McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Director: Robert Altman

By Roderick Heath

Robert Altman’s vision of the American frontier is a dream welling out the sea, given raw form upon a shore that is sometimes mud, sometimes ice. His hero breezes into town a vague and ambiguous apparition and dissolves back into the landscape as his life blood leaks out. The aesthetic is at once near-mystical in its evocation of the past and also a tragicomedy in a key of shambling diminuendo, fever dream, opium fancy, reverie in an on old tintype. Yet it’s rooted in a thoroughly physical, tactile sense of being – mud, snow, gold, booze, bodily fluids, history written in such matter, the stuff people ingest and exude. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides out of the woods, sizes up the situation as he lights a cigar, and takes his leisurely time making his way into the saloon of Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), watched by a ragtag collective of miners who make up the population of this small frontier colony somewhere near the Pacific Northwest coast, a town that will become known as Presbyterian Church for its most beloved structure, and yet which grows out of history’s muckiest compost heap.

The miners are intrigued and anxious, wondering if the stranger brings trouble or excitement. McCabe seems to be merely a professional gambler, setting himself up in Sheehan’s tavern and swiftly contending with the owner’s pretences to businesslike authority, listening to his idea of a deal and turning it down, before getting down to business. But Sheehan has heard rumours, rumours he gleefully repeats, that this guy McCabe is nicknamed Pudgy who used to be a gunfighter and shot a man named Bill Roundtree with a derringer. A thousand westerns kick off with the same situation, of course. The stranger with a past breezes into town, hoping to leave that past behind and remake himself as just another man on the make in a land full of them. Where Altman’s specific touch manifests is in his approach to the cliché. McCabe is an oddball, a guy who talks to himself, cracks crude jokes, charms and wheels and deals entirely by the seat of his pants. He’s smart enough to see in this collection of shacks on a hillside, with a stream of wealth being hewn out of the ground steady enough to support an entrepreneur’s readiness to service men with things to spend that wealth on.

Altman identifies with McCabe and fears for him as an independent impresario and as a kind of showman. The key to his popularity and success as a gambler is not mere skill with cards but the convivial and entertaining aura he weaves about him, drawing people to his table, eager to win and lose in his company. His reflexive mastery of his business is casually hinted as he makes sure where the back door to Sheehan’s saloon is before setting up his game. But McCabe seems to be tired of drifting and the tenuousness of his trade and has got himself a case of genuine, certified, 100-proof, all-American ambition. McCabe’s idea, as far as it goes, is to start meeting the needs of these men who labour far away from community and women with the things they most want and which Sheehan isn’t already providing them with, that is, everything that isn’t overpriced hooch and a filthy bunk for the night. So he travels back down to the nearest developed town, Bearpaw, and buys a trio of prostitutes, and sets them up in tents, each denoted by a sign: 2-for-1 Lil (Jackie Crossland), Pinto Kate (Elizabeth Murphy), and Almighty Alma (Carey Lee McKenzie). But the difficulties in running such an operation are soon made perplexingly clear to him as the mousy and silent Alma, for whatever reason, starts bellowing and trying to stab one of her clients with his own Bowie knife. What he needs in turn comes into town shortly after, riding on a laboriously trundling steam tractor: Mrs Constance Miller (Julie Christie).

Amidst the many gems rough and polished scattered throughout Altman’s career, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has slowly resolved from the fog of initial bemusement to be regarded as perhaps his greatest achievement. Altman’s phase as a major film artist of untrammelled regard and liberty stretched from the compromised but fascinating Countdown (1968), gained traction with the huge hit MASH (1970) and reached a highpoint of acclaim with Nashville (1975), with many oddities and gems in between, to the end of the 1970s. Altman’s career crashed against the shoals of a changed audience mood, an increasingly lockstep film industry, and his own restless artistry. He spent the following decade or so in a critical and financial wilderness, before a resurgence of patchy brilliance in the 1990s. Altman’s rude reassessment of American social and historical mores and mythology was frequently leveraged through determined assaults on film genre frameworks, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller fits squarely both into Altman’s private genre of satirically inverted twists on familiar storytelling modes and received wisdoms, and into the run of darker, probing, guilty revisionist portraits of the Old West and American history that sprang up in the late ‘60s and extended into the following decade.

