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McCABE & MRS. MILLER (review)

mccabe_and_mrs_millerMCCABE & MRS. MILLER
Written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie
 

Mrs. Miller: What do you do if two girls fancy each other? What about when they get their monthlies? Who’s gonna inspect the customers? Because if you don’t, your town will be clapped up within the month.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) sits on a horse, trotting through a vast, damp wilderness. The camera moves with McCabe and stops as he does. A Leonard Cohen song plays in the background. You know that you’re watching a western, but something doesn’t feel right. As Cohen speaks the words, “You notice there’s a highway that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder,” you realize that you are about to embark on a unique journey; one that only a brilliant filmmaker can take you on. This isn’t any FISTFUL OF DOLLARS or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. No, this is unlike any Western you have ever seen, heard, or experienced. It has a certain poetic honesty, which is perfectly honed by its legendary director, the godfather of American cinema: Robert Altman. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is a wonderful film and a true landmark in Altman’s oeuvre.mccabe-and-mrs-miller-movie-still-2

In 1902, McCabe enters the town of Presbyterian Church, named after the town’s only building of note, with the goal of starting his own brothel. He is closely followed by three unkempt women, who he initially puts up in shabby tents where he will run his business. One day, Constance Miller (Julie Christie) comes to town. As an experienced prostitute, she proposes that she can help McCabe turn his small brothel into a successful business. The two turn the brothel into an upper-class establishment, complete with housing and a bathhouse for their employees. When two men from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company ask to buy the brothel, McCabe politely refuses. What he doesn’t know is that the Harrison Shaughnessy company doesn’t take no for an answer.

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Many have labeled MCCABE & MRS. MILLER as Altman’s “anti-western” and there is really no better label to describe the film’s genre. The film is not permeated with gunfights, nor is our protagonist any sort of hero. John McCabe is just a simple, rather stupid, man. Many in the town of Presbyterian Church believe him to be a dangerous gunslinger, but this is never confirmed. Clint Eastwood and John Wayne showed us characters that stampeded into town on their high horses, shooting anyone in their way and saving dim-witted, defenseless women characters. Altman flips this on its head, making our male protagonist the weak one in need of saving from the woman, Mrs. Miller. Miller is a headstrong woman with an eye for big business, saving McCabe from his inevitably dishevelled brothel. Don’t get confused about Mrs. Miller though; she doesn’t follow that “whore with a heart of gold” trope. Altman crafts Miller as a real, multi-dimensional person; and like any human, Miller is flawed. She is addicted to opium, which inevitably leads to the pair’s downfall.

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It is very important to note that this film was released in 1971, when most American films focused on male characters. Also, while most westerns have booming scores, MCCABE & MRS. MILLER often goes without music. The only music in the film is a handful of well-placed Leonard Cohen tunes, which always seem to assist the images wonderfully.

MCCABE & MRS. MILLER reminds us why Altman was such an amazing filmmaker. It features all the Altman characteristics we have come to adore, such as zooms and overlapping dialogue, but also allows him to try out some new tricks, like playing with genre and period filmmaking. With two wonderful performances, astute direction, and gorgeous cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, it is safe to say that MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is the greatest “non-western” – or perhaps even the best western – ever made.

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 McCabe & Mrs. Miller screens as part of TIFF’s series, Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman. It screens today he and will be introduced by the Academy Award winning cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND). The print that will be shown has also recently been restored. For more information and for tickets, please visit tiff.net.

 

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