Thursday, March 10, 2011

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

          Robert Altman’s bleak Western has an enviable reputation, but its stature stems as much from the movie’s novelty as from its content. Instead of the cowboy romanticism that pervaded other revisionist Westerns of the era, McCabe offers frontier nihilism, presenting a grim view of life in a tiny settlement on the verge of becoming a town. Warren Beatty stars as John McCabe, a slick but uneducated gambler who drifts into the settlement and quickly becomes its leading citizen by opening a grungy whorehouse. Julie Christie plays Constance Miller, a crass but savvy prostitute who persuades McCabe to offer his wares in a cleaner establishment with higher prices. McCabe’s success draws the attention of unscrupulous developers who try to buy out his interests, and his nervy refusal of their offer makes him a target for hired guns. The imaginative story, based on a novel by Edmund Naughton, gives Altman a framework for his singular style of creating dense atmosphere through lived-in locations, overlapping dialogue, and peculiar people.
          The principal outdoor set is amazing, creating the illusion of a hand-wrought town that emerged organically out of snowy terrain, and the photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is justifiably celebrated. Zsigmond lit the picture to simulate available illumination sources like moonlight and candles, then “flashed” the film by exposing it to light before processing in order to create a unique washed-out quality. Many of the usual suspects from Altman movies show up in the cast, with Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, and John Schuck adding their individualistic qualities of naïve pathos, so it’s easy to lose the soft-spoken leading performances in the colorful surroundings.
          Beatty gets points for downplaying his charm and handsomeness with a disagreeable temperament and a thick beard, though much of his performance his gimmicky, like the awkward soliloquies in which he articulates his motivations. Christie is equally bold playing an overbearing opium addict. However the quasi-romance between the two characters never really clicks, and the film is unnecessarily dreary, from the various pointless murders in the storyline to the Leonard Cohen dirges on the soundtrack. So while McCabe & Mrs. Miller is gorgeously wrought and virtually unlike any previous Western, its narrative intentions are opaque.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller: GROOVY


Will Errickson said...

"Unnecessarily dreary" is right! I like M&MM, but it's not close to my fave Altman, despite its reputation.

Unknown said...

Another great review, as always, but "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is too dreary for me.

Joseph Kearny said...

Atmosphere is all here, but it's not enough to recommend this dreary film.