The very making of McCabe & Mrs. Miller evokes the rare and rich window in the history of the movie business it exemplifies as an artwork, some of the hottest talents in Hollywood collaborating on this strange, shaggy, never-never excursion, stranded on a muddy hillside outsider Vancouver. A collective of draft-fleeing Americans helping build the sets in the backgrounds of shots. Altman, still a recent escapee from the treadmill of week-in-week-out TV work, a director who had scored an unexpected blockbuster hit a year earlier now determined to push his credit as far as it would reach and beyond, and work out just what his new-found style was good for. A pair of tabloid-bait movie star lovers at the centre giving career-best performances, the classy Oscar-winner playing the iron-plated whore and her mogul-star boyfriend playing a half-smart tinhorn, lost purely in art as a way of life, playing people who are linked personally and professionally and yet remained fatefully alienated.

Altman himself called McCabe & Mrs. Miller, an adaptation of writer Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel, an “anti-western,” a description that seems both acute and yet also something of a miscue in terms of what the film actually does. On a narrative level, it’s actually a perfect western, essaying basic themes and conflicts that run like a seam of ore through the genre canon: the arrival of the white man’s industry in the wilderness, the founding of civic life and enterprise and slow achievement of order and community, and the battle of the lone maverick against the forces of bullying power. The finale, which sees the people of Presbyterian Church band together to save the structure that gives it its name and which embodies a yearned-for status and promise whilst ignoring the travails of the man to whom the community owes much of its existence, has a tragic irony that takes up where John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) left off, whilst the characters and aspects of the story evoke the people presented in Stagecoach (1939) who are obliged to keep a good distance ahead of the encroachment of mature civilisation because their habits, knowledge, and trades are inimical to the pretences of that civilisation.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s disassembly of the traditional template is more one of tone and conceptual counterpoint than of plot. The western had been transformed greatly in the previous decade, chiefly by the influence of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, and their more authentic concept of the Old West as a place that ran on the exploitation of raw, easily accessed elements, both natural and human, in a manner the older, straight-laced westerns could never portray. But Altman went further in completely dismantling their mythologies of macho potency and freedom. Altman’s method of shooting the film as the set for the town was steadily built up around the ears of cast and crew, and his focus on Presbyterian Church as a community, mediated the happenstance fellowship of MASH’s jerry-built hospital and the panoramic studies of communities in his signature works like Nashville or Short Cuts (1993). But McCabe & Mrs Miller’s dreamlike aspect, the sensation of an experience half-remembered, makes it less a precursor to his panoplies than to the dreamy, interiorised worlds Altman would venture into for his less popular but more personal works like That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977). Narrative drifts along on the soundtrack’s Leonard Cohen songs like the snow flitters on the wind.

The audience has seen Miller before McCabe, in the background as he negotiates with a Bearpaw pimp, moving about with a taciturn determination to close herself off, but apparently overhearing enough to see an angle. The way Miller wolfs down her food on McCabe’s dime suggests that she hasn’t been doing that well, and she like him needs that very specific tide pool formed by history, the wide-open town ready for her peculiar arts, to truly prosper. But Miller is snappier, cannier, faster-paced as an entrepreneur than McCabe. Perhaps that’s because her looks are a transportable ore that needs no mining or refinement, holding value so long as she keeps following the frontier, but also leave her perpetually patronised. McCabe has to charm, to pause and weave a space about himself to be effective; Miller must barge through. Miller presages a later development in capitalist development than McCabe, who profits initially through the pastimes men pursue without women; Miller lays down a template to create a hub where one part of business creates another, by building a bathhouse men want to use to wash and get ready to then venture on to a “proper sporting house with clean linen.” Miller fends off McCabe’s stammering protests of business knowledge with an impressive display of hard-won acumen, how to deal with such bottom-line-affecting problems as lesbianism and outbreaks of religiosity and venereal disease. The Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company arrives as the next stage, impersonal and all-consuming. It doesn’t need allure or skill.

