McCabe and Mrs Miller

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

MCCABE AND MRS MILLER

9/10

USA 1971 : Robert Altman : 121mins

Engaging, offbeat wintry western from Altman’s unparalleled early-seventies golden period. Warren Beatty is McCabe, a gambler with a gunslinger’s reputation he’ll neither confirm nor deny. It’s 1902, and Presbyterian Church, a tiny settlement in remote, chilly Washington State, has never seen anything like this brash smooth-talker, who sets up business pimping a trio of homely whores. But when English madam Mrs Miller (Christie) passes through, she not only spots McCabe for the opportunistic small-timer he really is, but also the potential for a more professional kind of ‘establishment.’ She’s spot-on – things go so swimmingly it isn’t long before a bigger out-of-town operation makes a bid for the place. But McCabe turns out to be an even more incompetent negotiator than he was a pimp, and his refusal to play ball has tragic repercussions as the suave men with contracts are replaced by ruthless men with guns.

McCabe is Altman in peak form: two hours of loose drift, floating camera, improvised dialogue, sudden cuts. The movie is deliberately murky, unresolved, and while this makes for a seductive visual experience, sound-wise it’s more problematic: the dialogue is often muddy, occasionally obscuring some key plot points. Altman builds a patchwork of rough edges to construct a convincing vision of the past, all throwaway glimpses, fragments, characters. There are plenty of misfires in his filmography, disasters when his chaotic, instinctive techniques fall embarrassingly flat. But when it all comes together, as here, the results are breathtaking – he doesn’t just seem like the greatest American director, it’s more like he’s the only American director worth the name.

for the full 1100-word review, click here

April 20th , 2001

by Neil Young
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