The Old West, it seems, wasn’t a place where John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Clint Eastwood hung out for sake of trading fire-edged barbs and showing off what awe-inspiring heroes they were. The Old West these men rode through, being rugged, ideological, and pulpily violent, respectively, were all matters of fantasy, cinematic visions both escapist and tough. So the setting of 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is what we can assume The Old West was really like: unforgiving, uncaring, and stark. To survive it makes you an unparalleled superstar; to die makes you another victim of its grim game of natural selection.
The follow-up to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (unless you count the little remembered Brewster McCloud), McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a revisionist western so understated you might miss its underlying metaphors and meanings if you aren’t looking hard enough. Sleepy and lackadaisical, it reminds us that the already naturalistic Altman was even more unforgivingly realistic in the earliest parts of his career. It wasn’t until 1975’s Nashville that the grit of his films (to include characters who talk over one another, actors who improvise, and situations that lack a strict structure) would become warm and inviting, not just documentary leaning and cold.
Having been an Altman admirer for most of my celluloid-addled years, I’ve found myself more drawn to his latter-day works (The Player, Short Cuts, Cookie’s Fortune), with their massive ensemble casts, the way they capture life as we know it without being contrived about it, the way the actors don’t seem to be playing parts, rather interesting individuals written with utmost clarity.
But his earlier pictures have always had trouble striking a chord with me, maybe because you really have to watch and analyze in order to designate any sort of emotional reaction, or because I sometimes get so lost in the lifelike chatter of the characters that I forget they’re even talking at all. I’m a demanding viewer, preferring a movie let its emotional and intellectual intentions be loudly known instead of burying them in a haze of realism. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is of the hazy type, lyrical and heartbreakingly tragic, but is so indirect that it doesn’t jump out at us or pull our heartstrings with its own two hands like it should. It wants us to do the work.
And yet, I am still marveled by it, by the way Altman rips apart a beloved genre, the way Warren Beatty and Julie Christie give the kind of performances that make you come to the conclusion that they aren’t giving performances at all, the way Leonard Cohen’s soundtrack directly reflects the inhuman, no frills nature of The Old West, the way love is never something to arrive, the way none of its characters will ever find a home, the way tragedy is inexorable, the way the film is toneless and observant.
It is set in the early 1900s, when most towns consisted of wooden shacks disguised as businesses and lodges, and when someone dying in the early years of their adulthood was not much of a tragedy. The film follows John McCabe (Beatty), a rumored gunfighter looking for opportunity in a hapless world. He stumbles upon the barren town of Presbyterian Church, where the population is small and susceptible to the forces of powerful outsiders. With a sizable amount of money in pocket, McCabe has thinly sketched plans to flourish in the town by opening a brothel/bathhouse that cannot, by his estimations, fail.
He purchases a trio of unattractive prostitutes from a nearby city and gets the process started, to surprising success. Prosperity increases when Mrs. Constance Miller (Christie), a smart, opium addicted British businesswoman, arrives in the area and cuts a deal with McCabe that allows them to partner in the running of the newly minted whorehouse. The town soon begins to grow, becoming a hotspot for tourists needing a lay, but capitalism is the fire that fuels the downfall of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, who begin a casual love affair that reminds them that the survival of happiness can quickly be overtaken by the survival of the fittest.
For being such a pessimistic film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, like Altman’s 1974 minor masterpiece Thieves Like Us, possesses an unmistakable timelessness that renders it achingly beautiful, regarding the processes of birth and death with a melody that finds the pearls inside what comes in-between, regardless of their tone. But you have to dig deep to come to this conclusion, considering Altman’s obsession with mirroring the myth of The Old West without the slightest bit of Hollywood tinsel. For some, the underplayed essence of the film might make it even more hypnotizing. But I found myself having a difficult time extrapolating much meaning from the sum of its parts. While others are in awe of its nonchalant manner (Roger Ebert went so far as to call it the only “perfect” movie Robert Altman ever made), I felt a desire for it to become more melodramatic, more cinematic. Material of this caliber would be compelling when filmed through the lens of an epic.
But it is still a good, groundbreaking, and wickedly ironic anti-western that I can’t help but applaud. If only Altman’s naturalistic eye weren't so barren — here, we feel like we’re in the presence of strangers, later to become acquaintances. A connection is hard to come by in 1900s Presbyterian Church, anyway. B