Altman’s vision in Countdown of the first moon landings as a collection of metal husks and littered dead bodies gave his own, sarcastically desolate rough draft for a future of space colonisation, prefiguring his very similar concept of the historical version. Human ventures are flimsy, ridiculous tilts at eternity and usually result in disaster, but civilisation still accumulates. The populace, entirely white and male at first, is men who dance by the camera in their own little eccentric spaces – the bartender (Wayne Grace) who wants to experience new adventures in moustaches and his foil, the grouchy miner Smalley (John Schuck), McCabe’s bespectacled foreman who makes excuses and parrots his boss – and make their living for the sake of having something to spend on what McCabe and Miller offer them, and they’re boyishly happy to be enfolded by the bawdy embrace of the whorehouse. As the town grows, its makeup becomes more diverse and sophisticated. A dapper and gentlemanly black barber, Sumner Washington and his wife (Rodney Gage and Lili Francks) arrive, whilst the new selection of prostitutes Miller brings in just behind them are a cross-section of ethnicities from the various immigrant communities flooding into America – Scots, Irish, German, Chinese. It’s Altman’s seditious take on the way such cross-sections were employed in classic Hollywood westerns and war movies: the melting pot where everyone’s the son of a whore.

Miller’s bawdy-house provides a locus of free-floating sexual abandon reminiscent of the camp in MASH, although there’s no us-and-them divide between besetting proceedings: there are no voices of onerous religion or authority, although there’s also no order: terrible crimes occur but go unpunished because they’re just part of the texture of life out here. Altman unspools absurd schoolboy theorising about the anatomy of Chinese women over footage of the newly-arrived whores gleefully bathing, a collection of Renoir nudes in all their fleshy, raucous joie-de-vivre – or is it Courbet’s origin of the world, turned sideways? Good authority is found wanting: “A guy like Amos Linville isn’t gonna spend vice dollars just to find out something that isn’t true.” Either way, the Chinese prostitute costs $1.50, whilst Mrs Miller can be had for 5.00, but there’s no damn way John McCabe can be taken for a measly $5,500. McCabe is chagrined when part of his business vastly outperforms another, the whorehouse a machine for making money that dwarfs whiskey-selling, the realm he controls. Miller is breezy in her indifference to any familiar moral or social structure or mode of rhetoric. McCabe’s habits of muttering to himself return, Miller his bete-noir and beauty, true love and bitch queen, fending him and making him cough up his five bucks for the night but possibly adoring this weird lug. McCabe is swiftly infatuated with Miller but also identifies her with the forces of a world he can scarcely comprehend: “I’ve got poetry in me,” he declares in one of his monologue rants, “You’re freezin’ my soul.” His leitmotif is “money and pain.”

McCabe’s attempt to regain the upper hand when two representatives of Harrison Shaughnessy come to make him an offer sets him onto a path towards a lethal confrontation, anticipated in the joke he tells the two emissaries, Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland), about a frog eaten by an eagle who then pleads not to be defecated out at a great height. McCabe’s pride as a successful entrepreneur, a big fish in a small pond, is truly worth more than money to him, and even when Miller has told him the danger he’s courting, he still can’t bring himself to accept an offer. He assumes business is a process of negotiation, but it’s actually a monologue of power and need. A food chain of hype is evinced throughout: at first McCabe easily outwits Sheehan’s deal-making and has other men repeating his words in awe, where later McCabe will be the one who can’t make deals and finishes up parroting a fancy Lawyer’s (William Devane) folderol about taking over big monopolies and trusts. McCabe’s fate is sealed by his own posturing, but also by pure chance: Holland is peeved he’s been sent out on such an errand and can’t be bothered hanging around for more negotiating. There’s a quality of ruthless wit in Christie’s performance, in the way her Miller’s hard glaze of disappointment and dread after listening to McCabe’s first explanation of his encounter with the emissaries gives way to an expression of indulgent adoration when he returns, a shift enabled more by a big dose of opium smoke than his hopeful tidings.

