McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane,
A gambler and a prostitute become business partners in a remote Old West mining town, and their enterprise thrives until a large corporation arrives on the scene.
  • 7.7 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Edmund Naughton, Brian McKay, Writer:
  • Robert Altman, Director:
  • Mitchell Brower, David Foster, Producer:


10/10 / 10

The first thing to know about Robert Altman's revisionist Western"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is that it takes place in Washington state.Typical Westerns are set in arid semi-deserts, full of blazing skies,blazing shotguns, and blazing tempers. Here, the dank, chilly PacificNorthwest permits, or rather demands, a different range of emotions:poignancy, regret, wintry melancholy. This film takes many risks, usingLeonard Cohen's haunting ballads on the soundtrack and shooting scenesin very low light, but remarkably, everything coheres.

The film features Altman's trademark group scenes with overlappingdialogue, but not his typical interlocking plot lines. True to itstitle, the story centers on gambler and brothel owner John McCabe(Warren Beatty) and his shrewd business partner, Mrs. Constance Miller(Julie Christie). Still, supporting characters always hover at theedges, taking part in vignettes that underline the movie's themes andoccasionally provide some humor. In this way, the movie avoids thechaos and confusion of some Altman films, while always remaining awarethat the main characters are part of a larger community. It's a perfectbalance: both clear and complex.

Still, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is more a study of place and characterthan a narrative drama. The small, isolated settlement of PresbyterianChurch is newly built, but already seems to molder. Ironically,McCabe's brothel is the most "civilized" place in town: it is builtquickly and even gets painted, while the church remains half-finished.No families, parents or children live in this bleak town, just a bunchof weary miners and whores who delude and distract themselves. They allhave dreams, but barely know how to achieve them; for this reason,they're sympathetic and all too human. McCabe is a true anti-hero, aguy who thinks he's a slick, wisecracking gambler, but his jokes fallflat and he lacks common sense. Mrs. Miller seems confident andshameless, but she secretly uses opium to dispel the pain of living.

At times, the movie is well aware of how it subverts the clichés of theWestern genre to reflect what would really have happened out West. Forinstance, there is a final shootout, but it arises because of a quarrelover business—there are no Indians, no outlaws, and no sheriffs here!But "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is much more than just a clever exercise inrevisionism; it's never overtly satirical or mean-spirited. It keenlyobserves its world and then comments on it, overlaying everything witha delicate sense of poignancy and loss. This is the kind of film thatstays with you, but not because of sharp dialogue, beautiful images, orshowy performances. Greater than the sum of its parts, "McCabe & Mrs.Miller" is memorable for the pervasive but understated mood that runsthrough every frame, creating a truly atmospheric and humanistic film.

/ 10

Spoilers herein.

Filmmakers - intelligent ones - have to choose where they live in afilm. The ordinary ones attach themselves to the narrative, usually thespoken narrative, so we get faces and clear, ordered speech to tell uswhat is going on. These are the most formulaic because there are afterall only so many stories that are presentable.

Some attach themselves to characters, dig in and let those charactersdeliver a tale and situation. Often with the Italians andItalian-Americans, the camera swoops on a tether attached to thesecharacters. I consider this lazy art unless there is some extraordinaryinsight into the relationship between actor and character.

And then there the few who attach themselves to a sense, a tone, aspace. That situation has ideas and stories and talk, but they are onlythere as reflections from the facets of the place. Of the three, thisis the hardest to do well; that's why so few try. And of those that do,most convey style only, not a place, not a whole presentation of theway the world works.

This film is about the best example I know where the world is 'real,'the situation governs everything and the primary substance is thepresentation of a Shakespearian quality cosmology of fate.

The camera moves not so much with the story, but it enters and leaves.And there is not just one story, but many that we catch in glimpses.Words just appear in disorder as they do in life. Not everything isserved up neat. We drift with the same arbitrariness as McCabe. It isnot as meditative as 'Mood for Love' as it has something we caninterpret as a story to distract us.

So as a matter of craft, this is an important film, one with painfulfishhooks that stick. Beatty had already reinvented Hollywood with'Bonny,' and was a co- conspirator in this. (If you are into doublebills, see it with 'The Claim,' which is intended as a distancedremake/homage, that obliquely references Warren.)

Quite apart from the craft of the thing, and the turning of the Westernon its head long before 'Unforgiven,' there are other values:

- the notion that actors are imported into a fictional world as whores.Not a new idea for sure, but so seamlessly and subtly injected here, itbecomes just another one of the background stories. (Also referenced in'Unforgiven.')

- the business about the preacher trying to wrestle some old schoolorder from the overwhelming mechanics of arbitrary fate. This is thedirector's stance.

- the final concept that the whole thing, McCabe and church and all isan opium dream of the aptly named 'Constance,' dimly reinterpretingother events after the fashion of 'Edwin Drood.'

Ted's Evaluation -- 4 of 3: Every cineliterate person should experiencethis.

10/10 / 10

I was led to this movie in 1972 via the Academy nomination of Julie Christiefor her remarkable performance and the small trailer used to highlight her.This was enough to get my attention.

