Classic Scene: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Robert Altman’s anti-western McCabe & Mrs Miller is one of the most underrated films of all time, despite the fact the late, great Roger Ebert had it in his own personal top ten and referred to it as a ‘perfect’ film. A haunting, poetic look at the old west and the struggles of those who settled in the more unforgiving terrain, it stars Warren Beatty as professional gambler McCabe, a man who sets up a saloon and whorehouse in the town of Presbyterian Church and quickly becomes the richest man in the area. Julie Christie plays the madam running the brothel, and McCabe falls in love with her when she challenges his intellectual superiority.

This is the final scene. At this point McCabe has turned down generous offers for his land, which is rich in zinc, from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining corporation. In order to remove this stubborn obstacle the company sends three bounty hunters to kill McCabe. The cat-and-mouse fight rips apart the myth of the noble western gunslinger, and McCabe is mortally wounded. He struggles to make his way through the deep snow for help and the rest of the townsfolk are preoccupied with a fire in the local church anyway; meanwhile Mrs Miller lies semi-comatose in an opium den, far away.

The scene is indicative of the overall sadness of the film. Where most western heroes grow in courage or strength, McCabe goes the opposite way, gradually losing the power and confidence he has at the start of the film. He does not receive a hero’s death: the character slowly grinds to a halt with a lack of fanfare, has no final, poignant words, and doesn’t get to die in the arms of his lover. There is just the sound of the wind, and then Leonard Cohen’s plaintive voice, before Altman ends his movie with abstract visuals. This is a very well made movie and Altman’s refusal to bow to western conventions are evident here.

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