McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) movie poster

director Robert Altman
viewed: 02/28/2016

My favorite Robert Altman film is either McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us (1974).  I’ve not seen all of Altman’s films, so I’m no pure expert, but I’d stand by those two choices.

Watching movies the way I do, writing about every single one I’ve seen over 13-14 years now, I’ve tended toward new films, ones I’ve never seen, and haven’t done as much re-visiting as I might if I hadn’t painted myself into this particular corner.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one that I’ve wanted to re-watch for years, just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is sublime.  The movie set, a small town built in the rugged hills of the Pacific Northwest (actually filmed in Canada), is one of the most striking and apt, a work-in-progress, built during the duration of the filming of the movie, really captures the sense of the frontier town, rapidly constructed to serve the needs and purpose, with the raw materials of the place, amid the timber.

It represents the characters and ideas of the piece, the American ideal of the individual building business on the frontier, taming the wild, building commerce, establishing social structures.  Of course, Warren Beatty, who plays McCabe, lays the groundwork for his fancy bar, restaurant as a brothel out of a tent.  It’s prostitution that forms the basis for business and commerce (“the world’s oldest profession”).  But it takes an English woman, Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller), to clean and class the place up, varnishing the surfaces and adding quality to the product, which takes them into bigger profits.  It doesn’t hurt that she actually knows how to run a business.

The upshot, of course, is that big business already owns everything.  Or has the right to own everything.  The rich send in their minions to buy out the greenhorns, but what McCabe thinks is his right and prerogative, to hold out for more money or even just keep his own business turns out to be the quickest way to find out who really runs things in America.

The pessimism of the film’s ending, which is a really incredible sequence, drawn out over nearly twenty minutes, is what makes the film so revisionist.  In Westerns of earlier times, those villains might exist and with the same motives and representations, but here, they win out.  And the business in question might not necessarily have been trafficking in sex.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a remarkable film.  Beautiful.

One Reply to “McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)”

  1. I really like this movie. First off, it’s thrilling getting to experience a chapter of American history even at its most mundane. I say this because you really believe you’re there in that town. From the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond – which you mentioned –to the awesome Leonard Cohen. And one need not mention Altman’s signature overlapping dialog. It all works and is totally immersive.

    It’s also loaded with subtle humor. My favorite scene is when McCabe returns to Mrs. Miller after visiting his lawyer whom filled his head with all kinds of grandiose ideas – dining with Williams Jennings Bryan no less. So she asks him are you going to sell. He replies

    “There’s a time in every man’s life, Constance…when he’s got to stick his hand in the fire…and see what he’s made out of.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    “I’m talking about busting up these trusts and monopolies, that’s what.”

    That’s situational humor of the best kind. They call this a Western but I’m pretty sure Robert Altman should be given a genre of his own. Great movie.

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