Monthly Archives: June 1971


Robert Altman’s masterpiece is a tone poem, an elegy for a time and place that is long-since gone, an ode to the heartbreak of the frontier at the turn-of-the-century. Warren Beatty stars as John Q. (“Pudgy”) McCabe, a lonewolf businessman with a penchant for gambling and a “big rep” as something of a gunfighter. In the late 1800s, he arrives in the Pacific Northwest town of Presbyterian Church as it is still being developed, with mud-covered roads, buildings being erected from raw lumber, and a small saloon operated by a deep-eyed goof (Rene Auberjonois), the only place to have a drink or play cards under this dark, foreboding sky, brimming with rain and snow. It is here that McCabe sees the prosepcts for a brothel, and brings three whores to work for him. Soon, he has more than he knows what to do with after the arrival of Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a proper Cockney lady who may be tougher even than he, who talks him into letting her coach him on how to run a real whoring outfit. On the horizon, there looms theoretical change in the form of a company (represented by Michael Murphy) that wants to buy him out, and will kill if necessary. The typical Western concerns itself with death and, particularly, with killing. There’s death in Altman’s film alright, but ever the genre-bending auteur, he has made a film about life. We witness the town growing up around us, we see the budding feelings between McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and we feel the genesis of warmth in a community. Altman, never a stickler for plot, allows the edges of his frame to expand and contract, the camera always roaming about aimlessly, zooming into the shadows and crevices in the background, absorbing the details of everyday life from a gallery of supporting characters (notice the one who is “thinking about shaving his beard” early in the film, and the payoff with he and John Schuck later on); Altman famously filled his Vancouver sets with all sorts of period-authentic details that would never be seen on-camera, just to get the feel right. The film has been co-adapted and directed by Robert Altman, who had barely started when he made this great early work, having previously directed the astronaut drama “Countdown” (1968) and the odd “That Cold Day in the Park” (1969). Then he had a breakthrough with his Korean War comedy “M*A*S*H*” (1970), and followed it with the quirky personal project, “Brewster McCloud” (1970). Here, Altman, working from the novel by Edmund Naughton, has crafted a deep, dour view of the end of an era, and the sorrowful relationship between two professionals: a businessman, and a high-class madam. “I got poetry in me,” McCabe says to himself as if to rebuke Mrs. Miller’s assumptions, and Altman’s film has poetry too. This is a film about a fresh start that will never come, love that is never fully realized, and death which comes quick and sudden. Music is always a key component in Altman’s work, and Leonard Cohen’s sad, mournful songs are beautiful and hauntingly melodic as they fill the landscape; sometimes the same songs or snippets thereof will repeat themselves, painting a recurring mood from sequence to sequence, reflecting the themes of the narrative. This is the saddest Western you will ever see, maybe the least violent, and something more, something hauntingly intangible, something… NOTE: For more great films from Robert Altman, see “The Long Goodbye” (1973), “3 Women” (1977), “A Wedding” (1978), “Popeye” (1980), “Secret Honor” (1984), “Tanner ’88” (1988), “Vincent and Theo” (1990), “The Player” (1992), “Short Cuts” (1993), “Gosford Park” (2001), “Nashville” (1975; his best film), and his appropriate final film, “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006).

Leave a comment

Filed under 1971