The visual surface of McCabe and Mrs Miller is what you notice first: all long lenses and shallow focus, following characters through the wooden shacks of Presbyterian Church as if spying on them from afar. Altman's view is detached and selective; his actors behave almost as if they didn't know we were watching. In many scenes, a couple of dozen people mill about and converse freely in what must have been a sound mixer's nightmare. 1 Altman goes for the overall mood of a scene rather than trying to dissect it. The card games and collage-like bar huddles involve a lot of improvisation, and where the camera happens to be pointing at any particular moment is almost beside the point. The indistinct dialogue forces us to tune in or give up; concentrating prompts us to invest in the story and to decipher it for ourselves. It's a clever technique to create audience involvement, and in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, it works pretty well.
It's 1902 in the great snowy Northwest, but the music we hear is from '60s folksinger Leonard Cohen, a stylistic anacronism that nevertheless fits well with the melancholy loneliness and the softly falling snow. The barely-melodic tunes are repetitious but reassuring, and the bits of lyrics that filter through comment well on the story.
The story is the old tale of the individual versus Eastern-style organized business interests, except that Altman and co-writer Brian McKay constantly twist the particulars of familiar Western situations. The town does have a traditional church. Only toward the end (when McCabe looks for sanctuary, actually) do we find that the church on the inside is an unfinished mess, and has a madman for a preacher. The town is at least half Chinese, but they're completely ghettoized off to some corner, unwelcome in any of the White establishments. After all the equality and fairness associated with the great opening of the West, we're given the spectacle of a man explaining how miners save money by having 'Chinamen' place explosive charges. The immigrants get blown up, but the fine for killing a 'chink' is only $50, much cheaper than doing it the slow way.
McCabe is the smart talking, fast-dealing hero with a mean reputation as a gunslinger. But his smarts don't reach past his five favorite jokes, and he can't add numbers that aren't on playing cards. His murderous past is a myth and he's too drunk most of the time to make a decent decision. At one point, during a funeral in progress, John thinks he's being threatened by a lone stranger who appears at the edge of town. He readies his gun and marches nobly into a confrontation, mostly to impress his new business 'partner' Mrs. Miller. In actuality, he doesn't have the faintest idea what he's doing.
Later on, McCabe falls for the baloney of a lawyer (William Devane) who compliments his 'undefeatable frontier spirit of free enterprise.' McCabe sees himself as a noble warrior, when he's really a pimp and procurer who likes the idea of having three hopelessly gross prostitutes work for him while he struts around and plays the important businessman. That's Altman's main criticism - the sharp exploit the weak, to separate the ignorant from their money. Any real success that breaks through, is fair game for the bigger fish of big business.
McCabe's only talent is that of a cheap club tout - he can get the local miners fired up at the idea of the 'high times' to be had with his scruffy, miserable-looking whores. Unpleasant? No. It's a fresh taste of honesty after the smugly obscene Paint Your Wagon - you know, the family musical. 2
Altman sensibly lets us anticipate armed conflict between McCabe and the three loathsome killers come to put him in his grave, and that's where the picture hews closest to genre conventions. There's even a spin on the Jack Palance - Elisha Cook Jr. killing in Shane, when a hapless innocent gets plugged for little more than target practice. The victim is a sweetheart of a cowboy (Keith Carradine) who just wants some new socks; the killer is a despicable immigrant punk wearing a dutch boy hat and a permanent mean expression. McCabe takes on all three of the killers in a familiar game of hide'n seek among the snowbound buildings, and we feel ourselves back on solid genre ground. McCabe and Mrs Miller isn't remote or arty, just slow and eccentric.
The John McCabe/ Constance Miller relationship should be a perfect one, but it's impossible for these two individualists to really mesh, when each is so preoccupied with their immediate survival. McCabe gets a bargain when Constance takes over the whorehouse; he's left with practically nothing to do except louse up the books and come back at night to visit Constance himself - for cash on the table. Inside, John is a complete softie, afraid to show his feelings to anyone. But he opens up to Constance in all the wrong ways, grousing against her clear superiority at doing almost everything, and then crying when trying to express his affection. Warren Beatty does his best work here - suppressing his boundless vanity - and submerges himself into Altman's conception of the character. He lapses into a few Clyde Barrow mannerisms and line deliveries, in what were probably improvised scenes.
