McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Directed by Robert Altman


In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, John McCabe (Warren Beatty) and Constance Miller (Julie Christie) as well as Mrs. Miller’s prostitutes are effectively the first family of Bearpaw (somewhere in Washington), but I never found them all that interesting.

McCabe is a businessman who builds a saloon and then tries to open a brothel, but Mrs. Miller approaches him with an offer to construct an even better brothel.  They quickly become business partners, and everything runs smoothly until a group of men arrive in town trying to buy out their business.  McCabe tries to negotiate with them, but his plan backfires, and the men leave town planning on bringing in hired guns to kill McCabe as an example to others who won’t sell to them.

The company has already purchased another local business and has its eyes set on a monopoly.  When McCabe realizes the danger he’s in, he tries to find the men and make a deal.  When that doesn’t work, he seeks out a lawyer who proves to be no help when McCabe really needs a bodyguard.  The lawyer is a sort of antithesis to what McCabe becomes.  Eventually McCabe is killed by one of the gunmen (though he does end up killing all three himself) and his actions seem to save the town, by preventing the monopoly.  He stays local, and the lawyer has his sights set on the Senate.  He offers to help McCabe for free, and that’s because he thinks he can turn this into a huge story.  He’s in it for himself.

John McCabe, I’d wager, was also in it for himself up until this point.  He never seemed too selfish but he certainly was never selfless.  He was reluctant to go into business with Mrs. Miller, and she had to point out that he thinks too small.  He was neither ambitious nor selfless, but in the end his refusal to sell his company (and subsequent killing of the three hitmen) becomes more selfless of an act than he imagined.  It was his stupidity and overconfidence that led to him not selling.

The film ends with McCabe dying, buried in the snow while Mrs. Miller smokes opium (she’s an addict).  It’s a happy ending for the town, which works together to put out a fire in the church and a depressing ending for the titular characters.

Like MASH this film begins with a long shot of people moving while a melancholic song plays.  That might seem to vague of a concept to be a real trend, but there are several sequences in this film in which we see people slowly moving while a Leonard Cohen song plays.  It really drives home the tone of the film

So in the end, the town becomes a place of some hope, but it definitely doesn’t begin that way.  We first see McCabe in a tavern where the owner claims McCabe killed a certain man, and I expected this situation to erupt, but it never does.  It immediately feels hostile, however.  Later, one man, Bart, gets into a fight when another man mistakes his wife for a prostitute, and Bart ends up on the ground, dead.  His wife does later become a prostitute, though Constance’s justification of her new lifestyle contains a few good arguments when you compare it to the alternative (forced marriage).

Another young cowboy is pointlessly murdered by a kid who is later one of the men trying to kill McCabe.  The cowboy is young, handsome and somewhat idealistic.  He’s a happy guy, and he dies suddenly.  The town isn’t such a safe place, but in the end it seems like a utopia.

I don’t know what else to say about this film.  I think my writing has been all over the place.  This is only the second Robert Altman film I have seen, and I feel like I’m missing something.  I don’t yet know too much  about Altman, but his style seems both incredibly specific and measured but also sloppy.  I had trouble hearing at first as a lot of the audio feels course and indistinct, like Altman is setting up the backdrop and the environment more than he’s laying out steps in a story.  So I guess much of the film just feels like atmosphere.  I never felt that attached to John McCabe or Constance Miller, but I suppose I did feel some kind of connection to the town they live in.  This was like playing Sim City but set in whatever year this film was set in.  We see a town constructed and then nearly burned down.  We become acquainted with many of the people, a few who die along the way.  The final showdown is like a tour through the entire town.  It starts with McCabe climbing to the top of the church so he can get a better view of the town and where the gunmen are.  Early in the film there was a silhouetted shot of a man placing a cross on top of the church.

After one of the gunmen mistakenly shoots the pastor, a fire breaks out, and this is what the townsfolk come together to put out.

Altman has called this an “anti-western.”  I think I have an idea of what that means, but I don’t know for sure.  McCabe is more like an accountant than a gunslinger, and he has a legend attached to his name about murdering a man that is probably not true.  Those are the only things I can come up with.

God, Altman makes me feel dumb.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s