“All that is new is, by that fact, automatically traditional.”
– Band of Outsiders (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
Robert Altman liked to tout his 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller as an “anti-Western,” suggesting the picture was made to counter and sharply oppose conventional notions of what constitutes a “traditional” work of the genre. But perhaps the term revisionist—another critical description frequently attached to the film—is the more accurate qualifier. There is no debating that McCabe & Mrs. Miller is immediately striking for its outward departures from many of the more customary features populating this stalwart genre. And certainly, on the heels of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), the film that most violently hammered a bloody nail into the coffin of the classic Western, there is an obvious progression of overt deviation. But Altman’s take is actually steeped in common themes and key narrative touchstones, many of which have sustained the genre for more than a century. Altman may have intended to create a film that was “against” the Western, much in the same way his M*A*S*H (1970) was intended to go “against” the propagandist war film. Like that earlier release, McCabe & Mrs. Miller modernizes certain elements of its respective genre, pushing the limits of controversial content and purposely skewing familiar icons and tropes, but its foundation, however much the facade has been altered, remains sturdy and true.
That said, there is undoubtedly much about McCabe & Mrs. Miller that stands out for being unusual, the first indication of which is heard before it is seen. As a howling wind blows over the Warner Brothers logo, Altman aurally locates his film in a bitterly cold location where the strong gusts are soon entwined with pouring rains and relentless snows, cutting deep within a man and similarly piercing the frequently frigid terrain of the film’s ever-evolving mining town of Presbyterian Church. Set in 1902 Washington state, an atypical backdrop that was not unheard of (Anthony Mann’s 1952 Oregon-set Bend of the River is another example), McCabe & Mrs. Miller was shot in British Columbia, where an unceasing dampness (some of which had to be generated) coats and warps the land, the wetness often breeding muddy squalor and the appearance of fluid decrepitude. Occasional sunlight peeks through, the glints of yellow, orange, and red illustrating what, for a time, becomes a colorfully lush landscape, but then the snow returns, muting the territory in both sights and sounds.
At its coldest, the area around Presbyterian Church looks utterly miserable, though Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, appropriately diffused as if shot through a moistened cotton ball, can’t help but still make it look extraordinary. Altman’s films often benefit from his keen sense of place, be it Nashville, Kansas City, or Los Angeles, but here in the mountains of the great northwest, he and his production team craft as palpable a depiction of environment as any John Ford or Howard Hawks Western. There may not be the sandpaper harshness of a scorching desert, nor the wide-open possibility envisioned in an expanse of prairieland, nor the pillaring buttes of Monument Valley, minimizing humanity in the shadow of nature’s grandiosity, but the landscape as well as the climate informs character interaction and narrative development as much as any other more typically depicted Western setting. Among its many points of praise, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is Altman’s most atmospheric work, and particularly in the early portion of the film, there is a perpetually incomplete sense of the outside coming in (snow trickles through unfinished doorways and windows) and the inside staying out (rudimentary restrooms and social spaces persist in the open). The topography of Presbyterian Church is also such that it appears to dictate construction in rising and falling levels of natural and artificial expansion.
With production design led by Leon Ericksen, who worked with Altman once again on Images (1972) and Quintet (1979), McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s vitality derives from a continual life beyond the frame, with snippets of crude colloquialisms and good-ol’-boy banter dropping in and out of the soundtrack. With his trademark multi-track sound recording, Altman retains the tin-can reverberations of characters endlessly chattering and rustling about, the multi-leveled, multi-textured nature of the setting revealing an aural and visual density. Made from the elements, the organic wood and stone buildings seem to breathe and live in accordance to the proximate bustle. At times, if it weren’t for the carefully arranged, purposely congested compositions, it would seem the viewer was simply and randomly dropped in on a given scene, struggling (as intended by Altman) to make audio-visual logic of the surroundings, sifting through snippets of dialogue and peering through Zsigmond’s soft, hazy cinematography, which erases detail and diminishes edges in an opaque sheen.
Since McCabe & Mrs. Miller was essentially shot in sequential order, the construction crew (consisting in large part of young men attempting to avoid the Vietnam War) toiled endlessly on the development of Presbyterian Church, often donning period-specific attire so they could continue their work as apparent townsfolk in the background. As the story advances, so does its literally work-in-progress surroundings. Erected in exhaustively authentic detail, the buildings that spring up—McCabe’s saloon, a bathhouse, a whorehouse—are structures that creak under the pounding foot traffic of the citizenry, their movements and voices reverberating amidst the antiquated interiors. The result may not have the reverential impact of a Fordian church-raising (the town already has a neglected church), but as ramshackle tents expand into an impressive brothel, the creation of the town and the gradual sophistication of its establishments indicate settlement all the same.
As the newcomer in this locale, and the viewer’s preliminary escort, the protagonist emerges from the rustic wilderness in fine Western tradition, a somber appearance echoed in the film’s concluding depiction of tragic solitude. This is John McCabe (Warren Beatty). Initially enveloped in a massive fur coat, he stops before entering town to don a fancier hat and take off the burdensome winter-wear, revealing a suit underneath. Constantly muttering to himself, it’s often unclear if he is complaining, plotting, or merely observing. McCabe arrives with no stated past, either explicitly by him or in the form of a narrative backstory. What we learn is based on conjecture and hearsay, unreliable though inevitable and integral characteristics of Western (and western) lore.
