Sunday, 12 July 2020

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

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The second movie on the List by Robert Altman is “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”. Altman was the guy who made “M.A.S.H.” and I could definitely see a connection between these two movies. To me it looked as if he wanted to redo that special way of filming where actors each go around doing whatever their role is and the cameras move around filming whatever it is that is going on. Not, mind you, as anarchistic as in “M.A.S.H.”, but it definitely delivers that particular feeling that there is a lot going on outside the camera, an entire world, of which we only get to see bits and pieces. An elegant method, actually, that brings a lot of realism to a movie, but also, well, difficult to follow. In any case, Altman has here applied this technique on an entirely different setting, the American frontier around the turn of the century. That is, the turn into the 20th century, of course.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is an opportunistic gambler who sets up shop in the small and very new mining hamlet Presbyterian Church in the northwest (filmed in British Colombia, though it is supposed to take place in Washington State). McCabe becomes a bit of an entertainment king with a saloon and a brothel, but his toughness seems to be something he gets from the conspicuous amount of alcohol he is consuming.

Eventually McCabe is joined by the hard and direct Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a very professional prostitute who takes over the brothel department. Together they are king and queen of the village until big capital move in to take over the town, something neither McCabe nor Miller are able to cope with.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is sort of a Western but a very different kind of Western. The setting is a bit too late for the Western setting, the frontier has moved all the way out into very inhospitable areas, and civilization is both too close for comfort and too far away to help when hell breaks loose.

It is also different in the sense that there is no heroism here. Or rather, not the heroism we are used to. McCabe is more a parasite than a contributing member of the community. He makes money on other people’s weaknesses and he is more loud than talented or courageous. Same with Miller, she is all tough as nails, but it is a mask that she hides behind together with her opium addiction. Combined they are actually sorry beings. The real heroes are the people of the village who are carving out a meager existence in the wilderness despite all the hardships.

The classic free spirit versus encroaching civilization is here anarchy versus lawless capitalism where big money takes by force what they cannot buy and the “little man” is not much better, just smaller.

All in all, a fairly pessimistic tale with not very likable characters. And maybe that is the attraction of the movie. Because the characters are flawed, because the setting is flawed, because there is no happy ending, this is far more interesting than the average western. There is depth to the characters and we can deal with them even if we do not like them.

The genius of the movie however is neither the sepia filming nor the tale itself, but the soundtrack. It was a brilliant move to include a number of Leonard Cohen songs on it. Although they belong to a different age, there is something in the mood that fits the movie perfectly.

Speaking of Cohen, I recently went to a Leonard Cohen exhibition here is Copenhagen and was very impressed with it. Cohen has real depth in his catalogue and the song in this movie only adds to that.

While “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” started slow for me, it eventually won me over and it ends with a recommendation.



  1. This is one of my favorite movies by Altman and your review provided all the reasons why!

    1. I was not immediately so taken by it. It is very slow and meandering, but it gets under your skin and eventually won me over.