McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
From the pulp Western novelettes of Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949) to a Revisionist Western deconstructing such “lone-rider” myths- this week, Robert Altman’s powerfully understated McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971). Like Carol Reed’s ‘Vienna noir’, the film opens with the classical Western conceit: a stranger comes to town. McCabe (Warren Beatty) meanders on horseback through Presbyterian Church, clad in thick bear fur. The film follows the business partnership of crude opportunist, McCabe and the cockney ‘madam’, Constance (Julie Christie). Together they manage a Saloon/Brothel on the remote edges of the northwestern frontier. But, as mining corporations buy their way west, McCabe barters too flippantly with company representatives, leading to the arrival of more sinister characters, uninterested in deal making.
There’s nothing new about a stranger coming to town or pitting the little man against big business. The film even ends with a climatic shoot-out: the hero outnumbered three to one. But it’s Altman’s stifling backdrop that stunningly sets the picture apart. Gone are the sweeping panoramas of Monument Valley so iconic in the films of John Ford. There are no allusions even to the most contemporary cinema; no operatic tone of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns or Morricone’s electrifying scores. The soundtrack consists simply of Leonard Cohen’s melancholic laments and the fiddles of the townsfolk.
What this amounts to is a stark sense of epoch; an end to the seemingly boundless expanse of the frontier. Altman’s film observes the discrepancy between the Old West of Hollywood and an authentic west. In this depiction, little remains unexplored or uncharted: the fleeting glimpses of railway tracks and felled trees are quiet reminders of industrialisation slowly encroaching upon the remote settlement. Here our so-called ‘heroes’ choose survival over facing responsibility and prostitution is an integral asset to the small-town economy, and not merely a frivolous inclination.
There’s a lot to praise regarding the magnificence of Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, but it’s been said, so I won’t. What stays with me is Hugh Millais’s brilliant performance as the apathetic, corporate bounty-hunter, Butler. There’s a chilling inevitability for McCabe, introduced by Butler’s simple words, “I don’t make deals… I came up here to hunt bear,” evoking McCabe’s flamboyant fur coat. It’s a line that’s reminiscent of another moustache clad mining man thirty years down the cinematic line: “We’re just hunting for quail”; the disingenuous words of Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood (2007).
McCabe & Mrs Miller also resembles a second Revisionist Western from the same year. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), one of my favourite films of last decade, is a perfect companion piece in its depiction of the heroes and villains. While Andrew Dominik’s biopic humanised the vilification of celebrity in the Old West, Altman likewise reviews its so-called heroes. McCabe never fulfils the role of the gun-slinging hero alluded to in the opening, or the ambivalent stories that precede him. Instead, he’s an opportunist and inefficient businessman, capable of gaining wealth but incapable of keeping it. Casey Affleck’s, Robert Ford likewise is never remembered as the valiant outlaw he cherishes in the popular fiction about the James Brothers. On the contrary, public opinion eventually moulds him into a condemned scapegoat: the man who killed Jesse James (himself, in Dominik’s vision, hardly the Robin Hood of the mid-west.)
Altman ends with turning the climatic shoot-out on its head. There are no duels or Mexican stand-off but a hunt for our hero. McCabe isn’t Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), confronting his opponents in a deserted town centre: he shoots most of his enemies in the back. But these are obvious deviances; what’s really inspired is the utter insignificance of the shoot-out. It’s not an act of cathartic violence expelling bandits from the innocent village. Neither does violence resolve any of the characters’ issues: McCabe and Mrs Miller will never be rich; corporate mining will continue to expand westwards. The finale reflects a protagonist intent on survival and consequently the death of the ethically centred gunslinger- the end of the Mythic West. Altman, years later, wryly remarks on McCabe’s ‘cowardly’ tactics: “There, he shots him in the back, my hero. That’s what I’d do.”