Friday, June 22, 2018

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

USA, 120 minutes
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Edmund Naughton, Robert Altman, Brian McKay
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: Leonard Cohen
Editor: Lou Lombardo
Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, William Devane, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy

DVD extras and featurettes on the 2016 Criterion edition of McCabe & Mrs. Miller seem to feel a critical question about this movie is whether or not it is a Western, and if so, what kind (meaning classic versus revisionist in its many labels, anti-, acid, neo-, spaghetti, etc.). So clearing that up from my view, yes, it's a Western. It's set in the Pacific Northwest at approximately the turn of the 20th century. It's very rainy and there's a snowstorm, which is typical of the PNW, but things like ranches, Indians, horses, mountains, six-shooters, and everything you need for a Western are well known in the little burgeoning mining town of Presbyterian Church, Washington—one of the best names I've ever heard for a Western town, by the way. The only thing that might be different, as director and cowriter Robert Altman joked while he was working on it, is that it's not a dusty Western.

I will also say McCabe & Mrs. Miller stands self-consciously in the shadow of directors Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah at least in terms of using an elaborate set piece of grotesque violence in the last third of the movie. This is seen in lots of Westerns from the late '60s and early '70s, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Billy Jack, and including obviously all of Peckinpah's and Leone's work, where it wasn't even reserved so much for the last third but could go first. Look for slo-mo and echoing sound. That's not to say that the death of the only cowboy in McCabe & Mrs. Miller isn't a shocking and effective scene. In many ways the whole movie turns on it.

But McCabe & Mrs. Miller has infinitely more in common with MASH, The Long Goodbye, and California Split than with The Wild Bunch or Once Upon a Time in the West. If McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a Western, it's a Robert Altman Western. It came near the front end of a sustained period of inspired production for Altman, from 1970 to 1975, from MASH to Nashville. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller Altman is seen boldly exploring his own private Idaho aesthetics further, where the Westerns aren't dusty, where the sound design is a concert of ambient streaming mumbling, high wind blowing, and Leonard Cohen recordings, where the production design palette is limited largely to brown, and where the sets themselves are visibly under construction as the movie advances.

Its story is also a direct (and poignant) throw-down to prevailing conventional wisdom about American individualism versus entrenched corporate and political power, which was Altman's continuing theme in these years. Altman is one more futile hippie saying no as much as Henry David Thoreau ever was. (Same kinds of privileged lives too. It's a long tradition.) In this movie it's the eccentric John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who is a self-made man and certain ideal of American individualism. He puts himself at risk, body soul and pocketbook, and his investments and hard work prove out. McCabe arrives in Presbyterian Church one day and his career there lasts perhaps two years. During that time we see the town prosper and grow. Looked at another way, we see the crew finally finishing with the sets near the end of the movie.

For all his industry, McCabe is more an eccentric muttering-to-himself rascal, a certain type from the old weird America—gambler, con man, black marketeer. He makes his money in Presbyterian Church off of a saloon and three prostitutes he purchases and installs in tents. That's where Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) comes in. She's a tough and savvy cockney Londoner who knows the ins and outs of running a brothel. She and McCabe partner up (sexually too, though he always has to pay) and soon have a nice business going. It's refreshing on one level to see a woman put in such a relatively powerful role, even if she is a prostitute. Mrs. Miller earns her money with hard work and smarts. But inevitably the foolishness of the man in this kind of situation is still going to trump any woman's experience and know-how.

And so it goes, when the corporate behemoth comes a-calling and the movie turns out to be a tragedy and not a farce. In this regard it's a neat and effective drama of American values, much driven by the performances. But what I really love about McCabe & Mrs. Miller specifically, and Altman generally, is the way chance opportunity is so visibly seized. That's part of his overlapping conversations thing, as the snatches we pull out of the murmur are often evocative, though one suspects some of these fragments by design are pushed up in the mix. (It reminds me a little of R.E.M. and its brown album Murmur with the typographical treatment of random fading words.)

The best example of Altman seizing an opportunity in this movie—maybe even the best example in his whole career—is the snowstorm that provides the backdrop of the great finish. It might even be the start of Altman's long habit of ending his movies on natural disasters. It's a real snowstorm, a freak but not unknown occurrence in the part of British Columbia, Canada, where the movie was shot. And typically for a PNW snowstorm, the snow was all gone three days later. But that day, with the storm going full bore, is the one Altman used to film the stunning climax, a tense standoff and gunfight between McCabe and the killers hired to put him down. Also, the town church is on fire (how's that for symbolic in Presbyterian Church, Washington?). The ending scenes are just remarkable, every bit, even little throwaways like the sight of a loose horse running through snow three feet deep or higher. Or the way that Altman lets you hear how fresh snow absorbs sound.

In the days that followed he shot the scenes that are the run-up to the storm in the movie, even as it melted away, and it's skillfully cut together for an amazingly seamless experience of a snowstorm coming down. Really beautiful stuff here, and it's all in harmony with the story, with McCabe ultimately buried in a white out (which also feels directly connected visually to director Stanley Kubrick's image of Jack Nicholson in a snowstorm at the end of The Shining). John McCabe's and Constance Miller's stories are great. Warren Beatty's and Julie Christie's performances are too. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond proved himself one of the best here, with this amazingly effective work in brown. The Leonard Cohen soundtrack is another key element with the perfect mood. So much is working so well in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

1 comment:

  1. First, it's a gritty, beautiful movie, which maybe I'm more of a sucker for than most b/c I'm from the PNW. But what I think has made it hold up best is the disorientation (why I think the "western" question comes up most) of Beatty as anti-hero, breaking w/ western conventions, and Christie as the more solidly heroic (if still tragic) figure.