Tuesday, July 2, 2013

You Get What You Pay For

Film: McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I have something of a relationship with the films of Robert Altman. I really like some of his films a lot. Others I think are meandering and go nowhere and take too damn long to get to that nowhere. McCabe and Mrs. Miller feels like an odd film for Altman. This is the guy who did Short Cuts, Nashville, The Player and M*A*S*H. What’s he doing making a Western?

The short answer is that he isn’t making a Western. He’s making a film that simply happens to be set in the American Old West. The basic story could easily be set during Prohibition or the 1960s or today. It just happens to be set in the West for whatever reason. As such, this is not a film that defines the Western genre, but is more or less a tangential part of the genre. Fans of the Western will likely find something here to latch onto. Those who dislike Westerns will, should they give it a chance, find that with its trappings removed, it’s not so Western after all.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives in the town of Presbyterian Church and immediately sets up a poker game. He decides that with a town this small and without much in the way of leadership he should go into business for himself. He buys a piece of land and hires some men to build him a saloon, putting him in competition with the other saloon keeper, Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois). To boost his business, he recruits a trio of prostitutes from a nearby town, paying $200 for their services.

Things change with the arrival of Constance Miller (Julie Christie). The folks of Presbyterian Church are convinced that Mrs. Miller is a high-class woman, but we learn straightaway of her coarse manner. She calls herself a whore and offers a proposition to McCabe: he puts up the start-up money and she’ll run the brothel for him, splitting the profits 50/50, with her paying back everything he puts out. Eventually he comes around to her way of thinking. He regrets the decision when he sees almost no profit from his saloon and takes it back immediately when he sees the massive take from the brothel and the bathhouse—since Constance Miller insists that all the men take a bath before enjoying themselves otherwise.

Trouble happens with the arrival of Hollander (Antony Holland) and Sears (Michael Murphy), who offer to buy out McCabe of all his holdings under the auspices of the Harrison Shaughnessy Company. McCabe doesn’t bite, and soon realizes this was a mistake. Harrison Shaughnessy has a reputation for killing off the people who refuse to make a deal with them, and now John McCabe finds himself the target of three hired killers. All of this happens amid the burgeoning romance between McCabe and Mrs. Miller. We also learn that Constance Miller has a soft spot for chasing the opium dragon.

What makes this film so watchable is that the plot really isn’t specific to the setting. While a Western is probably the most obvious setting for this particular story, it fits beautifully into the 1920s, or even the modern day—it’s just more overtly criminal in other time periods. The basic idea of a romance flourishing amid a war between business rivals isn’t that rare nor particularly noteworthy. In fact, there’s some possibility that McCabe and Mrs. Miller was created as a Western strictly to distance it from films with similar plots.

Another major difference here is John McCabe. We learn early on that McCabe has a reputation of being a gunman. Most of the townspeople believe that in an earlier time he was known as Pudgy McCabe and shot an well-known gunfighter over a card game. The audience is content to go along with this until the arrival of the three assassins, when we learn that either our main character is a different McCabe, or that Pudgy McCabe never shot anyone. He’s plainly scared of what is coming and tries everything he can to cut a deal with the men from the company just so he doesn’t have to face the three men coming to kill him.

I won’t go so far as to call John McCabe a coward, but he very much is one in Western terms. In a typical Western, he’d face down all three at high noon in the middle of the town. Here, he tries to run, tries to get the law on his side, and eventually tries to hide to prevent himself from being killed. In a Western, that’s cowardice no matter how much I think I’d act the exact same way.

What sticks with me about the film is how dirty everything is. Presbyterian Church is a town covered in grime and mud at all times. The people seem caked with the stuff. Everything is damp and muddy and badly in need of being hosed down. All of the people look as if they would be sticky. It’s yet another reason I’m glad to live in a world with indoor plumbing.

I liked this film pretty well. The ending is strange, but it has a sense of appropriateness to it. It’s a cold and harsh world these folks live in, after all. This is a film to hand to a smart film viewer who isn’t big on Westerns. The rank-and-file won’t see past the horses and six-guns. The smarter viewer will realize that there’s a drama hidden beneath the saddle blankets.

Why to watch McCabe and Mrs. Miller: A Western only in setting.
Why not to watch: You’ll want a bath pretty quickly.


  1. I struggled with this film. I generally like Altman's films, but I just couldn't get into it. I probably need to revisit it, as it was a long while ago. Something about it style kept me at a distance, which usually isn't the case with Altman.

  2. I had heard all kinds of praise for this film as "a new kind of western" or that "it re-invents the western". I watched it and my thought was "this isn't a western at all." I'm glad to see I'm not the only one to think that. It's not the setting that makes a western, it's the plot. Hell, Star Wars is a western. Someday I'm going to do a Westerns Not Set in the West category.

    Because of the advance praise turning out to be completely wrong, in my opinion, that hurt my appreciation for the movie. I felt it was okay, but nothing more. I also disliked the McCabe character because I thought it was pretty plain from the first time we meet him that he's a liar, an opportunist, and not really that bright when it comes right down to it.

  3. This film did nothing for me. I've not seen much Altman, but I find his form of naturalism frustrating and distracting. It might be more honest, but it feels less organic and makes the film harder to watch for me. I also don't like the music. Not a Leonard Cohen fan at all.

  4. Looks like I'm on my own for appreciating this one. It's not my favorite Altman, but I liked it more than I thought I would.

  5. I think of this as an anti-western. I don't like the ending very much, but the rest is okay. I like how Beatty and Christie play off one another. But you're right, you feel like you need to take a bath after watching it.

    1. "Anti-Western" is further than I'd go, but I think I know what you mean.

  6. Well, I am on your side with this one Steve. I pretty much agree with everything here. Although it started slow for me it eventually won me over. Not least because of the Cohen soundtrack

    1. I should probably watch it again. It's probably better than I think it is, even if I think it's pretty good.