Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller opens with light rain on a modest forest town in 1902 Washington to the sound of Leonard Cohen singing “It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who’s reaching for the sky just to surrender.” Warren Beatty steps off his horse, awkwardly fixes his bowler hat, and self-consciously mutters something along the lines of “told you so . . . think I’m stupid.” To call McCabe & Mrs. Miller an anti-Western would be an understatement; Altman isn’t just trying to subvert the conventions of the genre, but is rather constantly calling to mind the tensions between the Western genre’s expectations and his characters’ inabilities to meet them. The result is a tragic story of pride, ambition, and expectations that easily ranks among the greatest Westerns, despite its often thoroughgoing rejection of that genre’s tropes.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller was released in 1971 following Altman’s success with the black comedy war film MASH a year earlier. It follows the story of the mysterious gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty), who starts a brothel in a small town called Presbyterian Church with the help of prostitute Constance Miller (Julie Christie). As their business takes off and the story progresses, the town gradually grows; Altman was thus able to shoot the film in almost entirely sequential order as the town was being constructed and even used some of the workers on set as extras as they built the town. This gives the film a naturalist flow and a calming pace, conflicting with the gun-slinging action expected of contemporary Westerns. Similarly, John and Constance’s own ambitions and expectations of themselves interfere with the gentle romance we expect to grow out of their interactions.
As is typical in Altman’s movies, McCabe & Mrs. Miller often features multiple conversations vying for the audience’s attention at once; even conversations featuring the main characters will often be drowned out by the ambient construction noise or by side characters’ mutterings. Yet Altman also knows how to withhold certain elements of his style to jolt the audience and their expectations. Before meeting Constance, McCabe tries on his own to set up a brothel with three prostitutes he bought from a nearby pimp. As he transports them to his unfinished town, he has to pry his overexcited men from the prostitutes; he gives them a stern but encouraging lecture on how the town must be completed before the brothel opens. McCabe has a reputation to uphold. An unconfirmed rumor circulates that he killed a man, and his position as the entrepreneur and boss gives him an appearance of ambition, to be feared and respected at the same time; his men expect of him a firm voice of reason, shot through with an at-all-costs ambition for the American Dream. McCabe goes to check on the women he bought and is noticeably lost as he watches two of them clean each other up and joke to each other in the corner of the room, paying him no mind. Should he try and comfort them? Apologize for his men? Or be firm and tell them to shrug it off? As he takes a swig from his flask and heads for the exit, the third prostitute calls to him. The camera breaks its placid rhythm and quickly zooms into an extreme close-up on the woman, who tells McCabe “I’ve got to go to the pot and I don’t think I can hold it.” This is followed by another extreme close-up of McCabe’s clueless, silent expression. In this moment, Altman has uncharacteristically eliminated all other conversations and side happenings to focus entirely on the two characters. It’s a rare, perfectly still moment that gives us a look into McCabe’s true character. All of a sudden his sense of ambition and firmness seems as false as his competence as a brothel manager. He truly should, by all expectations of the genre, know exactly what to do; this horizon of genre expectations renders the unsureness in this shot startlingly human.
Altman recreates similar scenes throughout the film, each time making McCabe seem more and more oppressed by his own John Wayne-like expectations of himself. In one of the most powerful shots of the film, the camera shows his disappointed face after being told he can’t give Constance her mail right now because she’s with a customer. The shootout finale takes place during a morning snowstorm in the alleys of the town rather than the classic High Noon shootout in a saloon or in the middle of the street. There is no anxious crowd witnessing the showdown; the community is rather preoccupied with fighting a fire in the opposite side of the town. We see McCabe’s dependence upon these genre expectations and the rugged Western hero archetype only as Altman undermines their potency as fantasies. McCabe & Mrs. Miller still resonates today because it so consciously fails to generate a real Western out of its cobbled genre-based materials. Under the showy textures we find no rugged man versus the dictates of society, but instead a long, sad decline with no other outcome than tragedy.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on October 11th by the Criterion Collection.