Recently I read an inspired post/review by my friend John Greco on his favorite movie, Mean Streets. John is a great writer and his passion moved me inasmuch as he put into words–simply, beautifully–what a cherished film means to those of us who revere the medium. More than entertainment, more than an enjoyable means to whittle away spare time, favorite movies connect with our humanity so profoundly that–for me, anyway–it is an almost spiritual experience. John exposed his film buff’s fire–and by extension, mine as well–unabashedly. He poured his heart into it, and it was perfect.
I hope to do something similar with this post, though I acknowledge mine won’t be as good; writing is what I do best, but I don’t do it perfectly. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is my favorite movie.
Director Robert Altman opens his picture with this: A quasi-out of place-gent rides into a makeshift town alone. Enveloped in an ostentatious fur coat that reaches below his knees, he mumbles and slumps in the saddle as his horse plods along. Though the scenery is plush and beautiful, it is also cold and muddy.
Could this be Oregon? Montana? Washington, perhaps? Wherever it is, moisture hangs in the air and the skies are a swath of perpetual grey. Shoddy construction runs rampant here, gleaming pine planks mingle with rotting ones. Functional but unfinished. Interupted. The town is called Presbyterian Church.
McCabe (Warren Beatty in his early thirties) is beautiful too, and clumsy, though he is unaware of his awkward tics. His clothing is expensive, dandified and dusty. He wears a bowler hat and a gun belt, which, for the most part, he keeps obscured.
A ne’er-do-well gambler, he surveys the townspeople skittishly, hungrily like a fox. McCabe is smarter, more sophisticated than they are, but by inches instead of miles. Upon entering a saloon he takes control, initiating a poker game immediately. The scruffy men are impressed. The stranger handles cards deftly, but calculation is not his strong suit.
Someone recognizes the name McCabe. There are murmurs of murder; the killing of an infamous gunslinger. Could this be that McCabe? The men squint in the dim light. No. Surely not this guy.
Enter Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie). She is everything McCabe is not–down-to-earth, straight to the point, unimpressed with her own good looks and sharp as a tack. Conversely, she is also everything that he is–illegitimate and itinerant. She’s a prostitute, no ifs ands or buts about it.
After a lot of hem-hawing around by McCabe (and his pitiful attempt at lone wolf pimping results in the death of a john) they agree to form a partnership. He will finance the operation and she will run it. And thanks to Mrs. Miller’s business acumen and a shortage of women in the town they’re a big success.
From the git-go McCabe is smitten with Mrs. Miller, though she is nonpulssed with him. So when we find out that they are sleeping together it comes as a bit of a surprise. Then we see him put money on the nightstand and we chuckle. A stammering, stuttering McCabe is perplexed by her insistence that he pay but we aren’t.
Then later, there they are again, it’s the same arrangement, only this time she’s smiling at him coquettishly, pulling the covers up to her neck shyly and we understand his confusion. What’s going on here? This isn’t like Mrs. Miller at all; and it’s no hooker’s play acting either, we can tell. Could there be a kink in Mrs. Miller’s armor? Yes, indeed. Opium, we find out. She’s a high functioning addict, so McCabe has no idea. But she does care. Mrs. Miller would never act this way with anyone else, opium or no opium.
It is dangerous to be merely rich instead of really rich, especially in a boom town like Presbyterian Church. Moneyed men get wind of McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s success. They make McCabe an offer and he refuses, playing the big shot and the bluff. The men make another offer and still McCabe bluffs. It’s a stalemate. He tells them to sleep on it. There are plans to meet for breakfast.
Back at Mrs. Miller’s he is giddy. He talks of leaving town and there is an unspoken invitation for her to come with him that hangs heavy in the air. Mrs. Miller indulges in just a sliver of hope, we can see it, as brief as the flash of a firefly and so can McCabe, but she is worried. She’s seen this scenario play out before and she knows McCabe’s limitations. If only she could be the one to negotiate, things would be all right. “Just you rest easy, little lady,” he tries to assure her, “everything’s going to be fine.”
The next morning he heads to the saloon for the meeting but finds the men have gone. When Mrs. Miller finds out she is devastated. She knows what this means even as McCabe thinks he can still negotiate. Hired killers are coming.
With McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman upends the traditional Western. He films straightforwardly, blunting and muting so that we are drawn into a monogamous relationship with the characters and their circumstances. The camera is the proverbial fly on the wall and the audio sounds like someone has bugged the shoot. Hues of charcoal, gray and brown prevail so that when there is a blizzard, the brilliance of the snow disorientates us. Altman is a master of ultra realism. His minimalist style stings like cold air to gasping lungs.
Likewise Leonard Cohen’s original soundtrack is harmoniously stark and gorgeously mournful. Unobtrusively, it narrates McCabe’s and Mrs. Miller’s story.
Warren Beatty wallows in the irregularities of McCabe. He is brilliant here. His hesitant, self conscious gait overrides a condescending grandiosity. It is a tightrope of complexity and he dances on it.
As good as Beatty is, Julie Christie is better. The scene where she and McCabe discuss business for the first time over eggs and cigars is a treasure. Christie devours the eggs ravenously, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. She has no patience for niceties or for McCabe’s ridiculous attempts at them. She doesn’t toy with McCabe. She let’s him know right off the bat that she’s way smarter. Still he’s enchanted with her…And, tragically, so are we.
Pam, I have been a big admirer of Altman’s since I first saw “MASH.” His films are offbeat and smart. When you say he, “upends the traditional western,” you hit the nail right on the head. That was one of his trademarks. No matter what genre he attacked, he subverted, reinvigorated and forced the viewer to look at it in a different way. In 1973, he made Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye.” I actually came away from the theater back then not liking the film. A few years ago I watched it again and was completely turned around by it. If you have not seen it, you must.
Beatty and Christie are excellent, and visually, the film is stunning, and fittingly cold. Wonderful look at a terrific film. Now I want to watch it again!
Here’s a link to my take on The Long Goodbye.
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Thank you John. I have kind of a love hate relationship with Altman. Whereas McCabe & Mrs. Miller is my favorite movie, I don’t care for Mash–though I know people who proclaim it a work of art; my opinion is in the minority. I really admire a more obscure film of his “Thieves Like Us” that a lot of film historians just shrug off.
I recently started watching “The Long Goodbye” and was intrigued but I fell asleep and have been too busy to get back to it. Liked what I saw though. I’ve always been an Elliott Gould fan.
All things considered, Paul Thomas Anderson is probably my favorite director. Sidney Lumet runs a close second.
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Great post 🙂 I love everything you wrote here about McCabe & Mrs. Miller 🙂 So many standout aspects of this film. Robert Altman’s direction, the performances of Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, the overlapping dialogue, the production design, Vilmos Zsigmond’s beautiful cinematography and last but not least, Leonard Cohen’s poetic music. I also second that view that “it narrates McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s story.” Another refreshing element about this film is that it is not a traditional western and the saloon girls do not look all prettied up, which would have been too Hollywood-ish. Stuff like this is just one of many reasons that sum up why The New Hollywood era (i.e. the late 60’s through the very early 1980’s) were unique. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂
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