Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Robert Altman & Brian McKay
Warren Beatty had a tendency in the 1970's to take a lot of self-indulgent roles, from an irresistable hair stylist in the abominable Shampoo to a courageous newspaperman in the uneven Parallax View, so the title role (guess which) in McCabe & Mrs. Miller is something of a departure—despite Beatty's good looks, his character's an out-and-out cad, an unsympathetic and redemptionless anti-hero. For once, Beatty's character is intentionally unlikeable.
That's because McCabe... is a sort of anti-Western,a modernized and revised take on the genre. Altman, as he would do for Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye two years later, strips the West of its romantic trappings—there are no cowboy hats, no John Waynes, no proud masculinity on boastful display. The sets were constructed by Altman's crew in the middle of the wilderness, and they lived in the houses they built or, in the case of many structures, half-built, so there's no denying McCabe & Mrs. Miller's authenticity; overall it's visually stunning, and Leon Erickson's strikingly realistic production design is captured gorgeously in Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography, a combination of soft lighting and hazy filtering that gives the film an antiquated and dreamy look.
But Altman's revisionism goes a bit too far; his characters aren't ambivalently sympathetic or equivocally heroic, just an aggregation of scoundrels, louts and whores. McCabe rides into a frontier mining town, Presbyterian Church, as a stranger—just some Joseph looking for a manger. (Songs from Leonard Cohen's first album constitute the soundtrack, contributing to the poetic delicacy established by Zsigmond.) He walks into the tavern, starts up a poker game, and before you know it the townsmen are working for him, building McCabe his own casino and ramshackle brothel. Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie, over the top), another stranger and sister of mercy, arrives on a whim proposing she be allowed to build and manage a high-class whorehouse, on McCabe's dime of course; McCabe gives in to her, surprisingly and rather quickly, despite the fact that, as he tells tavern-owner Patrick Sheehan, "deals is what I come up here to get away from."
"The minute you arrived in town, I knew you was a man to be reckoned with," Sheehan tells him. "That's a lot of shit and you know it," McCabe fires back. That is a lot of shit, I knew it, too; McCabe's a nobody, and as Mrs. Miller's whorehouse proves more successful than any of his personal ventures, she assumes a more forceful position of leadership in their relationship, reducing the emasculated McCabe to a drunken pimp and vulgar wiseass, a rich man stumbling drunk around his town telling dirty jokes. When representatives from a large Mining Company come to buy him out, his bratty attempts at negotiation are construed, correctly, as obnoxious arrogance. Well, there's more than one way to get his land, and hired guns are dispatched to Presbyterian Church.
Cowardly McCabe doesn't run away, but he does try to take the matter to the newspapers or the courts, trying to find someone, anyone, else to fight his battle for him; ultimately he confronts the contract killers, practically pleading to take any offer the mining company will make. When he insinuates that they've come up to kill him, the enormously tall leader of the hitmen feigns ignorance: "I came to hunt bear," he claims, and the audience, seeing McCabe decked-out in his ridiculous fur coat and looking like a grizzly, knows he's fucked.
A tense and craven shoot-out concludes the film: a film with a hitherto drained and muted palette, comprised exclusively of browns and grays, is suddenly bright white and orange—as a snowstorm rages, men are dishonorably shot in the back while, simultaneously, the church burns allegorically, the two events working in parallel to forge a sad and effective finale. Though Altman's overall approach is unique, it still feels as though he aspires to classical tragedy; but can an effective tragedy have an irredeemable scalawag as its protagonist, with a prurient, opium-addicted harpy as his lover? It's simply detaching. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, in the end, just a failed experiment, a complete 180 from the standard Hollywood form, when all it needs is just a bit of complexity and ambiguity. Altman's film is simply black instead of white, when what it really ought to be is gray.