Looking back on a lot of Hollywood Westerns, it's very obvious how artificial and staged they are. Everything feels a little too neat, a little too clean, a little too clear cut. That's not to say there haven't been some fine movies from that genre, but too many boil down to good guys in white hats in a showdown with bad guys in black hats. Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) not only sidesteps the common cliches and stereotypes that plagued so many Westerns, it's one of the few to feel like you've actually been transported to this period of time. It's not just cowboys and shootouts.
John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a gambler who arrives in the Pacific Northwest town of Presbyterian Church at the beginning of the twentieth century, and after a winning big in a game of cards, he sets out to build a saloon and brothel. His efforts attract the attention of Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), an experienced madame and prostitute. She proposes to McCabe a partnership; he provides the capital, and she runs the business. After all, he know nothing about managing women or even a business. Soon, the business is thriving, but McCabe's refusal to sell the property to a mining company interested in developing the land brings about dire consequences.
Most Westerns are set in a wide-open prairie or desert, but Presbyterian Church rests in snow-covered mountains where it is always cold and wet. If Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns can be described as hot and gritty (think of the flies landing on Eli Wallach's face in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), then McCabe & Mrs. Miller could be described as cold and grimy. Steam engines plow through piles of snow, and the sun is rarely seen. This dreary location augments the slow downward spiral of McCabe, the perennial loner who says he moved out west to get away from partners, and his doomed relationship with Mrs. Miller.
Mrs. Miller is clearly the smarter and more business savvy of the two while McCabe is a fool and blowhard. Her plan involves bringing top-class women from San Francisco and making the place fancy and respectable. His idea is to give the women nicknames: "2-for-1 Lilly" and "Almighty Alma." Even though they have different business philosophies and levels of intelligence, there exists an attraction between the two, and although they get involved, he still has to pay her top dollar for the service ($5). But once he refuses the mining company offer, she knows he's a doomed man, and she can't get closer to him. When the pivotal confrontation occurs, she's not by his side but in a Chinese opium den on the other side of town.
McCabe's refusal leads the company to bring in Butler (Hugh Millais), a brutish gunfighter who kills men that don't sell out. The final cat-and-mouse between McCabe and Butler's gang through the empty town with snow blanketing the ground is at once haunting, beautiful, and tense. I also can't discuss the movie without mentioning the music of Leonard Cohen, whose songs appear throughout the soundtrack and perfectly compliment the loneliness and ruggedness of the Pacific Northwest.
I did have some issues. Like in MASH, Altman uses overlapping dialogue and doesn't bother with the traditional methods of introducing characters and establishing their roles, but instead, he dives right into their personalities. So it can be confusing through the first viewing trying to remember everyone, but that can resolved with repeated viewings. The same cannot be said of some nighttime exteriors, which are so under lit, it's almost impossible to discern what's happening or even who's on screen. I only hope that was a problem with my DVD or TV and not the movie itself.
Those looking for a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood Western should be warned. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not a traditional cowboy movie but rather one built on total immersion into the historical lives of these people. While there are two shootouts, they are not action scenes; they are laments. Out of all the Westerns I've seen, this one feels the most real.