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Bucket List Movie #481: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Updated on February 10, 2015
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Robert Altman.
Robert Altman. | Source

It's Altman Time again! This time, our favorite slice-of-life director tackles that most American of genres, the Western. We Yanks love our Westerns, don't we? Square-jawed, stolid cowboys fighting either other square-jawed, less stolid cowboys or dirty Injuns, schoolmarms who are swept off their feet by the plain-spoken hero, and a sheriff who either does the right thing, or proves to be more "yeller" than a canary in a field full of daffodils.

Or you're more like me, and you find Westerns to be all the same, slow in pace, lacking in interesting female leads, and tainted by the fact that, for the record, we stole the land from the Indians and they were never really the villains. Come to think of it, have you ever noticed that the Westerns that are most acclaimed and become AFI darlings are the ones that break from formula or were especially relevant when they were released? High Noon was released during the height of McCarthyism, and Republicans and Democrats to this day interpret its message differently. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a commentary on popular myths, public perception, and the sad truth of journalism that sells. Both versions of True Grit (for the record, I prefer the 2010 one) dared to have a feisty female protagonist who enlists a cantankerous old has-been cowboy to help her avenge her father's death. One of my favorite anti-Westerns, The Big Country, had a hero from the East who abhorred violence, refused to forsake his Eastern ways to fit in to the West, and is actually framed as right in doing so.


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In today's BLM, 1971's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman deconstructs all the popular tropes and rhythms of the typical Western and, indeed, our perception of the Old West. This isn't set in a cozy, clapboard small town, but a bunch of thrown together buildings in an eerily isolated section of the woods in the middle of nowhere. If you hate the color brown, you're going to hate McCabe and Mrs. Miller, because this movie, at times, looks like the camera lens was smeared in Hershey's syrup. The trees are bare most of the time (most of the movie takes place in autumn and winter), the roads are muddy, the interiors are varying shades of tan or mahogany. The town is so new, so unformed, that it's simply called Presbyterian Church, because that's the biggest building they have so far. On top of that, the townspeople aren't exactly a jovial bunch, too busy working and trying to survive another day, and there's an unspoken racial tension that exists among them (in addition to white people, there are some Chinese workers, and a nice, nervous black couple who try to lay low). Life is dreary, to say the least, and the only entertainment in town exists exclusively for men: the town bordello (I hate the word "brothel", so you'll excuse me if I use the more mellifluous "bordello").

The founder and owner of the bordello is one John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a shaggy frontiersman whose business ambitions unfortunately exceed his intellect. Despite his confident bearing (even when he's wearing a fur coat that looks like the pelt of a Muppet), he's impulsive, reckless, and a few colors short of a rainbow; in short, McCabe can't run the bordello alone. Enter Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a bordello madam from another town who rides in to get a piece of the action (no, not that kind of action, but she does get that, too). Mrs. Miller is shrewd, forthright, and has a head for business that McCabe lacks. He grudgingly takes her on, and they bring in fresh new prostitutes, get the lay of the land, and slowly turn a profit. In time, the bordello becomes quite lucrative, and some agents from a nearby mining company offer to buy McCabe out. McCabe refuses their price, and Mrs. Miller warns him that his crappy judgment will cost him dearly. She is proven right, as shown in a gradual, unforgiving reckoning that will change everyone's lives, and not for the better.

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On the one hand, McCabe and Mrs. Miller was wasted on me because it consists of many scenes involving characters discussing business, which is something I've never had a head for, so forgive my vague summary.

On the other hand, I must offer kudos for Altman for his unsentimental look at the old West. It is an unflinching look at how building a civilization doesn't always breed civility, and how utterly cruel and arbitrary life can be. We see some poor dope get shot down by another just because he was at the wrong place and wrong time. Mrs. Miller is smart, capable, and independent, but, being a woman in the untamed frontier, she isn't exactly spoiled for career choices. Her only real pleasures are no-strings sex and the occasional opium pipe. In the town of Presbyterian Church, if you don't get killed by some sociopath, you'll simply get old and die, with little to show for your efforts. If Alan Ladd or Randolph Scott came to this town, they'd turn tail and run.

Everyone hits the right acting notes in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I've never been a fan of Warren Beatty; I've always thought there was something dim about him, with his dazed eyes and tendency to be slack-jawed, but that handsome but stupid affect is put to good use here. Any success McCabe has is owed to two things: his stubborn (or just stupid) tenacity, and the fact that he's a man. Plus, Beatty dares to look less than pretty here, with a grizzled beard covering his valuable face, and lanky, unwashed hair drooping past his shoulders. Likewise, I've never found Julie Christie all that special (I agree with the IMDb forum poster who said she looked like Peter O'Toole in drag), but, freed from the constraints of her previous ingenue roles, she really sinks her teeth into the role of Mrs. Miller. With an un-cartoonish Cockney accent and a refusal to just be eye candy, Christie makes Mrs. Miller more than just the woman behind the man. Altman favorite Shelley Duvall is sweet and sympathetic as a novice prostitute, and Keith Carradine makes his film debut in a small part.

For those who hate typical Westerns, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is an intelligent, subversive treat (but don't say I didn't warn you about all the brown).



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