‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ Muddy in Many Ways
Is Robert Altman’s western fraught with meaning, or meaningless?
By Todd Hill
In the early spring of 1993 I found myself spending a night in northwestern Nebraska when the Academy Awards were broadcast on television. There were no red carpets laid out in the small town I was in — although there was quite a bit of mud — but excitement peaked there nonetheless when the Clint Eastwood western “Unforgiven” won Best Picture.
Evidently a few of that film’s scenes were shot in the Black Hills of South Dakota, just up the road, giving locals a reason to champion the first revisionist western to be honored with the top Oscar. “Unforgiven” was far from the first film to look askance at the cherished tropes of its genre. Indeed, I’m reluctant to even attempt identifying the first acknowledged revisionist western, as I’m sure I would stand to be corrected if I did, but surely among the earliest — and definitely one of the muddiest — was Robert Altman‘s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” released in 1971.
The movie bombed at the box office, and it’s easy to imagine, after sitting through the picture, how word of mouth about it may not have been especially favorable. Critics raved, which largely accounts for why the film still exists as a known quantity today, but by reading between the lines of their reviews one may glean why “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” could have been problematic for some audiences.
“The movie is so affecting it leaves one rather dazed,” Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker, while Roger Ebert had this to say: “We understand it’s not important to hear every word; sometimes all that matters is the tone of a room.” It’s never a good sign when critics are seen trying to apologize for their positive reviews.
It’s certainly not the intention of this essay to question Robert Altman’s vaunted reputation as a filmmaker, or to even suggest a reassessment, not when he has titles like “M*A*S*H” (1970) and “Nashville” (1975) on his resume. Of course, it’s worth remembering that Altman also directed “Popeye,” a woeful 1980 vehicle for Robin Williams.
I’m a longtime fan of “M*A*S*H,” which I’ve watched several times over several years, and I have to admit that those repeated viewings have likely been key to, even necessary for, my enjoyment of the film. This has everything to do with Altman’s style of filmmaking. I’ve seen “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” just once, and that’s clearly not enough to allow me to appreciate what all the fuss is about.
The film may be based on a novel, written by Edmund Naughton in 1959, but Altman, at least early in his career, was known for seeing to it that screenplays were completed for his projects only to then essentially throw them out. His movies, including “McCabe,” were all about improvisation, and then some. There’s a story here, sure, but delineating it before the picture is over is no easier than trying to see a forest for the trees.
And then there’s the matter of the sound mixing. Not that it would, but if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were ever to consider an honorary award for Worst Sound Mixing of All Time, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” could be the odds-on favorite. I’m never ashamed to turn on the captions if I’m watching a British movie and the accents get a little too thick, but “McCabe” is that rare American film to also benefit from closed captioning. Just don’t expect that to necessarily clear things up. Once I started viewing the movie with subtitles, I found it odd that many of the lines I was missing had nothing to do with the picture’s plot, principal characters, or much of anything. And oh, the lighting in this flick is equally lousy as well.
Perhaps the poor craftsmanship on “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is just Altman’s way of emphasizing that since the interior lighting in western mining towns of the early 20th century was markedly poor, it would be dishonest of him to light his interiors any better. To the same point, maybe Altman’s group shots are suffused with simple-minded characters muttering nonsense because that’s what crowds were really like in the old West.
It’s debatable whether we as an audience have a right to complain about having to work hard when watching a film. I don’t know that Altman’s supposed verisimilitude gets him off the hook when it comes to the story, however. Speaking of which, here’s a synopsis.
Warren Beatty stars as John McCabe, a cocky businessman/gambler who rides into the sad, little mining town — if you could even call it that — of Presbyterian Church, Wash., in 1902 to set up a whorehouse. His ladies are — well, a man would have to be fairly desperate to patronize this establishment. But Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a madam in the nearby community of Bearpaw, soon catches wind of McCabe’s enterprise and rides into town with her decidedly classier ladies (on some ridiculous contraption called a J.I. Case steam engine) to go into business with McCabe.
Mutual success quickly ensues, which soon draws two shady businessmen to Presbyterian Church to buy out McCabe. He rejects their proposal, a gargantuan mistake. A day later a large bounty hunter (Hugh Millais, given one truly great scene) shows up with two sharp-shooting companions. Like so many westerns before it, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” ends with a shootout, although I was halfway into the sequence before I realized that’s what it was, such is the seeming aimlessness of Altman’s film.
It has to be emphasized that all of this looks fairly terrific. Altman’s crew actually built the entire set of Presbyterian Church somewhere in British Columbia and the director shot his picture amidst all the noise and chaos. Even more evocative is the weather, which goes from leaden skies to rain, still more rain, and finally a snowstorm, which bookends the shootout, albeit not without raising some continuity issues. When the shootout begins there looks to be about half an inch of snow on the ground, growing to about two feet a few minutes later.
Far more graduated is the performance of Beatty, whose McCabe strides into Presbyterian Church the very picture of bravado, is later taken down a few notches by Mrs. Miller, and ends the film in abject humiliation. Christie, alas, is scarcely given enough screen time for her character to register, and it’s never clear whether she and McCabe have anything more than a working relationship, albeit one that includes sleeping together. This is shoddy filmmaking on Altman’s part.
What was the director trying to say with “McCabe & Mrs. Miller?” Anything, or was he just not very clear? A perusal of the film’s reviews and think pieces, both from the time of the picture’s release up through the present day, reveals a cornucopia of ideas about what Altman was getting at, suggesting that either 1.) the movie’s message was as muddied as the rest of the film, or 2.) Altman was shrewd enough to know it didn’t matter, that no matter what he tried to say, audiences would make up their own minds about it. That’s how it usually works, and how it should.
I left “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” reminded that while one man may come across as weak and pathetic, a race of men working together toward more or less the same end can transform a landscape, and ultimately a continent, for better or worse. I also came away thoroughly unsatisfied with the film — apart, that is, from one scene.
It emerges out of nowhere, a complete surprise. One of the bounty hunter’s henchmen, some young punk with an itchy trigger finger, encounters a happy-go-lucky cowboy, played with palpable sympathy by David Carradine, on the town’s rickety bridge, and after a minute of increasingly tense conversation, shoots the cowboy dead for no reason at all.
One could argue that the death represents the triumph of violence, or of capitalism, over the virgin landscape, or some such metaphor. I would argue that the death means absolutely nothing, which may be worse. It’s one of the most chilling moments ever seen in a western. I’ll give Robert Altman, and his “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” that much.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.