Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) is an astonishingly unusual and original entry in one of the most quintessentially American genres from one of America’s all-time greatest filmmakers.
The film has little to no plot, as is often the case with the best of Altman, and instead relies on sharply defined characters, a roaming camera, and a clear sense that all of the characters know each other and share a community. Indeed, the construction of the set of Presbyterian Church, the fictional town of the film’s setting created in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, occurred during the film’s shooting so the sense of the community growing up and starting through the course of the film as you’re watching it is accurate.
The film opens with John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a quiet, somewhat crude, occasionally clever man in black who rides his horse into the muddy, cold Pacific Northwest town as it is still getting its legs. He plays a game of poker and wins three women in the process. He decides to keep them as an investment and use them as prostitutes. Meanwhile, he prepares to open a saloon and gambling joint. “Partners is what I came here to get away from,” McCabe tells Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), the town local who thinks McCabe killed some man named Bill Roundtree and identifies him as a famous gunfighter. However, it’s not long before McCabe has his plans challenged and altered with the arrival of Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a strong-willed, well-spoken and clear-headed Cockney woman who convinces McCabe to open a brothel, under her supervision of course.
The film quietly, evocatively observes the creation of this community, the building of this business relationship and the romantic undertones of McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s partnership. McCabe mutters to himself things like “If just one time you could be sweet without money to it,” and “I got poetry in me!,” frustrated that Mrs. Miller may never see him as anything more than a business partner (the film suddenly, even startlingly, reveals they are sleeping together but she charges him $5 just like everyone else).
The film takes on something of a plot when a couple of men (including Altman favorite Michael Murphy) arrive from a big mining company to offer McCabe money for his holdings. He refuses on general principal and knows on some level that this cannot end well. Gradually, subtly, the film foreshadows the inevitable violence that must follow with the arrival in town of a goofy, naïve kid (Keith Carradine), who is suddenly and coldly gunned down on a bridge by a much younger kid seemingly without reason.
Altman has described himself as “chasing genre,” and yet he seems more interested in texture, style, character and behavior – certainly more than plot or generic conventions. With his attempt at making a sort of post-modern Western, Altman takes the opportunity to create two fascinating versions of archetypes – the would-be hero (McCabe) and the whore with a heart of gold (Mrs. Miller). With McCabe, he creates a somber, funny, often introspective businessman at the turn of the century.
He creates yet another fascinating female character in the person of Constance Miller (considering this is the man behind 3 Women, Gosford Park, Short Cuts, Nashville, Images, Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, The Company and A Prairie Home Companion). Beginning with the sudden revelation that Miller, a businesswoman, is sleeping with her business partner and gradually revealing how close they’ve become, by the film’s end you realize right along with her how much she loves McCabe. At this point, the film takes on somewhat tragic proportions.
The film’s most fascinating touch may be the somber, vaguely anachronistic yet oddly fitting songs of Leonard Cohen which Altman peppers throughout and often repeats. By the film’s end, you realize it is as necessary as the cinematography and acting.