21 May 2007

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Robert Altman & Brian McKay

Grade: B

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.


Clayton L. White said...

The beauty of John McCabe is that he is cowardly. He isn't John Wayne, he's a normal guy. In my opinion that makes him likable. He goes around town mumbling and saying "I got poetry in me," and he does, and Mrs. Miller brings it out of him. He is cowardly, but at the end he does make a stand, and Mrs. Miller retreats to her den to numb the pain. To me the film is a love story, I think it is an honest film, and as easy as it is to reduce it to revisionism or an exercise in deconstruction, it really does the film a disservice. I've always felt that the feeling of detachment was the key, McCabe is not a bad person, but he's certainly not heroic either, he's just an average person, no more, no less. Then again, you know how I feel about Altman.

Anonymous said...

I'd done a little reading up on this before I went in, and I was expecting the McCabe character you describe; but that didn't come across to me as I was actually watching the film. I agree reducing the film to an exercise in deconstruction does do the film a disservice, but I felt that the film was doing it to itself, not that I was imposing it on the film. Know what I mean?

I just didn't see McCabe as an average person; he seemed like below average, a real jerk. Maybe it has something to do with my feelings about Warren Beatty?

Anyway, there were other things about McCabe that bothered me that I didn't work into the review. I felt that killing that young cowboy towards the end was a bit manipulative, and also lent McCabe's shootings at the end a cheap and phony sort of moral excuse. Those guys were really bad guys, you know? Cos they killed that kid? And I can see what William Devane's lawyer had to do with the film, but I think the introduction of that character and plot line was a bit sloppy. He was there, made a speech, and disappeared.

I think what'll stick with me most about this film is what I mention in the review: that shot of Beatty dressed up like a bear, being told the man who came to kill him only came to hunt bear. Hilarious!

Anyway, Altman's a really beloved filmmaker I know, but most of the time I just don't seem to appreciate his films in the way other people seem to. (I think MASH is faulty as heck.) Maybe one day it'll click for me--I don't know if it's his problem or mine--but I suppose only time will tell. I'm willing to agree to disagree here and keep an open mind to Altman. I did like A Prairie Home Companion!

Clayton L. White said...

I agree about the William Devane subplot, now you see him, now you don't. The death of Keith Carradine on the bridge is, in my opinion, just there to show how pointless it all is, and I never saw that as giving McCabe any sort of justification. McCabe was just defending himself, and as far as manipulating the audience goes, I'm not going to argue that point, but I will say what movie isn't manipulative to an extent.

Alas, I think we can agree to disagree, but I have the feeling that you're really going to hate The Long Goodbye. Oh well, I look forward to the review anyway.

Clayton L. White said...

By the way, even though I disagree with the review here, I think you present a very good case.

Anonymous said...

It appears to me that CL White must have people like McCabe because he self identifies too much with the character.
I too have a great appreciation for Altman's films, yet McCabe left a unsatifying bitter taste in my mouth. McCabe comes to the town to make his fortune on the backs of the whores, with no appreciation or respect for them. This does not make me like the character.
The strength of Altman's film is that we are not asked to like him.
I always have wondered why some people insist that you must.
I think CL White may be a modern McCabe

Clayton L. White said...

McCabe is a businessman. Does he exploit the whores? Yes. Is he selfish? Sure. As the film goes on, though, he begins to find meaning in his life, and he sees the error of his ways. He doesn't get off scot free, and he pays the price, but he's not a despicable person. McCabe is a phony and he knows it. It's only when he meets Mrs. Miller that he sees how fake he really is, and he does his best to be more genuine, hence his actions at the end. The strength of Altman's film is that he knows McCabe is not a hero, and the fact that we aren't asked to like him just makes the film all that more poetic and realistic. Just because I sympathize with a character doesn't mean I agree with his actions, nor does it mean that I condemn them.

Anonymous said...

I didn't really get that McCabe saw the error of his ways; he seemed like the same old scalawag to me, just more afraid of dying. Mrs. Miller showed him what a worthless nobody he was, but he still wanted to live (from a base survival instinct I'd guess) which is why he cowardly shoots those guys in the back, not because he's trying to be more genuine.

(Obviously, from all the discussion it's eliciting, McCabe is a good film; I just think it's misguided.)

You're right that McCabe's antihero status, and that we aren't asked to like him, makes the film more realistic, but I don't think that makes it better. That said, I don't agree with "Anonymous" in thinking that you're a modern McCabe--according to your bio, you're a good family man. :)

Anonymous said...

H. Stewart-people lie in their bios. And being a modern McCabe is in attitude (unless CL White is really a pimp). That attitude of no respect for anyone and looking to make the best for them self.

I think that you are correct the McCabe never sees the errors of his ways. McCabe just doesn't want to die. I also wondered if he truely loved Christie's character, or if he was just intrgued. She breaks the mold- so he is fixated on her. I'm not sure that it equals love. I don't know if McCabe is capable of love for anyone more than himself. I think that is what Altman shows.
Maybe I'm off, but I've had to watch and analyze this film and that's the feeling I get everytime I watch it.

Clayton L. White said...

Well, "anonymous," I own this film and have watched it many times, and I like John McCabe every time. I don't think he fights simply to save himself, yes he shoots them in the back, but he's probably never shot anyone in his life. He is cowardly, he's scared for his life, but he stands up to the them to prove something to Mrs. Miller.

He is in love with Mrs. Miller, and there are subtle changes in his character that prove this. We see how he is hurt that anyone can enter into her bedroom if they have the right amount of money. We see that he actually brings her flowers, and he is hurt when she tells him to put the money in the box on the dresser. He obviously wants to be something more to her than just another customer, and she realizes this, which is why at the end of the film she's drowning her guilt and regret in opium.

Oh and by the way "anonymous," I never lie.