McCabe & Mrs. Miller

If you held a gun to my head (and I would prefer that you didn't), and demanded to know my favorite film of all time, I would say "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," by Robert Altman, which I first saw when it was released in 1971. The packaging on the video I just bought says it's a "Western," but that's only true in the broadest sense of the term.

I've been reading a book called "The Films of Robert Altman" by Alan Karp, and one of the interesting points he raises is that Altman's films are often about dreamers and realists, and the dreamers often die or go mad, and the realists almost always survive.

Obviously, this isn't that unusual a way of looking at the world, but what makes Altman's approach unusual is that he has no sentimentality in his view of the dreamers, and, while in most cases he favors them over the realists, there are movies from throughout his career (from "M*A*S*H" to Cookie's Fortune) where he clearly prefers the realists.

The best story he's ever told about a dreamer and a realist, though, is the story of John McCabe (once known as "Pudgy") and Mrs. Constance Miller.

John McCabe is a gambler, and at first he comes to the tiny town of Presbyterian Church to fleece some of the local citizens at games of chance. Presbyterian Church is still being built, the population is almost entirely male, and McCabe very quickly realizes what they want more than poker is women, so he decides to open a whorehouse. This is the best idea he has in the whole movie, and very soon he's one of the leading citizens of the town, such as it is, despite his inexperience in running a whorehouse.

Then comes Mrs. Miller, who proposes a partnership. His ambition and capital, combined with her expertise, because, as she says when they meet, "I'm an 'ore, and I know an awful lot about 'orin'." So, he takes her on as a partner, but he still doesn't understand how vital she is to his success, referring to her as "little lady" and trying to keep her away from their finances, which she obviously understands far better than he does.

They also become lovers, though, until the very end, she always insists that he pay her usual fee (which is the unheard of sum of $5.00). This allows both of them to pretend that they don't care for each other as much as they do.

As Altman has said, many of the elements of this story are very familiar from other, more traditional, Westerns. The gunfighter and gambler, the hooker with a heart of gold (more or less), the frontier town, the men sent to kill the hero. With these elements mostly familiar to the audience, Altman was free to concentrate a lot of his attention on the characters around the periphery.

In fact, we see the birth and growth of a whole town. There's Sheehan, who owns the only other saloon in town. McCabe mocks him throughout the movie, but he is ultimately much smarter than McCabe. And Ida, who comes to town to be Bart Coyle's mail order bride, and who, when Bart is killed, sees pretty quickly what her only other option is. The scene where her eyes connect with Mrs. Miller's at Bart's funeral is priceless.

We see the way the Chinese part of the town is so completely segregated that the only white person who ever goes there is Mrs. Miller (in search of opium), and we never see any Chinese people in the main part of town at all. We see the way the men of Presbyterian Church, obviously bored, seize on McCabe's arrival to speculate endlessly about his supposed "big rep" as a gunfighter, and whether or not he's really "the man who shot Bill Roundtree," though none of them has any idea who Bill Roundtree was. And there's the lawyer from the nearby town of Bearpaw who fills McCabe's head with political nonsense just when McCabe most needs to be thinking clearly. Throughout the movie, Altman shows us the pastor who's building the church that gives the town its name, but at the end we see inside (McCabe has climbed up into the steeple to spy on his pursuers) and it looks like a lumber storeroom. It's obvious that no services have ever been held there, and nobody in the town has noticed the lack.

The movie is full of these small threads, little parts of the life of the town.

The most interesting decision Altman made was to move the traditional elements of the Western forward in time, into the beginning of the twentieth century. The West he shows us is no longer all that Wild, capitalism is now what drives everything. The hooker is a businesswomen, the gambler would like to be a businessman, and the three killers are employees of a large corporation. (The character called "Cowboy," on the other hand, is a complete doofus.)

In both the Long Goodbye and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," the hero is both a success and a failure according to the rules of the genre. This is why regarding Altman as an anti-genre director, one whose interest in Westerns, or detective pictures, is just to deconstruct them, is too simple.

Philip Marlowe is a buffoon and a dreamer, but he does solve the mystery. John McCabe is self-important and not too bright, but he does manage to kill all three of the gunmen who have been sent to kill him. Actually, McCabe is fairly creditable as a man of action. Where he's out of his depth is as a man of business.

McCabe doesn't really understand business, all he understands is gambling, which he's obviously good at. But when two men come to town from the company Harrison Shaughnessy, intent on buying him out, he tries to jack up their bid like they're facing him across a poker table (it doesn't help that he's drunk, either), and they leave town in disgust just as he thinks he's getting the upper hand.

Mrs. Miller tries to explain the realities of the situation to him, that Harrison Shaughnessy will first try to buy him out, but then will move very quickly to Plan B, which is to kill him, but he doesn't get it even then. He only gets it when three hired killers come to town and immediately one of them kills one of McCabe's most enthusiastic customers, for no other reason than that he can.

The irony of all this is that, without meaning to, Mrs. Miller has helped seal her lover's doom. First by helping him be such a success that Harrison Shaughnessy would even be interested in buying him out, and also because one reason McCabe is so stubborn about making this deal on his terms is that he has to prove to her, once and for all, that he knows what he's doing.

Not that she's in any way to blame for what happens, but without her, the whole enterprise might easily have collapsed, and McCabe would have simply saddled up his horse and gone off to the next town to play more poker. In the movie's final shot, the camera focusing directly into Constance Miller's eye as she lies on a bed in an opium den, drawing on a pipe, you wonder about the different feelings she's having to numb right at that moment.

The soundtrack consists of three songs from Leonard Cohen's first album ("The Stranger Song," "Winter Lady," and "Sisters of Mercy"), and they weave through the action of the film so beautifully that if I hear even a fragment of any of them I immediately begin seeing the movie in my head. I don't think it's possible to use music more effectively in a movie.


McCabe & Mrs. Miller
(1971)

Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay
 
Cast:
John McCabe : Warren Beatty
Constance Miller : Julie Christie
Sheehan : Rene Auberjonois
Smalley : John Schuck
Elliot : Corey Fischer
Bart Coyle : Bert Remsen
Ida Coyle : Shelley Duvall
Cowboy : Keith Carradine
Eugene Sears : Michael Murphy
Ernie Hollander : Antony Holland
Butler : Hugh Millais
Kid : Manfred Schulz
Breed : Jace Van Der Veen
Clement Samuels : William Devane

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