CLASSIC MOVIE SUNDAYS: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
“John Cabe: All you've cost me so far is money and pain... Pain, pain, pain...” quote from McCabe & Mrs.Miller (1971). Foto: Courtesy of Warner Brothers ©
Georgios Merkouris / March 10, 2019
(3 min read)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Dir.: Robert Altman
Runtime: 121 min.
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, John Schuck, Michael Murphy, Antony Holland, Hugh Millais etc.
Robert Altman’s elegiac masterwork represents a radical departure from previously established Hollywood filmmaking. Chronicling life in America’s frontier past, this classic follows John “Pudgy” McCabe (Warren Beatty), a gambler who arrives in the town of Presbyterian Church and establishes a brothel as his business. After gaining the trust of the locals, he swiftly tries to take advantage of his surroundings in order to turn a profit. Everything changes when Connie Miller (Julie Christie), a practically-minded cockney madam, approaches McCabe with a proposition. She promises to improve his business and double the profits by running it and raising the quality of the services. They partner up and try to carve a life in their new environment, only for their aspirations to come to a halt when outside forces threaten to unravel everything.
The film itself deviates from traditional storytelling. Altman famously stated that he was not interested in story, since there are only six of them in total. Instead, the film focuses on character examination, mood, and atmosphere.
Viewers get a real sense of what life must have been for those characters at that time, as they spend a lot of time listening to their conversations, observing their conditions, and watching them develop. Particular attention is paid to the relationship that develops among the titular characters, whose names are tied in the title by an “&” rather than an “and”. This is to show that their partnership is more business-like in character, much like a corporation, rather than a romantic type.
Every complex fashion of their character is explored, from their dreams, to their fears and insecurities. Essentially, it is a tale of two ambitious individuals who dream of a better future for themselves but whose fates are sealed by a series of bad decisions. The film is famous for being particularly sad, since it deals with desperate individuals yearning for a better life and a place to call a home, only for it to elude them at every step of the way.
In typical fashion similar to other films of Altman’s oeuvre, the conventions of a genre are turned upside down. In fact, the film itself has often been called an anti-western for this exact reason. Long gone are the Hollywood studio lots and glamorous film stars. They are replaced by muddy mountain terrains and eccentric individuals. Instead of a stoic hero and his ditsy dame we get an overly ambitious coward and a smart-talking lower-class woman. There are no false myths of American life served here. Accuracy is the name of the game now.
Altman uses his trademark overlapping dialogue to convey to the audience a real sense of urgency with regards to the surroundings. Each conversation being held in a shot is heard simultaneously, reminiscent of real life conversations occurring in noisy bars or taverns.
Vilmos Zsigmond’s exquisite camera work not only provides the film with a dreamlike, ethereal aesthetic, but also glides past every character, giving the viewers the sense that they are eavesdropping on somebody else’s table. Then, there’s the soundtrack, composed of “The Songs of Leonard Cohen”, from the artist’s first album. If there ever was music destined to end up in a film, this would be it. Every lyric seems to accompany the characters in the manner of a Greek chorus, providing further insight into their circumstances. The melancholy feel of the entire enterprise is aided by it.
With this picture, Altman cemented his place as one of the most innovative and exciting American directors, as well as paved the way for more experimental movies to emerge from the Hollywood New Wave.