McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, Robert Altman)

Katy said let’s start holding theme months again – perhaps Westerns Month, or Robert Altman Month. To delay making a decision, I played a Robert Altman Western. She said it wasn’t bad, but please no more movies like that, so Westerns it shall be.

Foolish me, I actually thought this wouldn’t be so Altmanesque. He made it right after MASH, but I’ve seen Images from the following year, so I’d convinced myself that he didn’t pick up the ensemble overlapping-dialogue thing again until ’75 with Nashville, making a few movies with a distinguishable soundtrack there in between. But no, this one was extremely ensembley and each noisy scene seemed to have been recorded with a room mic placed a couple rooms over. Katy points out that it may have exploded Western conventions in ’71, but now that they’ve been exploded for so long, we don’t see this as a very daring experiment, just a mushmouthed dialogue-heavy flick full of Leonard Cohen songs with a great chase/shootout ending.


Another disappointment: when Julie Christie finally showed up I was expecting a force of nature a la Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, but she doesn’t do much more than build a bath house and take over the whoring at Beatty’s new pub. As an article in The Guardian points out, our protagonists are “nothing like as confident as they would have us believe.” Recognized Shelley Duvall in a pretty small role as a mail-order bride and Michael “Tanner” Murphy as a businessman who fails to negotiate with Beatty over the sale of his land, leading to a snowy hide-and-seek shootout throughout the town, Murphy replaced by a gang of thugs who do not negotiate. I’m slowly learning my Carradines – a fresh-faced Keith (star of Fuller’s Street of No Return) played a doomed vacationing cowboy.

Mrs. Miller:

Mostly I liked the look, the feel, the light, the editing and pace. I wouldn’t say it had a documentary feel, but it felt like the scenes were happening on their own and the cameras were struggling to keep up (*). Has a good reputation these days, voted one of the greatest-ever westerns by some group or another. At the time, Christie lost her oscar to Jane Fonda, for something called Klute, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s hazy cinematography was only honored at the Baftas, where he was also nominated for Images.

(*) I thought that was a pretty neat thing I’d thought/written there about the movie, but when I went looking for articles I found that everyone else had thought it already. For instance, C. Taylor for Salon:

Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), is a hard-headed madam with dreams of her own, the ones emanating from her opium pipe. The movie feels as delicate, as lulling, as Mrs. Miller’s drug-induced visions, and yet the life it shows us, the town and its people, are so real and sturdy we seem to have stumbled on them. The life the movie shows us is already being lived by the time we turn up. And everything we encounter evolves naturally — the setting, the characters, the story and most of all the mood.

A. Danks for Senses of Cinema:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller follows the coordinates of the most rudimentary of westerns; full of archetypal and cliched characters and situations such as the loner/stranger who shakes up a frontier town and the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold. But these classical or archetypal elements are undermined by the film’s opaque view of its characters, its foregrounding of atmosphere and place (including the ‘atmosphere’ of place, weather), and a technique which captures characters (both their bodies and voices) within pictorial tableaux that emphasise their relativity to the unfolding drama. In this respect, parts of, and indeed images within McCabe and Mrs. Miller resemble a painting by the sixteenth century artist Pieter Bruegel; broken up into interlocking tableaux and brought up to date (i.e. into cinema) by the deployment of favourite Altman devices like the zoom, the pan and multi-tracked sound – these devices serving to distance the events and characters from the viewer while opening up the frame, and the relationship between frames, to the scrutiny of the spectator.