For those new to 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' it can be hard to relate to its reputation as the anti-Western that shook up the genre. Today, a non-traditional film like this would be common place, but in 1971, at the beginnings of the New Hollywood movement Altman’s shaggy Hippie Western was as strange an anomaly as could be.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) dir. Robert Altman
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Keith Carradine, René Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy
By Alan Bacchus
Admittedly I only saw this film for the first time recently, despite being acutely aware of its importance in cinema history. Watching a Robert Altman film can be an intimidating proposal, especially for someone not lovingly attuned to his distinct style. The Player is an excellent film bar none. But Nashville and many of his other lauded films, for all their greatness, can be an acquired taste. But I also loved Vilmos Zsigmond, who arguably defined the look of the 1970’s with this film, and so I always wanted my first experience of McCabe and Mrs. Miller to be the best visual experience I could get. Having missed a few local Cinematheque screenings in town over the years, the opportunity came with the recent Criterion Collection release. Having unboxed the (usual) magnificently-designed burnt umbra-hued packaging, I finally got to devour all pleasures of the film.
It is still a film not-for-all tastes. Looking with the eyes of a 1970’s movie-goer you can see how radical and unconventional the picture was. Liner notes discuss Altman’s attraction to the Western Rockies setting, far away from the dusty locals of Monument Valley, there’s barely any gunfire in the film, very little bravado or heroism, and a foppish swindling hero who barely takes any stand at all. The genre convention Altman does revel in are the prostitutes and brothels which dominate the setting. While Peckinpah westerns portray prostitute in subservient positions of inferiority compared to the dominant males, Altman’s prostitutes feel like products of 60’s liberalism, feminist capitalists owning their bodies and exploiting the base desires of inferior men. The nude bathing scene for instance is typically Altman, and reminiscent of the hippie tone of M.A.S.H’s naughty sexual behavior.
Warren Beatty admirably turns in a consciously affable anti-heroic performance as the opportunistic gambler who stumbles into the North Western brothel town and becomes its primary business owner. He wears a marvelous fur coat in his introduction, engulfing him like a animal draped across his shoulders. But the most notable aspect of his performance was his mumbling and awkward indecisiveness, either purposefully mocking his own stardom or striving to achieve a Brando/Dean style of hero-attraction.
Julie Christie commands the screen with the most confidence. Her appearance is held back for dramatic purposes until 20-30mins into the film. As the Madame, Constance Miller, who partners up with Beatty to run the high class brothel Christie allure is at maximum effect. On the Criterion video extras Keith Carradine describes his sex scene cut out of the picture in order to preserve Christie’s hard-to-get unattainability. Miller is also a heroin user, but treated by Altman with a common sense reality, again, a product of film’s drug-friendly psychedelic era.
As mentioned, Altman admirably uses guns sparingly. There are very few gunshots in the film, but when they come, their impact is dramatic, in particular Keith Carradine’s death, a powerful confrontation between the easy-going Carradine and a deceptively psychotic youngster who seems to take advantage of the carefree passiveness of the town. The gunfights feel like violent encroachments of the genre conventions Altman was consciously avoiding. The final battle between the mining company assassins and the fleeing McCabe is also unheroic and unconventional but thrilling and tense.
And then there’s Vilmos Zsigmond who should take as much authorship of the film as Altman. His fog-filtered look is remarkably distinct it would influence cinematography for the rest of the decade and beyond. And has snow fall ever been depicted more effectively than here?
Lastly Leonard Cohen (rest in peace) who composed the memorable folk songs and help defined the tone of the film feels like just another piece of unconventionality which neatly ties this film together.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection