Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Warren Beatty (John McCabe), Julie Christie (Constance Miller), Rene Auberjonois (Sheehan), William Devane (The Lawyer), Michael Murphy (Sears), Antony Holland (Hollander)
It begins unlike most other Westerns, and so it continues. Where so many before it presented us the dust plains of the West, McCabe & Mrs Miller turns out to be more of a ‘Northern’. Shot in Vancouver, Altman presents us a deeply atmospheric, drizzly version of the Western. A dour place of toil and hardship. Where heroes are not in great supply, and where eking out a living is bravery enough.
Over those beautiful opening shots of hills with McCabe travelling the movie appears, as if out of the ether, as if out of dim memory. As if straight out of history. This is no lucky accident. Altman requested a specific and dangerous technique be used to engineer the feeling it has. This technique, ‘flashing the film’, involves exposing the film minutely. This could’ve destroyed it if done incorrectly. However, with care, this gave the film the look it has today; antiquated, soft, as if discovered somehow. And so the curious tone is set from those haunting titles, helped by Leonard Cohen’s gorgeous, plaintive “The Stranger Song”.
With Altman’s naturalistic style the film is unhurried, the opening half hour or so merely scene-setting. As Altman himself says, to him story is not important. Or not the most important thing. He’s more interested in the details. In nuance. And so for a while the film just lives, drawing you in slowly. John McCabe arrives in a small Pacific Northwest community, carrying a dubious reputation of having killed a man, and sets about building a saloon and offering a limited whoring operation. He is loath to make himself anyone’s partner. But then Constance Miller comes to town, an expert and shrewd cockney whore-mistress, whose common sense and business-like mind convinces McCabe to revise his position and enter into a complicated partnership.
From the off in this relationship Constance holds all of the power. One senses early on that McCabe is in over his head, and is lucky to have Constance to help him. He makes a good appearance of himself – even sticking out humorously in his fancy, oversized furs – but does not work with a practical mind. McCabe is revealed as a dreamer. And when the real world comes knocking, he is completely unprepared. He flat-out refuses to sell when ‘the man’ comes a-calling, and in his arrogance and cockiness sets about bringing on his own downfall. Constance tries to warn him, but McCabe doesn’t listen.
Altman shot the film in sequence; his crew, doubling as extras, building the town as they went. A number of these crew members were trying to avoid the draft in the US, so taking construction work in Canada was ideal. It seems fitting for these people to portray meagre folk trying to make a life away from the ‘civilised’ world – building their own lives on the remainder of the frontier.
This decision to shoot in sequence seems to help the film enormously. The growth of not just the town, but the characters feels wonderfully natural. Of course, Beatty and Christie’s wry chemistry was helped along by their relationship off-screen also. They spark from their first frame together. And Altman’s fondness for overlapping dialogue and a sense of the ‘real’ in his movies helps convince and enthrall. The Western was not a popular genre by the 70s, not by a long shot, even after the success of Leone and the ‘spaghetti Westerns’. Altman’s film feels like a requiem for the genre, but rises above most of its more crude caricatures.
Is McCabe & Mrs Miller a comment on how big business swallows the independents? Quite conceivably. It’s not a stretch to get there. Made in the early 70s, it was birthed into a world that was truly beginning to be consumed by the corporation, and the idea of a counter-culture or resistance to the loss of unbranded space was beginning to become tangible. Like so many of the great pictures of its era, it’s all too easy to read a pertinent political subtext into the story. You could even say it’s about Vietnam, probably. However, such pompous theorising feels unnecessary. Thanks to the way Altman made the film, it feels more like a genuine article out of history than some thinly veiled parable.
The final crescendo of tragedy and bloodshed is sad but remarkably staged. The final blow and a sure symbol of the end of the West. Altman bids farewell to a time where carving out your own way of life in its entirety was still a true possibility. McCabe & Mrs Miller endures. Surely it was a huge influence on David Milch’s Deadwood, and is far more evocative than Eastwood’s also-great Unforgiven.
Recently it seemed like the Western might be making a comeback, with the majestic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Milch’s aforementioned HBO series. This sadly seemed not to fully materialise. It remains to be seen what Tarantino’s Django Unchained will do for – or more likely to – the genre. It’s a shame. McCabe & Mrs Miller is one of a handful of important films that demonstrate the great possibilities of the Western. The inherent sadness and dignity in its mythology. I urge you to give it a try if you’ve not before. It may not beguile you immediately… but give it time, you may find yourself richly rewarded.