Young mail-order bride Ida (Shelley Duvall) arrives in town along with Miller to be wed to the much older Bart Coyle (Burt Remson), only for Bart to get himself killed trying to defend her honour against someone who takes her for another whore. So Ida goes to Miller to become a prostitute, to Miller’s assurance she’s only performing the same job for better pay. These shifting roles and places on the pecking order amplify the basic conceit of That Cold Day in the Park, where the predatory young man finds himself finally prey to an insane woman, and would echo on through Altman’s prime phase, his fascination with people who find their identities and memories mutable, often influenced by hierarchies of power and ability, a constant fact of life in the rambunctious republic, prone to suddenly and surreally inverting. Where Images and 3 Women would toy with this idea in terms of gender and lifestyle and The Long Goodbye in terms of friendship and the roles of sucker and wiseguy, McCabe & Mrs. Miller does is explicitly in romantic and capitalistic terms. How many lovers has Miller lost to their own egotism and miscalculation? “I should’ve known,” she mutters ruefully when she listens to McCabe’s spiel after rejecting Sears and Holland’s offer. No wonder she prefers drifting off in ball of opium smoke, where glittering baubles hide worlds within worlds and the present can’t hurt you because it already feels like a very distant past.

Altman’s feel for identity’s mutability tied in with his fascination for theatricality itself, the act of playing roles, an interest naturally bound up with his love for letting his cast weave their own roles in settings that collapsed the boundaries between movie set and living organism. Altman would go on to transform Buffalo Bill Cody into a more famous and exalted version of McCabe in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or; Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), struggling to massage the chaos of history and its living avatars into the neat demarcations of legend and showmanship, his façade of jaunty success becoming a terrible rictus grin. Later Altman would step through the looking glass in The Player (1992) to consider things from the point of view of the big shot who nonetheless commits to the same game of identities, destroying the artist and appropriating his life. At least McCabe never faces that kind of indignity or dishonesty; although Altman pitches his eventual decision to battle Harrison Shaughnessy’s gunmen somewhere in the no-man’s-land between earnestness and lampoon because of McCabe’s sheepish self-recrimination in misjudging his position, he does nonetheless put up an awfully good fight. That McCabe proves ultimately to be a stranger, more ambiguous figure than he seems is both a surprise but also entirely in keeping with this theme; no-one plays the same part all the time in life, unless they have no actual identity.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s groundbreaking photography helped define the look of other westerns for the following decade and beyond, using film rendered slightly foggy before shooting, giving images a ghostly feel as if the film texture itself is having trouble remembering the images and people placed on it. There are flashes of the kind of lyrical, pictorial beauty prized in the look of films from its time, coming in the same way they tend to come at us in life, as brief glimpses, as momentary aspects that suddenly compel. They’re brief and mixed in with muddy interiors loaned faint honeyed warmth from the lamps and film grain fuzz threatens to swallow up the good-looking stars, where the saloon denizens loom like characters in one of Goya’s black room paintings. Everything seems a shifting, shapeless dramatic landscape coalescing like the snow in the finale: the adamantine stature of the framings of Ford and Howard Hawks and their brethren have given way to a camera that drifts and idles eventually finds its tiny focal points.

These moments of elucidating precision abruptly glint in the morass, like the camera movement that zeroes in on Miller’s grim and pensive expression amongst the singing mourners at Bart’s funeral as McCabe goes to talk to a menacing-looking stranger on a horse who rides in when they’re expecting trouble from Harrison Shaughnessy. This shot lays bare the whole of Miller and McCabe’s relationship, the veneer of stoic distance and the quietly gnawing mutual awareness, one that’s been quietly knitting together in a series of shambling interludes in which McCabe tries to make courtly advances on Miller only to be shut out or hindered or displaced by a john. This shot also contextualises the finale’s very last cut between McCabe and Miller in their mutually prostrate states, still linked and still distinct. Habits and peculiarities are glimpsed, McCabe’s breakfast of a raw egg in liquor, Miller’s delight in reading. Panoramas suddenly resolve, describing character and power relations, as when Sheehan is glimpsed reclining with a prostitute, smeared in cream in bawdy indulgence, on one side of a frame with the antiseptic duo of Sears and Holland in the other, signalling an alliance in aims that nonetheless presage entirely different ends

