner Brothers to bankroll a Western adapted from a beloved novel, to be directed by Altman.  Being a rebel, he sought to film his own version of "McCabe", and I leave you to read further on the ingenious, sneaky things that he did during production to retain his ‘authorship' despite the studio making known their utter displeasure.  

The opening credits, with Leonard Cohen’s haunting “The Stranger Song” playing to the arrival of John McCabe (a charismatic Warren Beatty, though played against type) at the Pacific Northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church, is one of the most hypnotic prologues I’ve ever seen, immediately bringing forth the dingy atmosphere of its setting, and the fatalistic mood of the film.  

Shot by the legendary Vilmos Zsgimond (Deliverance, 1972), McCabe has a foggy look, as if you are looking through a stained glass into a world of grime and muck.  This is no polished Western about the confrontation between good and evil.  Instead of heroism, a malleable kind of masculinity is at stake here, as characterised by Beatty’s intentionally hesitant performance that sees his character battling his own psychological insecurities.

Julie Christie plays Constance Miller, who also arrives at the small, no-frills town in the mountains, to become McCabe’s business partner in running a superior whorehouse for the miners.  Capitalism rears its ugly head when several representatives of a powerful mining company pay a visit.  

Altman’s grasp of the conventions of the Western, yet treating them with unorthodox nonchalance is both refreshing and emboldening.  His filmmaking, in particular the innovative use of multi-track sound recording that captures in less than full clarity the myriad of ambient sounds and overlapping conversations of his characters, feels raw and alive.  

From a gender politics perspective, Christie’s Constance is also on an equal footing with McCabe.  She possesses a sense of clarity unlike those around her, even if she is addicted to opium (as brought in by Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrants—in a film largely devoted to deglamourising the mythos of the genre, they are still somewhat a curious sight).  

McCabe & Mrs. Miller did dismally at the box-office, but with time, it has rightly been enshrined as one of Altman’s greatest films, and considered by many to be a foundational masterwork that would later see the auteur further develop his craft and give us so many more exceptional films.  More people need to see this.  

Verdict:  Altman’s ‘mucky’ revisionist Western came early on in his career—and it remains to be a bold, extraordinary masterwork.  





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