A gambler and a prostitute form a partnership and make a fortune in a remote Old West mining town, until a large corporation makes an offer to buy them out.
I’ve watched this film three times now, and each time I watch it, I find my respect for it grows. This is a western like I’ve never seen before. It’s a film that doesn’t revel in drawn out gunfights and violence (though there are a few scenes of that here), but instead decides to build a town full of characters that are compelling and unique, a town that grows before our very eyes. Robert Altman (“Short Cuts”, “MASH”) has a way of capturing the spirit of a place and all of the characters that live there, and while our main characters are ultimately the titular ones, there are probably a dozen other minor characters in this film that show growth in some way or another. By putting us in with all these characters, the good and the bad, it feels as if we are a part of this town, which makes it even more nerve-wracking when danger rides in over the hills and threatens this town’s way of life.
“Ah, you hate to see another tired man/ lay down his hand/ like he was giving up the holy game of poker.”
A gambler with a mysterious past named John McCabe (Warren Beatty, “Dick Tracy”) arrives in a small mining town in the old west, with plans to develop the town into a proper settlement. As the town grows, a business-savvy prostitute named Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie, “Doctor Zhivago”) approaches McCabe with a proposition he can’t refuse, and the two form a partnership that catapults the town’s growth. All seems well until a large corporation sends men to buy out the partners.
Our story is set in the little town of Presbyterian Church, which, when we first arrive, is barely more than a few ramshackle homes and a sideways-leaning saloon. As McCabe rides his horse slowly into town, Leonard Cohen sings a melancholy song that sets the tone for the entire film. Within the first few minutes, Altman introduces us to a number of characters, whom are developed in subtle yet interesting ways. We get a sense of whom everybody in the town is almost right away, even if we don’t catch all of their names. The subtle growth of everyone in the town adds to the believability of the story itself, and it also makes the town a far more dynamic and interesting location.
The production design is astounding. I mentioned that, at the beginning of this film, the town is only a few small buildings; by the end of this movie, the town has grown immensely, to the point that there are even different districts. Near the start, the buildings are grungy and poorly lit, and by the end the buildings are well maintained and warm looking. I rarely see wintery westerns, but after watching this, I wish I would see more of them. I feel like the location itself just has so much character; we get a sense of what about the location is dangerous, but we also get a sense of what gives the people there a sense of home. The location is just as dynamic as some of the characters in the town.
Perhaps the most interesting introduction to any of the many characters that populate Presbyterian Church is the introduction of McCabe himself. Altman lets us know whom McCabe is by letting us eavesdrop on the gossip of the side characters, particularly the bartender Sheehan, played by Altman regular Rene Auberjonois (“Images”, “Bruster McCloud”). Altman sets McCabe up to be some kind of gunslinging cowboy, but then for the next hour and a half, we never see any hint of that violence that supposedly surrounds McCabe’s person. I think that kind of characterization is great. It shows that, if McCabe ever were a man of violence before this moment (we find evidence supporting both backstories, but we never know for certain), he has certainly made an effort to leave that kind of life behind.
Julie Christie is fantastic as Mrs. Miller; she actually earned a nomination for the role. I feel like her character’s relationship with McCabe is the best part of this movie. When we first meet her, she rolls into town and demands to see McCabe, and then also demands that he buy her lunch. While she scarves down her plate of food, McCabe watches, impressed, while gulping down a raw egg in whiskey (something he does multiple times throughout the course of this film). Mrs. Miller is hungry; hungry for business and hungry to make a name for herself. The way that McCabe shows he doesn’t know how to handle a woman like the one before him, and he’s quite taken with her, even if he can’t articulate that fact. Watching the two of them dance around each other to try to figure each other out is perhaps my favorite part of this movie. Their relationship is incredibly complex; McCabe seems to care deeply for Miller, while Miller’s feels are more complicated. Sometimes she seems sweet, and sometimes she’s cruel, and sometimes she seems like she might be content to live the rest of her days sucking on an opium pipe and trying to forget the rest of the world exists. Their relationship is sweet, funny, and tragic, and the way they play off each other gives more depth and meaning to all of the other character relationships in the town.
As we get towards the end of the film, there is a shootout. What I like about his western is that it does not, in any way, go off the rails when it comes to the shootout. Even in films like classic westerns like “High Noon”, the shootout parts of westerns tend to be played up and made more actiony than they actually would be. If you have a shootout in a confined space, everyone is going to be dead pretty quickly (“Inglorious Basterds”, “Unforgiven”). This film does draw out the final shootout, but it does it in a way that really elevates the film. Instead of having one actiony shootout, we have three men pursue McCabe as he sneaks around the town. At the same time, the church itself catches on fire (symbolic of how the whole town is at stake). While McCabe is trying to sneak around and kill these three assailants, the rest of the town is trying to put out the fire, and we get some great intercutting of the two sequences happening simultaneously. This shootout sequence also spans almost the whole of the town, so as the villains are crawling through the snow after McCabe, we get a sense of scope of how quickly the town has grown in the time that McCabe arrived.
I think this is one of the best westerns I’ve ever seen. It might not be as action packed as “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”, but it is epic in its own way, and it tells a unique story with an eclectic cast of characters and a dynamic location. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is a western that I’ve heard very few people talk about, but with the recent release of the Criterion Blu Ray, I hope that will change. This is a marvelous film, and every time I watch it I find it has more to say.
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