A man rides in from the cold, looking to make a fresh start in a tiny town. He brings with him a willingness to throw the dice and a big rep. He’s a gunslinger, someone to be respected, or so the story goes. Soon he’s a bigshot with a woman he loves and a mini-empire coveted by a company and its hired guns. It may sound familiar because it’s a jumble of plot elements from countless westerns, but this is Robert Altman, and it’s going to go down differently.
Robert Altman’s big break took a while. He was in his mid-40s when subversive Korean war comedy MASH announced him. That was 1970. A long career followed but the first half of that decade saw a run of films as good as anyone ever managed. Including MASH, he directed eight times up to 1975, four of which fit comfortably in the masterpiece category.
I’ll take arguments for MASH, THE LONG GOODBYE, and NASHVILLE, but MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is the one to top them all. Not that anyone thought so at the time. Despite star leads in Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, a number of Leonard Cohen songs, and beautiful cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, it hardly set the world alight on release in 1971. Reviews and box office returns paled against the mega success of MASH. Even those involved disliked the project. Beatty the perfectionist hated Altman’s loose style (the dislike went both ways), and Cohen had no love on first viewing.
Such a meandering, obtuse picture could have sunk into obscurity, but it’s too good for that. Every decade since has brought an increase in its reputation. Some critics list it amongst the best they’ve seen (Roger Ebert and A. O. Scott for example). The rambling nature of MCCABE also makes more sense as Altman’s career progressed. He favored an upending of genres, and a naturalistic approach throwing multiple stories onto the screen.
Not that the two characters of the title, inveterate chancer John McCabe (Beatty) and tough but damaged business partner Constance Miller (Christie), aren’t the main focus. There’s just a lot going on everywhere. Adapting Edmund Naughton’s novel McCabe, Altman, and the writing contribution from Brian McKay which he downplayed, as was often his way with screenwriters, use a number of characters to tear apart the myths of the western. There are no slick gunfights, exciting barroom brawls, death defying escapes, or swooning romances.
Instead we have a half-built town somewhere in the state of Washington circa 1902. It goes by the name Presbyterian Church, the only landmark. Not that the church seems anything but abandoned most of the time. Otherwise there’s mining done partly by Chinese immigrants, and a spit and sawdust bar run by early Altman regular René Auberjonois. Into this backwater comes John McCabe, riding his horse, all wrapped up in furs. He arrives on the back of a Leonard Cohen song that nails his character in a few short lines. He’s “just some Joseph looking for a manger” and ”like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild, he’ll never have to deal another.”
The rest of the town mistake him for a notorious gunman, and that, combined with his gambling instincts and charm, allow him to set up shop across town with his own saloon and brothel. It goes ok, but he needs Mrs Miller, a new arrival, to shape up his business enterprise. She’s demanding and incredibly efficient. The two have a relationship of sorts, half-formed, involving pay, and underscored by a streak of real affection. She still holds herself at a distance, knowing what happens to people like McCabe, and towns like Presbyterian Church. Only regular descents into a fog of opium keep her going.
Altman uses his array of characters to dig at the great western myths. Fortunes can be made out on the edge of civilization, and easily snatched away. The law is an option in bigger towns, not here. When McCabe meets a lawyer to discuss ways to protect his holdings, the man launches into the legal ramifications he’ll bring crashing down on interlopers. No one believes him. He probably doesn’t believe himself. Later, in a scene of simple brilliance, Keith Carradine’s happy-go-lucky cowboy finds out the hard way the time for negotiations has passed. Trying to cross a bridge to buy socks, a baby-faced assassin (little more than a baby really) in the employ of the company blocks the way. He can’t go back and he can’t go forward. The only thing left to do is accept fate, the same situation a reluctant but obstinate McCabe finds himself in when he bungles the brief bargaining period.
A number of stories like Carradine’s fold and unfold around the central plot. Some get ample time, others no more than a conversation. As was to become his trademark, conversations overlap. When McCabe first enters the bar, everyone is talking about something. It could be his arrival but it’s just as likely to be a question on beard removal.
Then there’s Cohen’s contribution, a number of haunting tracks drifting in and out; and the gorgeous grainy Washington scenery (shot mostly around Vancouver). Zsigmond flashed the negative, a process involving early exposure, and used double fog filters to give it a distinctive look. It works, allowing Presbyterian Church to come across murky and unfinished.
MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is the perfect combination of top drawer performances, intimate and fatalistic characterization, affecting music, and beautiful camerawork. Altman marshals a show that tells us the space between wilderness and civilization is a scary, uncertain one, and trying to live the American dream and find a little something for yourself won’t always pay off. But in amongst the striving there’s magic. McCabe mutters that he’s got poetry inside him. The same is true of the film. Here though, it’s not so hidden.