Just a year following his comedy hit, M*A*S*H, the great Robert Altman made what remains my favourite of his films, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It was adapted from the Edmund Naughton novel, McCabe, by Brian Mckay and Altman himself. It is an American frontier western set at the beginning of the 20th Century and follows John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a small-time businessman and gambler who arrives in the town of Presbyterian Church with the hopes of setting up a whorehouse and a saloon. He enlists the help of a British ‘madam’, Constance Miller (Julie Christie), and the pair, with the help of the local mining townsfolk, turns the town into a thriving Metropolis. That is until associates of a ruthless mining corporation arrive with offers to buy out his land, and threaten his life when he refuses.
To the mournful sounds of Leonard Cohen, we are initially introduced to McCabe as he rides into town. Well dressed, carrying a gun and possessing a mysterious identity, the townsfolk are quick to accommodate for the stranger. Rumours also swirl amongst the group that he is a feared gunslinger. Whether McCabe has indeed killed a man in the past is unknown to us at this point, but it becomes clear that he has made a transition into business, venturing into town with enough wares to start up his own. Having established a makeshift brothel, consisting of three prostitutes purchased in the nearby town of Bearpaw, he also begins construction on a saloon and bathhouse. Time passes and an Englishwoman named Constance Miller, an Opium-addicted ‘madam’, arrives in town and convinces McCabe that she could do a better job with the brothel. Won over by her convincing pitch, he agrees to a partnership, with Constance bringing in higher-class prostitutes to the establishment.
There Will Be Blood and the American Dream
Along with the thriving success of the town, come the vultures. I was reminded at times of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood, which may have been influenced by McCabe. Altman is one of Anderson’s primary influences.Both films are frontier Westerns set at the turn of the 20th Century, but instead of the oil boom, Altman’s film focuses on gambling, prostitution and zinc mining. Both McCabe and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) are ambitious, greedy entrepreneurs trying to find success and make the most of the promises of the American dream. As soon as they have created something substantial, a rival (and larger) conglomerate tries to buy them out, immediately taking advantage of their months of hard work.
Agents of the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company in Bearpaw, who wish to buy out his businesses and the surrounding zinc mines, approach McCabe. While Plainview is ruthless and rejects his offers with conviction, McCabe is sure his façade as a ‘tough guy’ is strong enough to repel the instigators. But he overplays his hand with negotiations and soon discovers that his life is in danger. He desperately seeks out the agents, trying to secure a deal. It is too late. Three bounty hunters have entered the town and holed up at one of the saloons, leading to an inevitable climactic confrontation as McCabe refuses to leave town. Throughout the film there is pessimism in the air. We see it coming. Constance sees it coming. But McCabe is too proud.
Altman’s Twist on the Western
The first thing you notice about this film is how it looks, and how it remains relatively reserved despite Altman still filling his mise-en-scene with plenty of activity. What I admired about the film is that it never seems to be in a rush, remaining compelling despite predominantly comprising of business transactions and the interrelationship between the central pair. Presbyterian Church has few substantial buildings, built with raw labour from lumber sourced from the surrounding forests. There are also a lot of buildings unfinished, and the town seems to need someone with McCabe’s ambition, and Constance’s business savvy. It is cold, muddy and windswept, with the townsfolk at odds with harsh nature all year round. Instead of the barren sun-drenched desert climate typical of Westerns, we are thrown into the snow-capped hills of Northwestern America. Instead of showdowns between gunslingers and outlaws, or run-ins with natives, Altman focuses on the pursuit of the American Dream and the sorrow of relationships that function as business arrangements, and don’t get the chance to become more.
The wide-lens cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is absolutely breathtaking. Zsigmond would later work with John Boorman on Deliverance and with Steven Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (where he would win an Academy Award), but his work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller is especially notable because he uses a technique known as ‘flashing’ – carefully exposing the film negative to a small, controlled amount of light in order to create a muted colour palette. There is barely any natural light, due to the frequently overcast skies and short days, so lamps and wood fires illuminate most of the interior scenes, resulting in the film adopting a grainy, old-photograph look.
Zsigmond’s camera roams from room to room, utilizing long tracking shots and sharp pans, and often straying from the action remaining in the room and zooming in on McCabe as he exits the scene in the background. The climactic shootout is heightened by the extraordinary photography and clever cuts, which convey McCabe’s isolation in the snow-covered town, reveals his poor visibility because of the falling snow, and gives the scene a gripping sense of suspense.
Leonard Cohen is the man responsible for the film’s iconic soundtrack, which perfectly suits the tone and pace of the film. It features, predominantly, three songs from his 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Warren Beatty and Julie Christie
Another strength about this film that can’t be denied is the uniqueness of the characters, and the strength of Beatty and Christie’s performances. The dialogue is sharp too, with McCabe, a real smart-ass at times, coming up with some great banter. Initially presenting a front of charisma and self-assuredness, we begin to see that he is actually a bumbling, cowardly fool, who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. The façade begins to crumble when Mrs. Miller starts to see him for who he really is. Though she has a tough exterior, she can’t help but find herself charmed by the well meaning and ambitious, but clueless, businessman.These characteristics are not initially apparent, but they become more recognizable as the film progresses, adding layers of complexity to the characters and lead to a number of powerful surprises.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.