Between his change in attire and his intentionally vague behavior, he seems instantly keen to make an impression. This stranger in town, this man-with-presently-no-name, asks about the back door as soon as he enters Patrick Sheehan’s saloon, then proceeds to exit through said door, only to return with a grand red tablecloth. Speculation ranges from his gun (is it Swedish?) to his “rep” as the (in)famous gunfighter known as “Pudgy” (nope, he says, he is a businessman). Chomping on a big-man cigar, he appears as a refined wheeler dealer, a dignified gambler bringing a touch of high-rolling class to Presbyterian Church. Forgetting for a moment if he is hero or anti-hero (the precarious division itself a familiar Western conceit), a gold-tooth grin in close-up reveals he is playing a game in more ways than one. And as part of the show, he exudes a confidence that prompts others to interpret his vagaries as across-the-board savvy. Recognizing, feeding on, and perpetuating the legends and rumors that made the west rich with word-of-mouth mythology, McCabe’s persona depends on the further honing of an embryonic celebrity. It’s a self-consciously self-styled mythmaking that Altman would again explore with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), where Paul Newman’s titular character embodies the issue in a more comically exploitative fashion.
Going off the 1959 novel “McCabe” by Edmund Naughton (adapted by Brian McKay and Altman), the working title of McCabe & Mrs. Miller was “The Presbyterian Church Wager.” After leaders of the Presbyterian religion voiced concern about their faith being associated with a film permeated by whores, gambling, and violence, the name was altered. Though these are all common elements of the Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, more than most, brought the seedy realities to the fore. Even with his own disreputable background, McCabe himself appears to have not quite expected the associated rough trade of his endeavor. With a clientele of 125-plus men, he essentially throws his first three “employees” to the wolves, not taking into account the potential for chaotic violence, poor sanitary conditions, nor the basics of feminine hygiene. Fortunately for all involved, the newly arrived shady lady Constance Miller (Julie Christie) does.
In the ensuing partnership between he and Constance, McCabe meets his match, leading to a mutual sizing-up flirtation. A beautiful cockney rife with paradoxes, she is rough and hearty with a no-bullshit practicality, not above working herself (for a higher cost, of course), easily seeing through McCabe’s smokescreen, and instantly calling his bluff. But in her quiet time, when she isn’t indulging in opium, she reads and plays a delicate music box. Though having an obviously more substantial narrative significance, Constance is but one notable step forward in what was already a progressing representation of women in the Western. Strong female characters, flouting the perceived limitations of their generic types beyond maternal figures or damsels in distress, had been steadily infusing the Western for decades. And here, in a role that would land her an Oscar nomination for best actress, Christie’s Constance unabashedly, and quite successfully, usurps McCabe’s command. The adding of “Mrs. Miller” to the novel’s original title is a clear indication of her worth, as she initiates the smooth operation, brings in a classier roster of women, and confounds McCabe with her astute business acumen.
Given the entrepreneurial backbone of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with its routine engagement in deal-making, business proves to be front and center throughout the film. As soon as he enters town, McCabe is propositioned by saloon-keeper Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), offering up a bargain about whiskey for a cut of the gambler’s poker profits. From there, the haggling extends to the purchase of the first three prostitutes to, finally, the antagonistic back-and-forth barter between McCabe and mining company agents Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland). Such an incessant focus on financial wrangling is seldom seen in most Westerns, though there is, very often, the evident and stated conflict between big business and individual propriety. The development of the west itself, to say nothing of the genre which bears its name, was largely derived from prosperous self-sufficiency and the profit potential of the pioneer.
When McCabe rebuffs Sears and Hollander, pushing his propensity for sly negotiation perhaps too far, hired guns are dispatched to take out the “town’s leading citizen.” For McCabe, the time arrives when he must now prove himself, to live up to his cocksure bravado and his neither confirmed nor denied gunslinger reputation. The finale of McCabe & Mrs. Miller therefore has all the trappings of a traditional showdown, but, in what is arguably the film’s most poignant deviation from the norm, this final fight abandons popular heroics in favor of a more sedate dénouement. After declaring “I’ve got poetry in me,” as part of a rehearsal for what he plans to say to Constance, and after he actually does confess his love for the young woman, McCabe’s sensitivity is indeed welcome. However, in accordance with generic notions of masculinity, such sentiment suggests weakness if not total demasculinization. So as the church burns down, drawing the townsfolk to its blaze, McCabe, in a valiant feat left unseen and thus not granted public legitimacy, embarks on a cat-and-mouse pursuit, going it alone against the three hired guns. Shooting two of the men in the back (itself an unheroic Western no-no), McCabe plugs the last in the forehead. Then he dies, cold and alone in the snow. There is no happy ending for McCabe & Mrs. Miller, there is no riding off into the sunset, no lovers united to set up a home and raise a family (through the conflict and the fire, Constance rests in an opium haze). It’s an inglorious conclusion, but it is a conclusion befitting the film’s emphasis on passive impermanence and genre modification.
Having worked on television series like Sugarfoot, Maverick, and Bonanza, Altman knew his way around the fictional hallmarks of the Western, and he knew that, essentially, McCabe & Mrs. Miller had an “ordinary story,” with clichés like the “tin-horn gambler” and the “whore with a heart of gold.” But Altman never cared much about story, and it is this preferential treatment of character, tone, and theme which distinguishes the film. That does not, however, take away from the fact that McCabe & Mrs. Miller, no matter how much Altman aimed to rebel from the conventions of the genre, still remains firmly indebted and representative of it. The location is unusual, the visuals are unique, the characters aren’t quite as expected, and this is obviously the west at a turn-of-the-century crossroads (William Devane’s lawyer character advises a court case over calling the marshal makes this clear). Yet McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains one of the greatest Westerns ever made, for even with its surface nonconformity, in the end, it is simply a great Western. And a great film.