Miller cares for McCabe too, and not just because his defeat means the end of her business success. He isn't the man she seeks, if such a man can even be found. She's accepted her role ("I'm a whore.") and wants to make the best of things. She's practical and loving too. One of the best scenes shows her helping the panicky Ida Coyle (Shelley Duvall) prepare for her first experience as a prostitute. It's a very touching little drama. You can see Constance's desire to make a commitment to John, if he'd only show some horse sense. But McCabe lets her down by being both too cocky and too trusting at the same time. Eventually the only happiness Constance can find is in opium, a last resort that seems a good choice under the circumstances. Julie Christie's perf got her an Oscar nomination; with not all that much screen time she makes Constance Miller both tough and sensitive. Her laughing eyes, doped up and smiling at John from behind her bedsheet, are pretty unforgettable.
In the end, Western heroes are supposed to prove themselves through fisticuffs or gunplay, and McCabe comes through a technical winner. The sneaky-looking half-breed killer is easy to ambush. The hulking leader falls for an old trick. But the rattlesnake reflexes of the punk Dutch boy are tough to overcome, and McCabe finds himself victorious only by body count. At the end, Altman very poetically brings together his visuals and music, creating one of the more satisfyingly-resolved gunfights in post-heyday Westerns.
Warner's DVD of McCabe and Mrs Miller has the best appearance so far on a video format. The film is very softly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, who was just getting into filters and haze at the time. 3 DVD compression doesn't like soft images, and the show must have been a tough one to transfer and encode. Referring to old release prints probably wasn't much help either, as some of the murky interiors dissolved into ugly clumps of reddish murk, and the grain was pretty coarse in many scenes. On DVD, the picture is rather good, with flaws. There are a few scratches, and one instance of a really ugly damaged frame that you'd think would have been flagged for digital repair. But otherwise the show has retained much of its original appearance. The transfer does a good job with the optically - enhanced snow, which before added very distracting grain on video.
The sound is mono and the natural dialog is no more audible than it was on a big screen. For some lines, the subtitles come in very handy.
The commentary by Altman (who has a very warm midwestern-accented voice) and producer David Foster is pleasant and revealing. Foster reveals where he was coming from in 1971, when he says that many of the workers who built the set in British Columbia were draft-evaders from the U.S.. Altman openly admits that in the '70s he gravitated toward genre movies because the plots and characters are easier to establish, allowing him to concentrate on mood and style.
The BTS docu is a vintage featurette that shows the set under construction. It seriously misstates the film as being about civilization coming to the West, stressing the church and neglecting to give any hint that the picture overflows with bloozy bawds and nudity. Its flat pan'n scan feature clips give an idea how the show looked before on video (except on a letterboxed laserdisc): grainy, dull, and brutally cropped. When you pan'n scan the average Robert Altman movie, the shots lose all connection one with another, and the visuals fall completely apart.
The original trailer is perfect for an Altman film - no hype, no voiceover ... just scenes and music.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Altman became noted for his multi-leveled, multitracked dialogue, much of
which in McCabe and Mrs Miller is rather hard to pick out in the mono mixdown. Later, on
movies like Caifornia Split, his sound recordists recorded up 24 tracks at a time from 24
microphones, enabling very complicated sound mixes.
2. We can credit Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country with the
first look at the real place of 'bad' women in the old West; poor Elsa (Mariette Hartley), leaving
the religious oppression of her farm, will have to be her own moral beacon. The only women in the mining
town of Coarse Gold are the Mexican and Portugee prostitutes in their
miserable tents, or the organized debauchery up at 'Kate's Place', a sin hotel where even the
district judge has lost his soul.