Robert Altman is a filmmaker who is not to every taste. Even to my taste, at least not always. I either love or deeply dislike his films. (For instance, I have yet to make it to the end of Nashville, or past the first five minutes of The Long Goodbye.)
Obviously, since I picked McCabe & Mrs. Miller to write about, it’s safe to assume this is one of his films I love. Even more than that, by pure coincidence I had been watching the film earlier in the day when Altman’s death was announced on the news. So it holds a special place in my estimation of his films.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller has often been called an “anti-Western,” as if that’s what makes it a good movie. As a long-time fan of the genre, I find that a snobbish point of view. On certain levels, it’s a very conventional story for the genre, and on others, it cleverly upends many of its expected tropes, particularly when it comes to the issue of gender roles.
John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a gambler who rolls into a mining encampment called Presbyterian Church. An odd misinterpretation of an incident in his past makes the miners and other residents automatically respect him. He sets out to build a mini-empire for himself. He soon owns most of the major business interests in the town and becomes its leading citizen.
A madam named Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives and proposes they partner up in a business venture where he sets her up in a “proper” sporting club. He agrees, and soon Mrs. Miller has a thriving business. McCabe and Mrs. Miller also embark on a sexual relationship, but one she insists is always based on an exchange of money.
One day men arrive in town and propose to buy out McCabe. In a misguided effort to jack up the price, he refuses one time too many. The men leave. Mrs. Miller warns him the outfit they represent is ruthless. It soon dawns on him that they have sent hired guns to kill him. His attempt to reach a deal to sell out fails. During a snowstorm, the inexperienced McCabe is forced to defend himself against three gunmen.
On the surface, there is not much here that sounds that different from many other Westerns. One unique aspect of the story is it takes place in the Pacific Northwest, instead of the southwestern part of the United States. Then, of course, there’s Robert Altman’s famous hyper-realistic style of filmmaking, with parts that are improvised, and “layered” dialogue, where characters talk over one another. Altman also used Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack that were not specifically written for the film to comment on the action, something that was fairly unusual until the 1970s.
One thing that was improvised in McCabe & Mrs. Miller was the final battle in the snow. Filmed in Vancouver, the production was almost halted by an unexpected snowstorm. Instead of waiting for clear weather, Altman decided to film it during the storm. Not only does the beauty of the storm contrast with the suspense and violence of the scene, it seems entirely organic to the story.
The characters of McCabe and Mrs. Miller are quite different from what one might expect. McCabe is not very bright. His belief that he is smarter than others becomes his ultimate undoing. It seems almost inevitable that someone else will roll over him to get what he has built. He falls for Mrs. Miller, and mumbles to himself that he has poetry in him. He is a romantic at heart.
Mrs. Miller rips through all the expectations for her character: she has no heart of gold and she’s far more intelligent than McCabe. (Certainly, she’s more educated, proving she can read and do math better than he does.) She does not fall in love with him. She’s much more concerned with how his failure will set back her own ambitions. At times, she seems to pity him because he is so dense, to the point where he can’t detect the obvious fact that she’s an opium addict. But mostly she’s frustrated because he refuses to listen to her sensible advice.
The story also resembles many classic Westerns in the way it portrays a community created out of disparate elements in the middle of nowhere. When McCabe arrives in town there isn’t much besides the church. The very same church catches fire during the gun battle. The miners, prostitutes, and other citizens work together to put out the fire. As the gun battle ends, the town that virtually didn’t exist before McCabe arrived will probably carry on just fine without him.