Altman’s use of three Cohen songs from his debut album is one of those touches that divides viewers, given Cohen’s morose lyrics and insistent, scuttling melodies can grate or mesmerise depending on your receptivity. But it’s hard to deny they fit the film as not merely written for it but in it. They lend the images coherence and unity in knitting an evocative emotional context under which Altman’s vignettes can play out requiring no further context. The film almost becomes a musical in this regard, making it weird kin to an equally anarchic version of the west, if purveyed in a very different style, in Joshua Logan’s Paint Your Wagon (1969). The Cohen songs’ melancholic romanticism accords with this landscape where relationships are defined by transience and no hint of rigid moralism has yet descended, where people drift in and out of each-other’s arms and lives, where the wind carries with it the faint ring of chimes mindful of a lost time of happiness. Stephen Foster’s standard “Beautiful Dreamer” is heard repeatedly, its gently sauntering melody redolent of bygone charm, and the title could certainly be said to describe Altman’s people. But he’s not quite that sentimental: he offers the song more as the mode in the period through which his characters understand themselves, their lingering courtly pretences and romanticism, even the most degraded prostitute or labourer.

Even the aspects of religious imagery and abstracted spirituality in Cohen’s songs accords well with the aspect parodying religious myth (carried over from MASH’s Buñuel-derived Da Vinci spoof) as McCabe becomes a cold-climate Christ figure, sacrificed to communal selective blindness and the religion of business. The church that gives the town its name seems irrelevant to its daily needs, needs fulfilled instead by McCabe and Miller, but this is brutally inverted as McCabe finds his shotgun appropriated by the church’s self-appointed guardian, who orders McCabe out of the church with cold and punitive purpose as he tries to hide their whilst eluding the assassins. Only then the pastor is blown apart by a gunman, mistaken for his quarry, and the church catches fire from spilt, ignited lantern oil, a disaster that brings out the townsfolk to save the building whilst McCabe and his enemies continue to battle unnoticed.

Altman’s sociological bent extends to a delight in the paraphernalia in a past that’s not simply historic but becoming something else, as Presbyterian Church moves with blink-or-miss-it speed out of medieval landscape into the dawn of modernity. Altman was chasing Peckinpah in this, as his old west encountered the day of motor cars and machine guns in The Wild Bunch (1969), but Altman goes for less urgent markers, quainter and clunkier devices. Music is made on fiddles and flutes but also now from mechanical proto-jukeboxes, the brothel clients and the ladies dancing to the tinkling strains of a gleeful novelty, horses are displaced by the laborious but steady and relentless chug of steam locomotion. Michael Cimino, in Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York (2002), would take up Altman’s attempts to encompass the idea of a country becoming. At the same time Altman plays an extended game with the western’s argot of mythologising and immortalisation in rumour that would also provide seeds for the likes of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), as McCabe is wrapped in mystique from his first vision. He’s the man with the past, the man who shot so and so, the gunfighter and card sharp, except he seems increasingly unlikely to worthy of it, before the very end seems to confirm it was all true, at least in some dimension.

