McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
To make one good film is a noble goal that evades the majority who try. Not Robert Altman who managed to touch greatness several times over. Perhaps most famous for his ensemble features, it’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller that stands out for the sustained longing infused into every frame. Set out on the limits when the great myth of a nation was being forged, rarely has American cinema tackled isolation, survival and thwarted ambition so effectively.
Often described as an anti-western, it doesn’t so much subvert the conventions of the genre as ignore them completely. There are no picturesque plains, glorious horseback charges or sweeping romances. Heroism has no place here. There’s not even a clear line between good and evil. There’s just those that die alone now and those that survive a little longer.
… rarely has American cinema tackled isolation, survival and thwarted ambition so effectively.
Opening on the slow progress of a wrapped up traveller in the wilderness, a haunting Leonard Cohen song - one of three that play over the film - tracks John McCabe’s arrival in the town of Presbyterian Church (unimaginatively named after its only human landmark). Warren Beatty plays the careworn gambler who strides straight into the local tavern to start a poker game. The inflated myth of the west having cast him as a deadly gunfighter, he quickly sways the town by his force of personality and sets up a torrid brothel.
Perhaps it would have remained this way but the arrival of Julie Christie’s Constance Miller, a brash cockney prostitute who takes over his business affairs, sees McCabe’s holdings grow until he owns half the town in partnership with the woman he can never quite tell himself he loves. That they end up sleeping together comes as no surprise initially. But this is no Pretty Woman. She’s harsh and hectoring and he always pays for her services. What tenderness there is between the two can never overcome the wall they’ve constructed. It’s only when she sneaks off to raid her opium supplies that she becomes visibly warmer towards McCabe.
In a world as cutthroat as the American frontier, the set-up lived by McCabe and his business partner can only ever be temporary. A local mining company takes an interest in his holdings and when greed and stubborn pride lead him to bungle negotiations, he’s left facing the wrath of three hired killers who lost the gift of empathy many years before. Miller urges him to flee, the closest she ever gets to admitting there is a depth of feeling beyond their financial transactions, but he’s a man tired of running. He stands his ground less out of bravery and more out of a lack of energy to do anything else.
It’s the relationship between Beatty and Christie that gels the film together. Beatty plays McCabe with a glorious mix of insecurity and charisma.
It’s the relationship between Beatty and Christie that gels the film together. Beatty plays McCabe with a glorious mix of insecurity and charisma. He can command the local townsfolk but he’s never really one of them. He shuffles around muttering to himself that he has poetry inside him while repeating the same joke. When he’s put to the test, the look of horror in his face is palpably real. Next to him, Christie instils brittle pride into the forthright Miller. She knows the world she lives in and she knows how to profit from it but knowing is not enough. If it was, she wouldn’t have to retreat into a local opium den.
Altman keeps the focus on the two of them for moments of painful intimacy, none more so than when he’s forced to leave payment on the side in order to sleep with her, but their blocked relationship works because it happens in the world Altman creates. In Presbyterian Church, everyone is ultimately alone. Whether the lawyer whose fancy words fool no one or the hired killers who take McCabe on individually rather than together, this is not a time of comradeship.
The most chilling moment contains none of the main characters. Instead, Keith Carradine in his first role as a chirpy cowboy claims that mantle. After spending several joyful days in the brothel, he sets out across a narrow bridge to pick up some socks from the local store. Here, one of the hired guns, a baby-faced young fellow with a dead expression provokes him into a fatal act. At first the cowboy tries to talk his way out of an entirely unnecessary conflict but soon fear and helpless resignation flood his eyes. Rarely has a character met such an intensely heart-breaking fate.
As with so many of his films, the vignettes provide the immediate impact while their totality sets the lasting mood. McCabe’s story may be straightforward but it moves gradually forward through isolated scenes that reveal a little more of the picture at every turn. It’s only when taken as a whole that the scope of Altman’s achievement reveals itself. And that scope is a hard watch at times. The final shootout sums it all up. You fight alone while life for everyone else carries on undisturbed. The line between right and wrong is a murky one at best and then you die. Alone of course. McCabe may have had poetry inside him but it’s the ability to survive that matters most. And when that ability runs out, which it surely will, there’s no one around to help.
In a career of towering achievements, Altman’s meditation on isolation, survival and thwarted ambition might just tower that little bit higher.