Capsule Movie Review: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe & Mrs Miller 5

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Anti-Western | 121 Minutes | 1971 | United States

* * * * *

In 1902 an inscrutable gambler, John McCabe (Warren Beatty), arrives in the fledgling town of Presbyterian Church in the northwestern United States. A hazy rumour has him as a gunslinger, and McCabe uses innuendo and disorder to quickly assert his position in the town, acquiring three prostitutes and opening a whorehouse, to which he plans to add a saloon.

Then Constance Miller (Julie Christie) appears at his front door: a Cockney who makes plain to McCabe that he will not make a success of his venture without her. She has experience, knows how to charge and keep accounts, understands the need for personal hygiene, and has the connections to enable her to bring in a higher class of whore. McCabe and Miller seem loosely entangled in romance, but the feeling comes mostly from McCabe’s end, they share time only in fits and spurts, and money is always involved. Miller takes opium as a matter of habit, a fact which she manages to hide from McCabe.

When representatives from a big mining company try to buy out McCabe, he rebuffs them first rudely, then in the hope of enticing an amicable deal. But it is too late, and the company sends three bounty hunters to kill him. He tries to pacify these men, then seeks legal recourse, but realises finally that he stands alone. As he endures an agonising wait, Miller holes up in an opium den on the other side of town.

Robert Altman’s film rumbles forth from its murky, scarcely muttered and half-heard opening, as Miller bumps into view accompanied by the music of Leonard Cohen – which live or on record has never found a better home. Presbyterian Church is wet and trampled with mud in all seasons other than winter, when it is blanketed by an unending flurry of snow. It is a bleak place, beautifully captured by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who flashed the film stock prior to exposure – as he and Altman would again on The Long Goodbye (1973) – to create an environment of fog and shifting light. Altman and his crew effectively built the town themselves, on location in West Vancouver, and not before or since has a picture been so expressive of a time and place and yet so utterly unfastened; conjuring an atmosphere of dark closeted warmth, and still maintaining a cold, cruel, inescapable distance between characters who seem to have drifted together on some strange whim.

There is always the tendency to view Westerns as comments on America, and those searching for McCabe & Mrs. Miller‘s themes have considered both the micro politics which might imbue a frontier town, and the macro politics of laissez-faire capitalism and the slow spread of common law. But like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), this art piece is a heady dream. The film does not assert the political logic of McCabe’s demise: it is a matter of a wayward character and his fate. Beatty compellingly portrays the switch from overbearing man of action to helpless sensitive, while Christie is at once stern and unstructured, and seductive in swift glances. There is poetry in this: it is the most unfathomable and most unshakeable of Westerns.

McCabe & Mrs Miller 1