By Peg Aloi

Perhaps one of Altman’s most timeless films, this Western is remarkable
for both its authentic, gritty tone and its anachronisms. The story is
straightforward enough: Warren Beatty plays McCabe, a crusty prospector
and smart-alecky entrepreneur who allows the ballsy, lovely Mrs. Miller
to run his brothel for a half-share in the profits. Tough, steely but
also sensual and decadent, Mrs. Miller embodies the Wild West femme
fatale with cool British capability. Beatty is marvelous as a man who
is smarter than he thinks he is, and the character’s emasculation is a
slow-burn conflagration that ultimately destroys him.

The camera work is very hip for its time, Vilmos Zsigmond being a
cinematographer who came of age in Hungary and worked tirelessly with
low-budget independent productions in the U.S. before Altman provided
him the opportunity to reach a wider audience. He worked again with
Altman on The Long Goodbye. His later work is no less impressive: Close
Encounters of the Third Kind (which won him the Best Cinematography
Oscar), The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, Deliverance, Obsession, Blow
Out, and most recently The Black Dahlia. In McCabe, his frenetic
zooming and odd moments where the visuals appear to stop in time give
the film an almost sci-fi feel at times, but Zsigmond knew what he was
doing when he made this Western look like no other we’d seen before.
His use of different filters on the cameras avoided having to alter the
image in post-production. Zsigmond was not eligible for an Oscar
nomination because he was not part of the photographer’s union,
although the film and Altman received nominations.

The production filmed in Vancouver, where snowfall towards the end of
the production made continuity issues a potential problem, a factor
which also made the production more dangerous than originally
anticipated. The biggest scene, the standoff with the burning church,
took nine days to shoot, and snowball fights during breaks were
apparently common. Many of the crew members doubled as extras (dressed
in period costume so they could haul gear or fix scenery without
standing out if they appeared in the background), and a good many of
the crew were young men who had fled to Canada to avoid being drafted
to fight in Vietnam.

Contemporary songs by folk mystic Leonard Cohen have annoyed some
purist critics (The New York Times’ Vincent Canby thought this choice
“undercut its narrative drive”), but I would guess most fans of this
film accept that this unusual choice of soundtrack is far from a tricky
embellishment: it gives the film a bohemian soul that a more
traditional score by, say, Morricone or Goldsmith would not have
achieved. The use of Cohen’s music was somewhat fraught with
difficulty, however; Altman approached him not expecting anything since
the film was produced by Warner Brothers and Cohen’s contract was with
Columbia. Cohen has also disliked Altman’s most recent film, M*A*S*H,
but had been a fan, apparently, of Brewster McCloud. Cohen also did not
like McCabe and Mrs. Miller at first, but soon recanted once he had
seen it a second time.

Personally I enjoy the way this film journeys towards its ending: with
a determined sense of entropy. We know that the opposites-attract
romance will not win the day, and yet hope it might. We know the sad
beauty of it all is not something we will remember fondly but instead
it will haunt us like a night in our past where we should not have
stayed so long. The often comical storyline has it share of suspense,
passion and brutality, but in its final moments, the resigned languor
of Julie Christie, smoking opium from a carved pipe, an odalisque with
moist eyes and inscrutable half-smile, invites us to remember this film
as we will: a sad song, a faded sepia photograph, a memory etched in a
snow-crusted window: the Western as art.

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