McCABE & MRS.MILLER did not—apart from its most startling and tragic scene— impress me worth beans when I first saw it back in 1971. It didn’t help its deliberately desaturated camera style or peculiar and frustrating sound mixing that I watched it at a drive-in: the only thing worse for this particular film would have been trying to decipher it on an airplane. I didn’t appreciate the downer story, the dismal locations or the grubby, borderline-repulsive actors, and I hated that guy squawking those songs on the soundtrack. I wasn’t alone: a lot of critics and regular Joe Popcorn’s felt the same (it wasn’t a hit).
Fade to present day: Over the years I’d constantly hear and read that it was a masterpiece, with the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert extolling it to the rooftops. I have some respect for Ebert (unless he was being petulant or cranky) but the “legendary’ Pauline was nearly always a pail of poison to digest. However, bowing to the generous spirited wisdom of two people whose opinions I do value—my favorite reviewer, CineSavant’s Glenn Erickson, and a dear friend of many moons, author Joseph Christy- Vitale—,I finally owned up to growing up and gave the cussed thing a fresh watch and another chance. Plus, sometimes you just don’t know what the hell you’re talking about…*
Washington State, 1902. Ambitious and cocky gambler ‘John McCabe’ (Warren Beatty, scruffy and mumbling) isn’t as sharp a card as he poses, but he’s at least a brighter bulb than the miners who populate ‘Presbyterian Church’, the squalid nowhere town he sets up shop in. He raises their prospects and spirits–and his income– by buying some woebegone whores to keep the men placated. Partnering with the opium-toking ‘Mrs.Miller’ (Julie Christie) a more upscale (anything would be) hooker & madam who staffs their operation with more–and more attractive—“cookies”, the burg booms, enough that a mining corporation offers to buy McCabe out. He clumsily tries to bluff them, but the dead serious company boys are quite willing to stack the deck.
Taken from a 1959 novel by Edmund Naughton, titled simply “McCabe “, the script co-written by director Robert Altman with Brian McKay, and Altman’s directorial styling, indeed almost everything about the 120-minute examination of characters, circumstances and consequences (and craven capitalism) upends the ordinary idea and manner of a western. With its setting and time period it could be dubbed a ‘far-western’ or ‘NorthWestern’. Altman called it an “anti-western”, but apart from the presence of some men toting firearms and riding horses you could be forgiven for thinking it sets itself enough apart from the genre to be effectively outside it.
Shot in the rain and snow in the woods of British Colombia, where Altman’s production designer Leon Ericksen had local craftsmen put together the rough-hewn sets that add to a gritty, lived-in authenticity; they had help from some Vietnam War draft evaders who found sanctuary in the area.
Beatty is amusing as the pitiful non-hero, if maybe a tad on the mannered side (some of his Tex twang from Bonnie And Clyde seeps in); he’s bested by Christie’s straight-talking Cockney, a fatalistic sex-businesswoman (she was his real-life on/off girlfriend at the time, lucky bastard); she earned the film’s only Oscar nomination, for Best Actress. 21-year-old Keith Carradine drew his debut here; as basically the nicest guy in the whole crowd, he features in the truly harrowing bridge sequence, facing off against a merciless thug, perfectly played by a young German kid, Manfred Schulz, a teenager with no previous acting experience. The encounter feels so real it hurts. Making another vivid impression is a fearsome 6’7″ Hugh Millais, as ‘Butler’, honcho of the fixers the corporation sends to deal with McCabe. The final lonely, desperate shootout is beautifully done.
The offbeat filtered lensing by Vilmos Zsigmond looks about 200% better when not squinted through a tinted windshield at a drive-in—go figure. Those songs I hated? There are only a couple, and simple numbskull ignorance then had me foolishly ignore the great Leonard Cohen for years: way late in the game I became a fan. Weird how I was so put off by them originally, as they add a plaintive patina of melancholy to what is essentially a very sad—and believable— story. Opinion Boy Comes Full Circle–now I have to buy a copy.
I’m still not nuts about the ambient sound mix, which of course was further funked in those tinny drive-in speakers. The public shied away—just a handful of Altman’s movies have ever scored decently at the box-office; it only made it to 25th place in ’71, grossing $12,400,000.
Featuring good work from the director’s favorites: René Auberjonois, Michael Murphy, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall and Bert Remsen. William Devane has a blustery cameo as a puffed-up lawyer. With Antony Holland (ice-cold as ‘Mr. Hollander’) and Jace Van Der Veen as ‘Breed’.
* I find it healthy for my ego to wait to look at a Glenn Erickson review of something I’m writing up until after I’ve attempted it, because the master of CineSavant (https://cinesavant.com/) can’t be beat for seeing things you overlooked, saying things you wish you had, and doing it in a way that feels like he’s just casually talking to you. As for my friend Joseph Christy-Vitale, scholar and world traveler, do yourself a favor and seek out his fascinating book “Watermark: The Disaster That Changed The World And Humanity 12,000 Years Ago”; it’ll make you think and reads like a dream. You can find it on Amazon. I’ll bash the ire-breathing Kael dragon some other time.
** 46-year-old Robert Altman had been doing skillful TV work for over a decade but didn’t hit the big-time until 1970 with his third film, MASH, whose irreverent eye-poke at the sacred military clicked with Vietnam-sickened young people and laughed to #3 for the year. While I’ve changed my mind about this film, and like some of Nashville and all of Gosford Park, I’ve never been keen on his methodology and have always been a bit pixilated why his loyal fans are so enamored. Certainly an interesting character, and you have to give him points for sticking to his iconoclastic guns for the duration.