Forgotten Gem: McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller – 1971

Director Robert Altman
Screenplay Brian McKay, Robert Altman based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton
Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, René Auberjonois, Michael Murphy, Antony Holland, Bert Remsen, Shelly Duvall, Keith Carradine, William Devane

“… Then came the churches, then came the schools

Then came the lawyers, then came the rules

Then came the trains and the trucks with their load

And the dirty old track was the Telegraph Road…”

Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits, Telegraph Road

“I know what I’m doing! I know what I am doing.”

The words of a business man who’s in over his head, McCabe is a career defining role for Warren Beatty. His con man on the edge of being conned is perfectly defined by Robert Altman’s wide angle lens. His McCabe lets a legend speak for him. It works well at first, but he eventually comes across someone who sheds light on his story.

McCabe arrives in the town of Presbyterian Church and quickly sets up an enterprise of prostitution. He soon joins forces with Constance Miller (Christie) and in short order has control of the town.

Miller runs a sharp house, but she is an opiate addict. McCabe strikes up more than one type of partnership with him and they work well together. Then lawyers from the Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company come to make an offer on his stake. McCabe gambles that they will increase their offer. He discovers otherwise.

Altman’s first film after M.A.S.H. is a study of the two primary characters of the title. He manages to give a different vision of the old west than was popular at the time. It’s harder than most westerns were at the time. Women we see are mostly prostitutes. They’re also given more character than before. There are more cowards around than there are heroes. Legend works more effectively than anything else. Work is hard and the weather conditions are brutal.

The story gives the distinct reality that man can’t escape the arm of society. No matter where they go, once there is flat land ready to give up its resources, the rest of the town and then the city will follow. McCabe and Miller are examples of one type of straggler. The lawyers for Harrison Shaughnessy Mining company are an example of the final nail in the coffin for the freedom of those who came there first.

The wide lens offers cold, insecurity against the weather or anyone else. In the third act, there is a ridiculously fake snow showering the landscape that feels incredibly warm in its refractive light. Fortunately, there is a marvelous gun battle throughout to keep one’s mind off of this.

Special mention should be made for the soundtrack. Three songs by Leonard Cohen match the frailty and hopelessness that pervades the visuals presented. Rumor has it he produced the songs after watching the film once and not really liking it. Subsequent viewings with his music added turned him around.

Beatty is at his best here. He is not necessarily brave, but he fights when he has to stay alive. The threat he faces has little in the way of honor, but this doesn’t matter when it comes to staying alive. The cruelest irony in the final shot is that one can win, even they don’t know all has been lost already.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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