The second half of the film resolves into a slightly more conventional narrative form and offers a variation on a hallowed western movie plot, as McCabe encounters the emissaries of Harrison Shaughnessy and then must cope with the company’s hired guns. Butler (Millais), Kid (Manfred Schulz), and Breed (Jace Van Der Veen), are three cast-iron killers who intimidate the locals whilst awaiting their moment, whilst McCabe gears up to take them on after realising there’s no way to buy them off or gain the law’s aid. Altman’s history isn’t written in ritualised square-offs and chain-lightning gunfights but in shots in the back and battles of wits, hidden weapons and concealed positions, in outmatched heroes and villains who like to gun down hapless strangers. Altman offers his take on the infamous scene in George Stevens’ Shane (1953) where Jack Palance’s thug guns down Elisha Cook’s farmer. Here the affable, horny cowboy (Keith Carradine) McCabe initially mistook for a goon but who’s been happily rogering all the girls in Miller’s brothel is accosted by the Kid, at first bullied and then wheedled into showing his gun, a gesture the Kid uses as an excuse to shoot him down. Altman’s cold dissection of Stevens’ model swaps black-clad menace who gives his foe a slight chance for a baby-faced psychopath who could also be a schoolyard bully, the lowest form of life in Altman’s book who also happens to be everywhere, who gives none at all.

Butler on the other hand is a gentlemanly British raconteur who likes to regale people who tactics for killing off unwanted Chinese labourers, who whose own hard edge is made patently clear to McCabe as he makes a show of being affably interested in what he has to say before assuring him there’s no more deals to be made. Sheehan hands him ammunition to taunt McCabe by getting him to pretend to be a friend of a friend of Bill Roundtree. The subsequent scene of McCabe’s visit to Devane’s Lawyer in Bearpaw provides a spot of modishly satirical pot-shot at pompous mouthpieces who emit high-flown rhetoric that conceals a multitude of offences, and helps close the circle on McCabe’s displacement as rhetorical kingpin, but it also feels tonally at odds with the greater part of Altman’s achievement, a hangover of Altman’s momentary stardom as a hipster wag worked out in MASH and Brewster McCloud (1970). Sometimes when watching McCabe & Mrs. Miller I tend to wish that Altman had minimised what plot there is even more, and left a movie that exists entirely in a key of running-watercolour images and the nudging strains of Cohen’s songs.

Then again, the nagging pull of the film’s dreamy, instantly nostalgic texture is part of Altman’s trap, a movie that unfolds via the blissed-out textures of Miller’s drug fancies but which unfolds in an altogether crueller world, the one McCabe eventually leaves her in to try and live and die in. The climactic scenes see McCabe playing an elaborate game of hide and seek with the gunmen, trying to use his knowledge of the town to his advantage in eluding and ambushing his enemies. His tactics work, but not quite well enough: he cops a bullet in the side from the Kid, who just won’t die quite fast enough when McCabe puts a hole in his back, and then Breed, but takes another bullet from Butler. These scenes ironically see Altman exercise directorial muscles developed orchestrating the action scenes on the TV war series Combat where he learned the art of action filmmaking inside out. He doesn’t merely wring pyrotechnics or suspense from the scene, but a sense of near-cosmic absurdity from McCabe’s evasions and exclusion, his interminable solitude, the near-comedic quality of life and death that’s also brutal and terrible, a precise weighing up of the cost of McCabe’s efforts to stay alive and defend his paltry piece of turf, accrued in men crawling off into the snow to die.

The shoot-out strongly recalls Ford’s take on the OK Corral in My Darling Clementine (1946) – without music, only the sound of the whistling wind and the incidental clamour of background action, the moments of truth brief and fateful and final. Where in Ford the edge of competence imbued by the life of the gun was their strength and the struggle was stand-up, Altman sees the same wit that gives his small businesspeople their edge in life as just as vital: McCabe is a shrewd little bastard who nearly makes it, but the odds were always against him. Altman’s last sleight of hand comes when Butler brings down McCabe, only to cop a derringer bullet in the forehead as he stoops over his conquered foe. Everything Sheehan said about McCabe suddenly seems true, in a way that elucidates Altman’s overall point about the old west, his version of Ford’s “print the legend” dictum. The details are correct, the shape of the myth perhaps accurate, but the real story, as ever, evades all cordoning. Altman’s love for McCabe as a slightly pathetic but beautiful dreamer doesn’t make him flinch from sacrificing him. But it does stir perhaps the most profound emotion to be found in any of his movies, in the final image of his snow-caked body being wrapped in ice, intercut with Miller escaping into her dream world, each glad perhaps to swap oblivion for reality, for reality is never real enough.

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