McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film that didn’t grab me straight away – it’s muddy soundtrack (Altman was working ahead of the recording technology available at the time) and lack of obvious narrative took a bit of getting used to. Maybe it had been too long since I’d watched an Altman film though as once I settled into it and afterward let myself digest what I’d experienced the film more than grew on me. There are no bold stylistic flourishes (visually at least) and no gripping storyline, but it’s a film that you soak up and live in for two hours. The film’s setting, the town of Presbyterian Church, was constructed from scratch for the film (up in Canada), with period detail adhered to as often as possible, down to substituting nails for wooden pegs (according to a vintage documentary on my DVD). This, added to Altman’s trademark overlapping, largely improvised dialogue create a world within the picture that truly feels like a living, breathing place and it’s a place you don’t want to leave when the film reaches it’s bleak finale.
Spaghetti westerns had revolutionised the tired genre back in the 60’s, turning away from the polished all-American heroes of old and offering up dirty, violent anti-heroes. McCabe & Mrs. Miller deconstructs this even further, still offering a gritty vision (complete with the bodily functions you’d expect from a backwoods diet of beans and rice), but this time without the flashy cinematography (although it does look lovely) and without any real heroes at all. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie are clearly the leads, but McCabe (Beatty) is no gunslinger fighting for some higher cause and he’s not even good at running his gambling joint and whorehouse, which Mrs. Miller (Christie) brings up from a set of tents in the mud to the classiest bordello in the region. She’s no angel either, merely an opium smoking hooker who refuses to open up to her wannabe-suitor McCabe. The narrative reaches it’s turning point when business men from another town come to try and buy him out and neither character acts in an honourable fashion. McCabe fails to settle a deal, unwittingly signing his own death warrant and when Mrs. Miller explains this fact to him, rather than stand up for his rights, McCabe pathetically attempts to accept the original offer and Mrs. Miller does very little to help.
There is little more to the plot than that really, the film instead focuses on the subtly developing relationship between the title characters as well as charting the birth of an early American settlement. We watch Presbyterian Church grow from tents and timber to a fairly successful mining town whose inhabitants in the end work together to put out a fire in their place of worship whilst the town’s key founder falls victim to big business. The inevitable yet devastating denouement sticks a finger up to the American dream with the hard working little man left out in the cold against the dishonourable face of the first ‘corporations’. The love story you expect from the film’s title never really emerges either, instead McCabe and Miller’s relationship is a more interesting beast which never blossoms into a Hollywood romance and pretty much takes a back seat to the film’s cynical view of the birth of America. Some of the later scenes with the two alone are quietly heartbreaking though and give the film enough emotional weight to stop it feeling too icy.
When McCabe & Mrs. Miller does present a western staple, the gunfight, it does so with a brutality and realism that is common with the violence of it’s contemporaries. When a character is shot with what I can only describe as an elephant gun, we watch as his arm is ripped in two by the impact. More powerful though is a scene between a sadistic young gun-for-hire and a baby-faced cowboy wannabe, resulting in a disturbingly meaningless killing that shocks far more than any blood-soaked splatterfest. The climactic showdown is refreshingly believable too with McCabe resorting to cowardly tactics to try and turn the tables instead of facing enemies directly in a superhuman stand-off.
It all comes together to create a western that plays out like no other, yet has a real sense of time and place that feels genuine and draws you into this intoxicating slice of life. It presents the early American West as an unforgiving landscape where both the forces of nature and the emerging dangers of power and wealth make impossible enemies to the hopeful pioneers of the country.