A poignant tale wrapped inside a sublimely unconventional western, Robert Altman’s 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller casts the unlikely idealist hero against the powerful push of corporate America, under heavy snow and thunderstorm rain and flying bullets and hot fire.
Leisurely paced and unafraid to let real life chaotic nuances interfere with the storytelling, Robert Altman’s masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller will enthrall anyone ready and willing to run away from clichés and tired twists. The fact that the film is arguably its director’s masterwork says it all, since Altman made several great movies. Direction, photography, soundtrack and especially the performance of the two leads, makes this oddly superb film as perfect as it can get.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives in the north-western town of Presbyterian Church to establish a brothel. Some time later, British prostitute Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town with the proposition for them to become business partners. He reluctantly accepts her help and they soon become very successful with their high-class brothel and bath-house. When agents representing the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company, from the nearby town of Bearpaw, arrive to propose buying their business, McCabe refuses, trying to up their offer. When three thugs arrive in town to kill him out of business, violence ensues simultaneously with the burning of the church which gives the name to its community.
It is the unconventional nature of McCabe & Mrs. Miller that gives it its masterpiece status. There is the flawed and semi-idealistic anti-hero; the cold and calculating whore – who really is one! – and lack a heart of gold; the frontier town which is unwelcoming, muddy and spirit-killing as it is supposed to be; the faceless company representing a leviathan against the freedom of the individual; and foremost, the meaningless death of the protagonist at the end of the film. All these elements lift the movie to its rightful position at the top of Robert Altman’s oeuvre. The strength the film exerts to pull itself out of a powerful and prosaic centrifugal force is indeed enormous.
..Of Whores, Scoundrels and Whorehouses…
It is incredible how hard is to deviate from the clichéd representation when all it takes is to copy real life that is out there for everyone to see. Leaving aside the function of archetypal aspects in fiction, film as a mirror of the world should be able to satisfy our hunger for narratives. In the town of Presbyterian Church life is dirty, messy and noise… people feel bored, they talk over each other, they answer other people’s questions with unrelated questions of their own… individuals focus on their selfish and mundane concerns – like whether they should shave their beards or not – instead of concentrating their eyes where the supposed relevant action takes place.
The movie depicts life as life really is. That means that the old opposition of good versus evil – so much relevant in traditional westerns – is in fact a false dichotomy here. And that the typically character traits found within those movies do not have an application in this film. A whore eats like a whore and not as if she is a lady from high-class circles – even if she proves to be an astute businesswoman. A shrewd leader of men, who becomes the richest man in town, jeopardises everything because of a stupid calculating decision. The film certainly challenges such Manichean orthodoxy that insists to imply that if the good guy is brave, then he’s also morally superior. Like with real people, the struggle between good and evil is fought inside each character’s own mind.
In fact, is there an inverse correlation between the two leads’ moral postures and their sagacity? It is fair to say that Mrs. Miller is portrayed as someone overly individualistic, who has concerns only for her business interests – even though, it seems, that at the end she eventually starts developing feelings for him. Whereas McCabe is depicted as a romantic, who due to his insecurity becomes an idealist. When he finally decides to uses her services (after a long and involuntary bath) and tells her of the offer from the mining company to buy their business for $ 5,500, Mrs. Miller takes less than five seconds to realise that what he has done was stupid.
It is the same quick wit that compels her to look at Ida (Shelley Duvall) during her husband’s funeral and understand straight away that her only alternative now is to become a prostitute. Harsh realities demand harsh decisions. Perhaps there’s an underlying message trying to say that, in a place like America, at the beginning of the 20th Century, only ruthless people will rise and stay on top – platonic ideals will necessarily be trampled by efficiency. Later on, the film mocks American ideals further when lawyer Clement Samuels (William Devane) goes into ideological rant mode, praising the virtues of free enterprise and the greatness of America, and John McCabe simply retorts ‘Well, I just didn’t want to get killed.’
As one watches our helpless protagonist freezing to death – he leaves this life as he have entered town, silently resigned – and his female companion wasted inside the Chinese opium den, we then realise that full-on explanations and well-tied plot knots are not necessary for a film to reach the sublime.