by Tony Dayoub
Perhaps it was the disillusionment with Vietnam, or the revolutionary assault of American society by it's younger generation that led to the marked change in film from the sixties into the seventies. One thing is certain, westerns had up until then been the dominant genre in American film. And as the realities of the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, and feminism started encroaching on our lives, movie audiences started turning their back on these, and other "fantasies" that existed in American film.
Musicals were dying at the box office... just look at Doctor Dolittle (1967) as Mark Harris discusses in his excellent book, Pictures at a Revolution. War movies were becoming less Dmytryk's Back to Bataan (1945), and more Boorman's Hell in the Pacific (1968). Even John Ford was redefining his own depiction of Native Americans with the extremely sympathetic take in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his last western. With Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah now becoming the torchbearers of the genre, cowboys were taking on a distinctly antiheroic role. The time had come for an outsider, like Robert Altman, to subvert the western, which he did in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).
Altman was by no means a young novice when he hit it big with M*A*S*H (1970). Already well into his forties, he had made a few less than notable movies like Countdown (1968). And like Peckinpah, he had been a prolific TV director, having directed some of the popular shows of the day, like Route 66, Combat! and Bonanza. But M*A*S*H was the first indication that he was destined for more than the journeyman directing he had done thus far. Ostensibly about the Korean War, Altman admitted that the reason it was such a hit was because it really spoke of Vietnam at a time when few other films were. And while it had many of his hallmarks, like the overlapping dialogue, ensemble cast, and naturalistic approach to shooting, his unique style arguably didn't solidify until McCabe.
The film opens to the haunting sound of Leonard Cohen singing "The Stranger Song" as a man enters frame left riding a mule in the constant drizzle of an unmistakeably northwestern town called Presbyterian Church. It is a mining town slowly drifting into modernity with the building of a church. The man enters Sheehan's, a bar where he sets up a game of poker, introducing himself as John McCabe (Warren Beatty). When the proprietor, Paddy Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), asks him if he's "Pudgy" McCabe, the man who shot down Bill Roundtree with a Deringer, McCabe doesn't deny it. He just grins as Altman zooms into his gold-toothed smile.
As the myth of McCabe the gunfighter starts spreading, he starts to promote a new enterprise, a prostitution camp. Attracted to the new endeavor, Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), an opium-addicted madam, arrives in town. Mrs. Miller is the only one to see through McCabe's phony facade to the hard-drinking, charming con-man hidden beneath. She bids to go into business with McCabe to turn the camp into a luxurious brothel. The establishment of the brothel, and the church, accelerates the town's development, bringing both the God-fearing and the corrupt together to form a community.
Soon, the Harrison Shaugnessy Company, in the form of a man named Sears (Michael Murphy), comes calling on McCabe to buy his business. McCabe's response, "Well, Sears, I'm Roebuck. Who'd you leave minding the goddamn store?" McCabe's folksy humor falls on deaf ears, as does his haggling for a greater bid when Sears shows interest in buying McCabe out. Sears leaves, and his company sends out three hired gunmen, a British giant named Butler (Hugh Millais), a kid, and an Indian half-breed, to kill the brothel owner.
When Sheehan tells Butler how McCabe is really the outlaw "Pudgy" McCabe, Butler says, "That man never killed anyone in is life." But as he trudges through the snow, hunted by the gunmen, McCabe has an ace up his sleeve that brings that denial into question, a Deringer pistol.
Altman spends the first hour of the film setting up the house of cards on which McCabe, and Presbyterian Church, is built on. The legend of McCabe is given a lot of credence in the iconic style used to shoot his entry into town. Vilmos Zsigmond's then innovative soft focus cinematography creates a warm, nostalgic, almost historic mood. The haunting Cohen folk songs, heard throughout, serve the same mystical function as a Greek chorus, commenting on the tale and enhancing its archetypal relevance to traditional myths. The silence McCabe adopts when interrogated about Bill Roundtree plays into our expectations of western outlaws and their stoicism when referring to killing.
But once Sears and his company appear, the film shifts into a second hour where Altman explodes the western myth. The outlaw hero, McCabe, is visibly shaken by the quiet departure of Sears. The sun-dappled greenery of the northwest turns into a bleak snowy landscape. When questioned about a gun he carries, an innocent young cowboy (Keith Carradine) explains how he wears it mostly for show, and doesn't know how to shoot it. Goaded into unholstering the gun by one of the hired guns, he is brutally murdered while atop a bridge, falling into icy water, and demolishing the cliche of the honorable gunfight on a dusty street.
Altman's style is never more evident than in this film. His penchant for naturalism comes to the fore in this film, which was shot chronologically as the town was erected. The early scenes are abundant with overlapping dialogue, designed to confuse one's opinion of McCabe. But as his backstory becomes clear, so does the soundtrack, until almost the only sound heard in the climactic 20 minutes is that of snow falling. The cast consists of several actors that had been or would become part of his repertory, including Auberjonois, Murphy, Carradine, John Schuck, Bert Remsen, and Shelley Duvall. And like in M*A*S*H, he uses the setting to reflect his personal views, here the formation of a society.
Altman acknowledges the unimpressive plot in his commentary for the film's DVD. A stranger comes into town and gets together with the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold to defend the town from a gunslinging kid, a giant, and a half-breed. But he isn't as interested in the cliche plot as he is in what fuels each character's motivation. He is cognizant that societys evolve much the same way the town does in this film, through the push and pull of conflicting moral extremes, as represented by the church and the brothel. Big business generally comes in once the pioneering has been done by the little man, and may sometimes use unethical means to push him out.
Despite just an average box office gross at the time of its release, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has become a cult favorite. It's influence can still be felt today in films as recent as Michael Winterbottom's The Claim (2000) and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007).
This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 9/7/08.