“This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come – not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem – an elegy for the dead.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 14 November 1999
In that review Ebert refers to McCabe & Mrs Miller as director Robert Altman’s only ‘perfect’ film. Altman, riding high after the success of M*A*S*H, set out to create an anti-western, a movie that dealt with the harshness of the old west but addressed it without reverting to cliché. Thus there are no sweeping vistas of MonumentValley, no cacti, no posses, no racist portrayals of Native Americans, no saloon brawls and no courageous shoot-outs. When McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives at the town of Presbyterian Church at the start of the film the usual fanfare of horns and spaghetti western guitars is notably absent, and instead he is ushered in by the poetic, calm refrains of Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Stranger Song’. Rio Bravo it ain’t.
Presbyterian Church is a small, gloomy but growing town in the USA’s Pacific Northwest. Professional gambler McCabe arrives at night and quickly creates a stir with the locals by buying them drinks and setting up a gambling table in a saloon / restaurant, which is run by a man named Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois).
There’s little to do in Presbyterian Church, and very few women, so McCabe purchases three cheap prostitutes from a nearby town and puts them to work temporarily while paying the residents to build a large saloon, a bath house and a whorehouse. Shortly thereafter opium-addicted English ‘madam’ Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town and quickly strikes a deal with McCabe to become his business partner. She takes over the running of the whorehouse and brings in higher quality prostitutes from Seattle. (Christie was nominated for an Oscar that year, but lost out to Jane Fonda for her performance in Klute.)
Soon enough profits are rolling in, and McCabe becomes the richest man in the burgeoning hamlet, dismissive of Sheehan and – at times – the other residents. The town grows in size gradually throughout the film, and eventually two agents from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining corporation arrive and attempt to persuade McCabe to sell his profitable businesses so they can access and profit from the local zinc mines. Despite warnings from Mrs Miller, McCabe rejects their offers, and the company sends three hired bounty hunters to remove the obstacle standing in the way of their profits.
Where a western hero traditionally will either arrive in town as a fully-fledged badass or grow in courage as the minutes tick on, in McCabe & Mrs Miller the opposite is in effect. We first encounter McCabe as a confident visitor, puffing away on cigars and taking money from those who challenge him at poker. He is smarter than most, if not all, of the residents, but the temporary nature of a growing town soon means his intellectual superiority is challenged by Miller’s arrival. In one terrific scene over dinner she establishes his naivety with regard to the business of prostitution (and clearly sets out her own knowledge and value), and in another she mocks his inability to keep accurate accounting records, dismissing his mathematical ability to boot. McCabe is suitably chastened by the new arrival, and equally fascinated by her.
Unfortunately he doesn’t really have brute strength to fall back on. The arrival of the three bounty hunters, led by the magnificently cold alpha male Butler (Hugh Millais), reduces McCabe’s standing even further. After realising his mistake in rejecting the company’s generous offer, McCabe offers the hand of peace, but is ritually humiliated by the hired killers in front of many of the town’s residents. As the film progresses McCabe becomes less imposing, with dwindling bravado, before eventually being forced into a cat-and-mouse fight that rips apart the myth of the noble western gunslinger. It’s a terrific performance by Beatty.
McCabe has no choice but to lock horns with Butler and his men, and kills two by shooting them cold-bloodedly in the back. (You have to wonder what John Wayne or Clint Eastwood made of it all, with their predilection for facing opponents down in full view of everyone in the middle of Main Street.) Butler (who otherwise gives off the impression of a man with stones so big they it’s amazing he is able to ride a horse) then does the same to McCabe, who dies an ignoble death in the snow while the town’s residents do battle with a fire in the local church and Miller zones out in a Chinese opium den. These men aren’t heroes.
The other brief moments of action in the film are equally blunt and unheroic. A short fight erupts at one point, but ends just as swiftly when an old man by the name of Bart Coyle (Bert Remsen) falls and fatally injures his head on a rock. No-one is thrown along the length of a saloon bar or through a window in this film. Later, a young, friendly cowboy played by Keith Carradine (in his first ever role) also falls foul of the trio of hired hands, and is innocently tricked into drawing his gun first before being cold-heartedly murdered. It’s a tragic death, stripped of all the bravado and machismo normally associated with western gunfights, and is far more moving than normal as a result.
The harshness of the corporation and its ruthless killers is echoed in the setting. Presbyterian Church is built from timber that has been dragged from the surrounding forest on a steam tractor, and its earliest buildings look like they are about to collapse at any moment. The later ones, post-McCabe’s arrival, appear to be more durable and better equipped to deal with the conditions of heavy rain, sleet and snow that seem to plague the residents, but overall it is a cold place, and dimly lit. The film’s muted tone is complemented perfectly by the predominant colours – washed out greys and browns – as well as Cohen’s haunting, sorrowful soundtrack. It’s a depressing place, with only the whorehouse offering any kind of warmth and solace. Brilliantly, McCabe is chased out of the local church at gunpoint by the local Reverend as his enemies close in. McCabe makes no effort with the church while his business increases profits and as a result he receives no help from it when it is needed. Arguably it is the church that seals this ‘ungodly’ man’s fate.
Altman chose to show the harshness of frontier life, and his film portrays an unrelenting, unwinnable struggle against the elements and the increasing reach of powerful corporations. Filming took place in West Vancouver and Squamish, and the crew included many skilled hands that were refusing to fight in the Vietnam War and wished to avoid conscription. Unusually, it was shot almost entirely in sequence, and the crew built the set as McCabe builds up the town in the film. It feels like an authentic representation of turn-of-the-century life, and the attention to detail is excellent.
Altman is a great director, and here he pulls out all the stops. There are fast close ups on characters, but more often than not he lets the camera settle on the action from a slight distance, preferring to let the ambiance of the room wash over the viewer, and he creates a quietly tragic downbeat mood that hangs over the film at all times. Occasionally we are confusingly dropped into the middle of a scene, with conversations already taking place. Characters talk over each other as they would in real life, and there is plenty of mumbling going on (something that the film has often been criticised for).
There is great chemistry between the two leads, Christie and Beatty. McCabe longs for Mrs Miller, and while he does get to sleep with her, she makes him pay for the privilege ($5, a charge much higher than the rest of the girls that the two employ). She keeps her business partner at a distance, to his chagrin, and the tragedy of their story is played out superbly, most notably in the closing sequences as McCabe struggles for life in the snow while Miller lies semi-comatose on a bed, high on opium, oblivious to events outside.
This is a very well made movie, and Altman’s refusal to bow to western conventions marks it out as a true original. It’s also another great example to support the argument that maverick filmmaking was at its height in the 1970s; McCabe & Mrs Miller stands up to many of the great films of the era by the likes Coppola, Scorsese and Lumet. At times it is dark and gloomy, but there’s also a lot of heart and humour amidst all the despair. I really don’t think I can argue with Roger Ebert on this one.
Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Edmund Naughton (novel), Robert Altman, Brian McKay
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Hugh Millais
Running Time: 121 minutes