I’m yet to fully engage with Altman. So far, in MASH and McCabe & Mrs Miller, there appears a lackadaisical tone that cares not whether the audience finds themselves invested in the characters. I wouldn’t quite compare it with the chilly remove of Kubrick’s analytical approach, but in Altman’s wide frame he crams as much information as possible, encouraging the audience to melt into the tone of a scene rather than fully follow the plot machinations. So McCabe is a film that I found myself following that old film student cliche of appreciating more than fully loving, but this really is a supremely well directed work which genially tosses aside the stately Western traditions and displays the rough, vérité characteristics, creating the definitive New Hollywood take on the genre.
McCabe & Mrs Miller depicts the town of Presbyterian Church as it is constructed almost from the ground up, through the eyes of mysterious new arrival McCabe, portrayed by Warren Beatty, who surprises with his range after a charming but fairly simplistic turn in Bonnie and Clyde and seems to be the MVP of New Hollywood’s early years. McCabe is a gambler whose charisma, along with the rumours that he once shot a man- in a sly reference to the idea of America being built on myth- has allowed him to quickly attain a high standing in the community. HBO’s Deadwood is a great show which is clearly indebted to this portrait of burgeoning America, which Altman often seems to shoot from a distance but in close-up, creating an interesting sense of intimacy as he cuts between lead and background characters, giving the setting a richness that is rarely felt in the Western genre, so infected as it is with stock character types and scenes. Roger Ebert described it perfectly in his review, ‘This is not the kind of movie where the characters are introduced. They are all already here. They have been here for a long time. They know all about one another.’ There is no swaggering saloon gunfighting, no horseback chases or Leone extreme close-ups. Altman subverts the Western ideal, makes it lived in, current, essential.
And nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Mrs Miller, who displays such agency and business acumen that for its first two thirds I even read McCabe as a Feminist western. She is more than the ‘whore with a heart of gold’ trope, Julie Christie’s cockney Madame has been soiled by the vicious patriarchy in the past and is not going to let anyone get in the way of her ambitions this time. The opium fuelled resolution to her arc betrays this somewhat, but is a necess
ary part of the bleak worldview presented by McCabe & Mrs Miller, a tragic inevitability that never feels forced but rather, in the cold emptiness of Christie’s eyes, reflects the corruption of an America which promises a future but spits out those who dare to dream of it.
McCabe & Mrs Miller is an essential piece of 70s American cinema, one that truly captures the spirit of the time even as a period genre piece (much like Bonnie and Clyde, however this film is set even earlier). It is a subversive Western the likes of which has rarely replicated, so although it can be difficult to engage with at times, there is a poetic sweep to McCabe & Mrs Miller that reveals untold depths.