Since then I have recommended it to any movie lover- whether a "student offilm" or not. I am constantly surprised at the numbers of people who haven'tseen this masterpiece. I've lived with it's haunting scenes for a quarter ofa century and, as with anything of depth, constantly find new charms in myoldlove.

From the evocative lyrics of the opening score to it's sudden chilling anddeadly encounters, this movie lives in your mind long after the finalblizzard cloaks the frame.

If one is a contrarian I would guess the only thing to do after seeing thisfor perhaps the fiftieth time is to begin looking for that moment wheresomeone, anyone has put a foot wrong in this production. From gaffers togrips, actors to designers, continuity to props it is so pure as to be adocumentary in it's granular clarity- there may be a wrong note in theresomewhere but until then do yourself a favor and give yourself up to as richa cinematic experience as you are ever likely to find.

There are few movies I love- I love this movie.

/ 10

As a Western this film is fascinating for what it does not contain.There are no sweeping vistas of the Great Plains, no Indians, no cacti,no cowboy hats. There is no sheriff, no broiling sun, and no cornymusic. And unlike most Westerns, which are plot driven, "McCabe & Mrs.Miller" is less about plot than about the tone or mood of the frontiersetting.

The film takes place in the Pacific Northwest. The weather is cold,cloudy, and inclement. You can hear the wind howling through tallevergreens. And Leonard Cohen's soft, poetic music accentuates theappropriately dreary visuals. In bucking cinematic tradition,therefore, this film deserves respect, because it is at least unusual,and perhaps even closer in some ways to the ambiance of life on theAmerican frontier than our stereotyped notions, as depicted in typicalJohn Wayne movies.

Not that the plot is unimportant. Warren Beatty plays John McCabe, atwo-bit gambler who imports several prostitutes to a tiny town, inhopes of making money. Julie Christie plays Mrs. Miller, a prostitutewith a head for business. She hears about McCabe's scheme, andapproaches McCabe with an offer he can't refuse. Soon, the two are inbusiness together, but complications ensue when word gets around thatMcCabe may be a gunslinger who has killed someone important. Mrs.Miller is clearly a symbol of the women's liberation movement, and thefilm's ending is interesting, in that context.

"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is a vintage Altman film, in that you can hearbackground chatter, in addition to the words of the main character.It's Altman's trademark of overlapping dialogue. The film's acting isfine. Both Beatty and Christie perform credibly in their roles.

The visuals have a turn-of-the-century look, with a soft, brownish hue.Costumes and production design are elaborate, and appear to beauthentic. The film is very dark, so dark in some scenes that I couldbarely make out the outline of human figures. In those scenes, I thinkthey went overboard with the ultra dim lighting.

Strictly atypical for the Western genre, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"provides a pleasant change from cinematic stereotypes, and conveys adifferent perspective on life in the Old West. It's a qualityproduction, one that has Robert Altman's directorial stamp all over it.In that sense, it's more like a cinematic painting than a story. Andthe painting communicates to the viewer that life on the Americanfrontier was, at least in some places, cold and dreary, and had aquietly poetic quality to it.

/ 10

Leonard Cohen's songs don't seem an ordinary choice for a western, butRobert Altman was no ordinary director, and his "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"was definitely not your traditional western. This film can be called awestern because of its settings, but if anything, this is a"revisionist western" (à la Clint Eastwood's more recent "Unforgiven",a film that also subverted all the clichés and morales of thistraditionally macho genre). And, more than anything, it's a love story.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty), charismatic but no so smart, sets up awhorehouse in the Old West. Constance Miller (Julie Christie),beautiful, strong and determined, soon arrives in town and offers torun the "business" and share the profits with McCabe. They start atempestuous relationship while business thrives... but when a majorcorporation tries to buy McCabe & Mrs. Miller's enterprise, McCaberefuses to sell it. It's the beginning of his, her and the town's doom.

Even when exploring such a visual genre as the western (and visuallythe film is also very compelling, with great use of real snow and abeautifully shot "duel" on a bridge), Altman uses one of his mostnotorious trademarks: the overlapping dialogue, commonly used inensembles but also wisely used in a more intimate, character-drivenstory like this. It works very well, although the 1 on 1 dialogues aredeeply insightful themselves (the scene when Christie teaches a veryyoung widow, played by Shelley Duvall, how she is supposed to behave inher new job, is brief, human, and dry). Beatty gives one of his mostsubtle, captivating performances, and Christie empowers Mrs. Millerwith flesh and blood - she was definitely one of the most beautiful andintriguing actresses of her time, alongside Faye Dunaway and JaneFonda, who set up a standard for beautiful, strong women who were muchmore than sheer eye candy. McCabe and Mrs. Miller's relationship is sofascinating that even the bang bang fans will be drawn into it and rootfor them to end together.

So, next time someone says Clint Eastwood reinvented the western withhis masterpiece "Unforgiven", remember: 21 years before, Altman hadexperimented and succeeded on that with his "McCabe & Mrs. Miller".Because love stories are more than kisses and happy endings, andwesterns go beyond blood and testosterone.