McCabe and Mrs Miller



USA 1971 : Robert Altman : 121mins

McCabe and Mrs Miller is usually bracketed as a ‘Western,’ but it’s really a hazy, opiate dream of a Western. And, since it takes place up in Washington State, the farthest corner of mainland USA, perhaps we should call it a ‘North Western.’ It’s a lonely sub-genre, one that would also include The Claim, Michael Winterbottom’s explicit homage to Altman’s original. Both movies chronicle the hazardous early days of small frontier towns – towns which, dependent on circumstance, could either mushroom into today’s great cities, or else vanish off the map altogether, their fates as uncertain and unfair as those of their inhabitants. And both films focus on the ‘big man’ in the town, and his tragic downfall – Peter Mullan in The Claim, Warren Beatty in, and as, McCabe.

He’s a gambler with a gunslinger’s reputation – a ‘big rep’ he’ll neither confirm nor deny. Presbyterian Church 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 comes during the middle of Altman’s five-year golden period between M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975), and, like all his best movies, it’s two hours of loose drift, of floating camera, improvised dialogue, sudden cuts. The movie is deliberately murky, unresolved, and visually this is fine, — Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography plays with golds, greens, sepia tints to make an oddly Russian landscape, constantly threatened by snow and frost, just as the free-flowing camera captures Mrs Miller’s opium reveries. Sound-wise, however, it’s more problematic: Altman’s experiments with multiple microphones are still at an early stage, and the dialogue is often muddy. This wouldn’t be too much of a distraction, except it occasionally obscures some key plot points, requiring audiences to pay unusually close attention, just as, in the remarkable final shot, the opium-tripping Mrs Miller loses herself in minute scrutiny of a miniature bloodstone ornament. As the camera zooms in, the vase takes on the portentous dimensions of a planet, a mysterious lost world.

This is Altman’s technique – a close examination of the textures of time and place, building up a patchwork of rough edges to construct a convincing vision of the past, all throwaway glimpses, fragments, characters. It’s a believably impermanent 1902 of hand-written signs, half-built churches, improvised streets, legends, myths. His sets have hollow floors, and the characters’ boots resound as they walk. This is a town as work-in-progress, with history in permanent flux: the business of the American people is, emphatically, business, and although the place is named ‘Presbyterian Church,’ the real centres of the community are Mrs Miller’s whorehouse, and the bar run by innocuous Irishman Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois). The church is little more than a bric-a-brac storeroom, the priest (if that’s what he is) a peripheral weirdo, a Jesus freak unnoticed until he’s caught in crossfire of the final showdown – a jarringly Peckinpah-esque moment of gory bloodshed.

Altman’s movie deconstructs the underlying frontier myths than underpin American society, showing how easily legends can be born and perpetuated in this legend-hungry, not-quite-real ‘new’ land. Typically, he sometimes plays this for laughs – McCabe was once known, we’re told, as ‘Pudgy,’ and we actually hear the out-of-towners’ heavy, an Englishman named Butler (Hugh Millais), described as ‘seven feet tall,’ when he’s plainly of normal height. What a person does is of much less importance than the stories that attach themselves to him, just as the events in McCabe and Mrs Miller will, in turn, pass on into local legend.

This is what gives the film its backbone – Altman’s ever-present flippancy otherise might allow the film to float harmlessly into whimsy. Though there’s much humour in the movie (and McCabe is, essentially, a comic figure, even borderline buffoonish) it’s a serious film, as the presence of so many extracts from Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack should underline. The Cohen songs are a much-criticised element of McCabe, but they’re sufficiently timeless to earn their place – they certainly help the tone of the film to gradually deepen and darken, shifting into unambiguously sombre, downbeat territory with the famous, heart-stopping ‘rope-bridge’ sequence featuring Keith Carradine as a doomed young cowpoke.

This readies us for the breathlessly tense, largely silent finale in which McCabe must finally prove himself a man of action in the heat of battle: a tricky feat, since he’s always been mainly concerned with constructing a carapace of words, not armour or bullets. He’s always either mumbling to himself, or to us, or sounding off to the other characters, using colourful, salty language – a front which now, he realises, only goes so far. Mrs Miller, all business as usual, diagnoses his problem straight away: “Another frontier wit.” is her damning dismissal, just as she mocks his ‘Jockey Club’ cologne. She soon establishes that he can’t add up, that he isn’t especially bright, that he’s all bluff, a Gatsby before his time – perhaps, when it comes down to it, not quite worth dying for.

Christie is fine in a tricky role, although there are times when she overdoes the East End accent, recalling Hermione Gingold, the ‘brassy’ busybody who brings Pinkie to justice in Brighton Rock. Christie was Oscar-nominated, but if there is an award-calibre performance in the movie, it’s newcomer Hugh Millais’ turn as Butler, the well-spoken, supposedly seven-foot-tall English mercenary. He only has one speaking scene, but it’s the pivotal moment of the film and he utterly dominates it, physically and vocally, laying bare McCabe’s limitations and pretensions in front of the townspeople: “That man never killed anybody” is his stinging but, it turns out, nicely ironic verdict. As with all the best cameos, the audience may wonder why the movie isn’t about this funny, scary, bear-like, fearless, charismatic Englishman – like McCabe, the sort of character around whom powerful myths rapidly accrue, especially in this fertile terrain.

But there’s a reason why Butler is such a strong character, and why it’s such a powerful scene. We’ve watched McCabe apparently reduced to nothing, and this makes the gambler’s final stand seem like an act of genuine, hard-won heroism. The heroism, in fact, of a born coward.

April 20th , 2001

by Neil Young
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