McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert ALtman, Brian McKay (Novel: Edmund Naughton)
Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Corey Fischer, Bert Remsen, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Anthony Holland, Hugh Millais
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The man who would come to be known for his big screen ensemble comedies, did his time as a dramatic director in the 1970s. One of those films was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the story of a frontier settlement sprung out of the willpower of John McCabe (Warren Beatty) and which began to flourish under the guiding hand of Constance Miller (Julie Christie). Robert Altman knew how to handle big name actors and keep them rooted in reality, keep their excesses at bay and helping them meet the full potential of their talent.
The movie itself is as grounded as his thespians. The dismal, difficult life of those who went west in hopes of making something for themselves has been glossed over in many films and television shows. Although programs like Little House on the Prairie and Gunsmoke highlighted some aspects of frontier living, McCabe & Mrs. Miller nails the details and dangers. The dirtiness, dinginess and atmosphere of the film helps guide the audience in its belief in the characters who are struggling to survive. Mrs. Miller is a high class whore who knows how to run a whore house and promises McCabe that her choices will bring a boon to his town. Meanwhile, he is struggling with his feelings for the fair Miller and must face jealousy every time she takes on a client other than him. Yet even though he treats her like a whore, giving her money in exchange for her companionship, he and she both understand the dynamics of their relationship and use each other for those ends.
When a pair of representatives from a major mining operation come to town in hopes of buying McCabe’s hard work from under him, his desire to get the top price through negotiations leads the two impatient men to leave and send a hit squad to take care of McCabe and thereby allowing their company to swoop in and buy it all for a pittance. There are three assassins who arrive in town and they aren’t coy or quiet about their professions. One is an impetuous young gunslinger constantly looking for a reason to shoot his piece. One is a quiet, unassuming man whose intentions, decisions and purpose are unexplained. Then there’s the smooth talking leader of the group who carefully quizzes McCabe to assess his seriousness as a threat and decides quite quickly that he will be no match.
Altman’s film focuses entirely on the natural environment, its effect on the people and the relationships between the various people in the town. His narrative strengths are minimal after a length first hour, the film picks up the pace. By the end, as the film switches back and forth between the cat-and-mouse game between McCabe and his would-be killers and the town’s desperate attempts to save the burning church. These last sequence is so well edited that the lengthiness of the first half of the film is a bit mystifying. Certainly Altman wants to convey how slow things move on the frontier, but it keeps the film from feeling complete. The two sections almost feel like two different movies. And the whole abandoned plot with the lawyer seeking to strike out against the monopoly feels like the turning point between the slow slice-of-life section and the more quickly paced hunter-prey segment.
Even with its minor imperfections, McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains one of Altman’s stronger efforts. And for not sticking to the light humor shtick he perfected in M*A*S*H, he deserves some extra credit.
November 22, 2010