The western genre has to be one of the most difficult genres to mold into something else. With all the boxes already being checked, the first half of 20th-century cinema was dominated by the old saloons, gun-slinging, horseback riding iconography. Even as the western began to die down and a new crop of movie star began to emerge, there were no signs that it would become unprofitable. It’s when the rise of one of my favorite directors, Robert Altman, and this decline in the genre crossed paths was the moody and melancholic film MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) created. A quietly influential movie that sacrifices plot for atmosphere and became even more successful for it. Instead of seemingly polarizing, Altman’s subversive take on old genre favorite in which time and place was embraced, yet still seemingly forgotten about.
MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is, at least, not as widely discussed as other new Hollywood films of this era, nor as studied as any of his contemporary filmmakers who also grew in prominence. A majority of Altman’s work is about, really, nothing, but feels like it has everything packaged within itself. He makes movies that feel natural but also heavily stylized. He is known to be abrasive, but ultimately Altman’s work shows him to be a humanist. These contradictions show him to be wholly idiosyncratic, someone who can be easily identified by the large, sprawling ensembles, slow and methodical camera zooms, and conversations overlapping within each other. Most importantly, concerning MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, is his satirical eye focused on America, how we built and it and who inhabits it.
We find John McCabe (Warren Beatty, arguably at the height of his powers) riding horseback into the small village of Presbyterian Church, with bitter snowfall and Leonard Cohens soulful soundtrack to compliment. The resident of this village are taken aback by McCabe, notice there is something mysterious and peculiar about someone who would do business here of all places. Soon we realize McCabe’s swagger is nothing more than a facade, and Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) sussed him out which leads the two of them to open a Brothel together while dealing with bigger corporations trying to buy them out for more money.
Yet, Miller only realizes that selling their work to others is a viable option, yet McCabe’s selfishness just creates tension between the two. Miller believed that all McCabe knows is charisma and swindling the locals of the town, but not with the required longevity. It’s where this partnership is so good to watch, they both impress one another while remaining platonic. Especially in a village just entirely comprised of men and women who are used for pleasure, Miller is now not only someone that learned the business end but has empathy for the girls since she is a former prostitute as well.
McCabe is painted as someone exactly as Miller assumes, pathetic. [SPOILER] He goes to Presbyterian Church looking for a clean slate but his past catches up to him, leading to his death in the gripping third act chase through the unrelating snow. In another subversion of the Western tropes, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER doesn’t end in a badass, sweaty Mexican standoff, but McCabe running around after a hired killer seeks to hunt him down. The cat and mouse chase is going on seemingly forever with no Leonard Cohen songs to make us feel more at ease, just the echo of the train horn in the distance and footsteps of villager bystanders. Even with Warren Beatty’s natural charm, it isn’t enough to get him out of this mess. Altman recognizes that he is a victim of his own demise and decides Mrs. Miller was right all along.
Altman shot the movie in sequential order, which isn’t common at all, but confidentially mirrors the small Washington town being built at the same speed. People from the crew actually lived on the set during filming so it felt even more lived-in than it already did. Realistic doesn’t even begin to cover how well constructed this set it is, such a well-observed eye it’s hard to think anyone would do it as well. We see the colorful characters in their everyday lives like Sheehan (René Auberjonois) who tries to put McCabe in his place once he arrives. Visiting the towns’ birthday parties and funerals to brawls breaking out on the Brothels construction site, its well-realized to the point where we feel like we are watching archival footage of the early 20th century.
It’s where cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s extraordinary work comes into play in making the images look staggeringly beautiful but also kind of dirty or unfinished. The frames here are distinctive but not overly stylized to the point when every shot is done to look like perfection. It’s this technique here which actually prevented Zsigmond from having to compromise with the studio– he and Altman chose to fog up the film negative before its exposure as opposed to more traditional post-production. Sunshine is never seen, the whites of the snow and greys of the clouds always pop, even though this is far from the look of the traditional western, it perfectly captures the mood of the old west.
MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER has a strange legacy, to say the least. Sure, it made 4 million dollars at the box office, unanimous praise from critics, and silicifying Robert Altman as a filmmaker to watch after MASH (1970)and BREWSTER MCCLOUD (1970)the previous year. Yet, it still manages to fly under the radar when talking about the great American movies or great all-time westerns. How the film rebels against genre conventions certainly play a factor, or maybe how the pace is never in a rush to jump to any satisfying narrative conclusions. McCabe dies at the end, its a melancholic tragedy that not one man is fit to outlast his wrongdoings, shaking up the preconceived idea of heroism.