After watching Robert Altman‘s McCabe & Mrs. Miller I quickly rushed back to the beginning and started watching it with Altman and producer David Foster‘s audio commentary, and the first thing that struck me was when Altman refers to the story as simple and how he doesn’t care much for story, but looks at movies more as paintings.
I found the comment fascinating, largely because many times people question my focus on narrative and how important I believe story to be for a film. There are certainly exceptions where a film can exist without a traditional narrative and perhaps manage to excite audiences despite never really telling a story at all, but those examples are few and far between, especially if we were to discuss films of a certain quality.
To that end, on many levels I found McCabe & Mrs. Miller to be quite exceptional, but I hope people don’t confuse Altman’s comment and perceived disinterest in story to assume story isn’t important. Instead, Altman realized the story he is telling is certainly simple, but beyond that, it is intact and easy enough to tell to where he can find greater joy and intimacy with his audience by developing the story not through exposition, but through performance and the subtleties of his characters. This is where McCabe & Mrs. Miller truly excels and credit belongs on the shoulders of many as a result.
From the opening moments we begin to get hints as to who John “Pudgy” McCabe (Warren Beatty) is. He has the appearance of a drifter, mumbling to himself as he rides through the rainy, Pacific Northwest wilderness. He soon arrives in the small town of Presbyterian Church in the late 1800s with cigars, money and plans to open a saloon and brothel. Whispers of him killing a man begin to circulate and he even appears to have some business sense as he begins negotiating for three prostitutes to start his stable.
Construction is underway and McCabe soon finds himself propositioned by Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a force to be reckoned with, though we do get see a small glimmer of a softer side as she peers out a window at one of the town’s few women doing laundry in the wet and cold. What does she see when she sees this woman? A past long denied her? A simpler, less harsh existence than she has adopted?
Constance offers McCabe the chance at bolstering his entrepreneurial efforts in Presbyterian Church, by advancing his false sense of high class and really turn his establishment into something people will pay top dollar for. He accepts, though attempts to maintain his status with the locals. As the film plays on, McCabe’s false front begins to fall, but he holds on tight in the face of odds that set out to crush him.
Strangely enough, as much as McCabe & Mrs. Miller — at first glance — suggests a love story, don’t think the title uses that ampersand by mistake as Roger Ebert suggests. This film is all business, which is no less evident than the moment McCabe must fill Mrs. Miller’s bedside chest with $5 if he intends to slide beneath the sheets.
McCabe’s fortunes soon begin to turn as he finds himself in a position to fight off western expansion as a major mining company makes a small offer to buy up all his land and comes to the table with threats once he denies an offer he feels is unworthy of what he and Mrs. Miller have created. It’s a case of the small guy being crushed by the larger and a man showing a willingness to fight for his piece of a country where the little guy is already starting to stand little to no chance.
Even the final scene of the film, a shot of Christie’s Mrs. Miller, doped up on opium mixed with images of McCabe dead outside in the snow could be interpreted today as the death of the small businessman and the partner left behind who must turn to drugs to cope with the depression. I just wonder, does opium have the same side effects as Zoloft?
Mrs. Miller’s whorehouse continues this industrial theme and harsh conditions for survival. It’s a world where one doesn’t have a choice in life, at least not if they want to go on living. Upon introduction she lists the trouble McCabe faces if he wants to run the brothel by himself and how the whores must be kept in check, because if they’re not they’ll find religion. Later, the death of one man results in his wife (Shelley Duvall) doing what she must. Mrs. Miller coaxes her through it, telling her the sex she was having with her husband is no different than the sex she’ll have with a paying customer. We do what we must to survive and the powerful wield that “must” through scare tactics to the point only the bottom rung is innocent… that is until they are no longer the bottom rung.
And sometimes you may find yourself as the embodiment of that scare tactic, such as Butler played by Hugh Millais seen in the image above that immediately calls to mind John Wayne‘s stoic pose in The Searchers, and was duplicated a few years ago in the Coen brothers’ True Grit. Butler has been called in along with a pair of fellow gunslingers not to negotiate with McCabe, but to kill him.
I had never seen McCabe & Mrs. Miller before, but the fascinating parallels the story holds with this weekend’s new film Killing Them Softly is eerily coincidental as the two films paired alongside one anoterh prove the old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
McCabe & Mrs. Miller embraces its setting from top to bottom. Shot in Vancouver, B.C. the set was constructed as the film was shot and as Altman tells us in his commentary, it was largely shot in order, which the film truly benefits from in the final moments as the finale was shot over the course of 9-10 days and the accumulation of snow only adds to the intensity.
The director of photography on the project was Vilmos Zsigmond whose work here is stunning in ways we rarely see. A master with light, Zsigmond confines himself to shadows, bringing the same dark, wet, dirty and gritty appearance to this picture as he will later use for The Deer Hunter and Deliverance and some of the establishing shots of the town of Presbyterian immediately call to mind his work on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.
There was one interesting decision, however, that sometimes took me out of the film.
Zsigmond would often shoot scenes indoors with a gas lamp in the foreground and while it was done early on to great effect the more and more he used it the more and more it became an obstruction.
Note the two shots above and how in one the gas lamp is less intrusive, but in the second shot it is virtually all you can focus your attention on. Granted the DVD transfer for this film is terrible and needs the higher storage capacity of Blu-ray to truly capture the dark atmosphere the film exists in, but the frequent decision to shoot scenes like this became bothersome.
That said, even though I think the below image would greatly benefit from a restoration and HD transfer, this shot of McCabe drowning his sorrows in the darkness with only a small light in the corner of the frame was my favorite in the entire picture.
And finally, while I liked the use of Leonard Cohen‘s “The Stranger Song” over the film’s impressive opening titles, I did not like the use of it throughout the picture. For a film that hardly features any kind of music outside of the music being played by the characters, the Cohen track was out of place in my opinion. McCabe & Mrs. Miller doesn’t rely on dialogue as much as it relied on mood and tone and the last thing I felt it needed was a bunch of lyrics overstating what is already known.
To remain positive, however, since I did really enjoy this movie, I loved the way Altman handled all of the characters. No one is explained. There is no sitting down and “Tell me what you do and I’ll tell you what I do.” Characters motivations are realized through their actions and even someone as goofy as Keith Carradine‘s toothy Cowboy can be looked at as a potential threat until he smiles and asks for directions to the whorehouse.
Countless times Altman would just turn his camera on a group of men who could be discussing what’s for dinner or how they are thinking of shaving their face. It may seem unimportant at the moment, but Altman creates a vibe. He invites you into the world of the film and creates an intimacy that will give you a larger investment in the story, the town and its people.
I watched the film twice in less than a ten hour timespan and could very easily watch it again right now, but I hope Warner has some plans for a fully restored Blu-ray version in the near future or perhaps even hand over the reigns to the Criterion Collection. The transfer on this DVD was terrible as even the titles showed artifacts and the audio is tinny and lackluster.
I am a huge fan of Westerns and going forward I’m happy to know I can suggest this film as one to watch.
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Next week’s film will be Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which has multiple ways it can be seen from Hulu to Amazon to YouTube. For more information on where to watch it and an updated schedule, visit the Movie Club homepage.