McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Dir. Robert Altman. Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois

Many people have thought about McCabe & Mrs. Miller before I got here, and they each land on their own sense of what is most memorable and striking about the movie. The right answer is probably, yes, DP Vilmos Zsigmond’s work in flashing the negative to create that famous yellowy haze in the picture, clustering around the characters to signify them as fool saints. They might choose the quintessentially Altman cast, as the film uses common collaborators Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, and Keith Carradine. Maybe they’ll note the sound – the several conversations laid in on top of one another – which was unprecedented in 1971 but which, by 2001’s Gosford Park, was an Altman stereotype.

To me, the most important thing is that it’s a western that has rain. Westerns are so arid; even in a classic western like Red Rivewhich has literal rain, the rain happens outside the action and the characters stay in tents. As McCabe rides up to the pseudotown of Presbyterian Church, it’s drizzling and from the mud all over the ground it looks like it’s rained more and harder in the recent past. How strange it is that people come in out of the rain, and then go back out into the rain, and work in the rain, and roll around in the mud after their whore has gone out of her mind and started stabbing him. Few Westerns feature mediocrities in the same vein as McCabe, but even fewer acknowledge precipitation. It provides McCabe & Mrs. Miller with character and individuality that other westerns simply don’t shoot for.

It’s tempting to wonder what Presbyterian Church would become if not for McCabe, who wanders in and creates – not civilization, quite – but direction for the town. Sheehan (Auberjonois), who appears to have been more or less the leading citizen of the settlement pre-McCabe thanks to his ownership of a saloon, seems content with the state of affairs. The big mining company hangs over the little hamlet without necessarily being a threat; there is lumber to cut down; Sheehan’s saloon is at present only good for drinking, although should a man pull out his playing cards the poker game will start. Doubtless Presbyterian Church would carry on in this same pedestrian way until the lumber was all accounted for or a bigger boomtown sprung up, for there is no real urgency. The characters in this movie would be abundantly confused by the yelling cowboys in the aforementioned Red River excited to get on the trail; you can easily see the Presbyterian Church men looking at them with cocked eyebrows and sniggering, “What are they so excited about?” Very curiously it is McCabe – a mediocre showman, an incompetent accountant, a hamfisted negotiator – who uses his force of personality and an inexplicable well of cash to ram Presbyterian Church into the future. On the night of his arrival, he smooths a red tablecloth out on top of his table in Sheehan’s and commences a card game. The rumor goes around, instigated almost singlehandedly by Sheehan, that McCabe is a gunfighter (“Pudgy”); McCabe does not confirm or deny it, and in so doing confirms his role as the Lancelot of rural Washington State. Within a few days, he has chartered a saloon of his own, which he tells everyone will have gambling. He manages to buy a few prostitutes, who he puts in tents with signs out front. It is clear that McCabe is smart enough to try to sell vice to comically bored men with nowhere else to dispose their income, but not smart enough to recognize that he could make more money if he classed up his enterprise a little bit. Enter Constance Miller (Christie), who shows up on a steam engine one day, manipulates her way into McCabe’s bewildered confidence, and sets herself up as the madam of McCabe’s now literal whorehouse. For Presbyterian Church, they are a more-than-adequate team; he is the face of the operation, complete with gunslinging mystique, and she is very clearly the brains.

The moral of McCabe & Mrs. Miller – yes, there’s a moral – is an important one for all Americans to swallow: greater consolidated capital can destroy anything. McCabe, feeling cocky, turns down two offers from representatives of Harrison Shaughnessy, a regional mining company with a sinister reputation familiar to seemingly everyone but our dubious hero. (Mrs. Miller, wise as she is, recognizes the folly of passing up $6,000 in fin-de-siecle money from a corporation that has a reputation for taking what it wants with or without paying up.) Perhaps McCabe, drunk in one instance and utterly convinced of his cleverness in the second, fails to appreciate Sears (Murphy) and Hollander’s (Anthony Holland) tone. Sears is the lead man, and he is classic Murphy-in-Altman: the outsider trying to convince a native he fits in. Sears’s affability and vague cluelessness is taken by McCabe, who cannot see beyond the man, as weakness. Sears is Hollander’s junior in age and experience alike, and Hollander, who recognizes McCabe’s type, pushes negotiations towards violence. McCabe, who is probably older than Mrs. Miller and a man in a man’s world, ignores the good advice he gets from her. McCabe’s flaw is the flaw of a fish who has misread the size of the pond he’s swimming in, who has too long (and too easily) been in an ecosystem where he was top of the food chain. Or perhaps, like the dodo, he could not recognize the threat posed by unfamiliar actors. To use a somewhat unorthodox comparison based entirely on my own spleen, he reminded me of current 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo; both men seem to believe that they are smooth operators capable of outwitting or outmaneuvering powerful agents. Whatever his thought process, McCabe takes much too long to adjust to the threat which he fails to recognize as threatening at all.

The first half of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is deadeningly slow, more aimless than any other Altman movie I’ve ever seen. In Nashville or Short Cuts or Gosford Park, which are equivalently aimless in the early goings, there are too many characters to keep track of for us to feel the slow buildup. In this film, there are obviously only a few characters who will keep our attention for any amount of time; perhaps this is why the arrival of Sears and Hollander feels thunderous, and the sudden presence of the giant Harrison Shaughnessy contract killer (Hugh Millais) and his team is positively seismic. Altman movies tend not to be frenetic, but there’s something about this movie that lulls the viewer in an unfamiliar fashion. It could credibly go on like this for months or decades without changing the flavor, but in the end this film is most effective because of the new ingredients added. I tend to favor films which (whether you know it or not) come with all of the interior psychological drama you’d need within the first half hour; the threats to McCabe, who really has no interior psychological drama, are external in their entirety, but the procession of them is still highly effective.

The final quarter of the movie begins with a brief vignette (very Altman indeed) featuring a nameless cowboy (Carradine) who really ought to be called “Randy.” He has spent no small amount of time and money at Mrs. Miller’s, and for whatever reason the whores are genuinely sad to see him leave. As he tries to cross a bridge to buy some new socks, he winds up on the wrong side of one of the Harrison Shaughnessy killers and is shot dead, falling into the freezing brown water just under the bridge. It is a slow-motion shot recalling the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde a few years earlier, but with three major differences. First, Altman removes the blood, and second, he removes the close-ups. In this way he manages to dehumanize the victim both physically and emotionally. Third, he has an innocent man killed and lets us linger on it. Whatever we may like about Bonnie and Clyde, we can’t deny that they’re guilty of several crimes; “Randy” the cowboy has not done anything to deserve his cold-blooded murder. The tone of the movie changes irrevocably here. What could pass as a bizarre workplace comedy or droll romance takes the wind out of our lungs and replaces it with a western which saw a western on TV one time, barely remembering the rules and thus not caring much to play by them. The townspeople, rather than watching the showdown, try to save the titular church, which is accidentally burning down. The showdown is no warm, sunlit man-to-man duel but a scurrying hide-and-seek in the early morning snow.

The last few shots of the film are indicative of the film’s final, mistrustful tone. McCabe, dying in the snow, cannot move as the wind throws practically an entire snowbank into his face, obscuring his features as well as the dirt on a coffin might do. Meanwhile, Mrs. Miller, seemingly sensible to the outcome of the duel, takes refuge in her opium. He might be dead, but she’s the one who will have to pay the price for it – as the living, she’s been cheated from her share of a sale and will almost certainly have to give up her control of the business she’s run. She was the madam and not the gambler, but even she knows that the house always wins.

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