February 20, 2014: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)


Cast and Crew: Robert Altman (director), Edmund Naughton (novel), Leonard Cohen (soundtrack), Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois.

What it’s About: Itinerant small-time hustler McCabe ups the ante in a frontier mining community when he diversifies into landholding and prostitution. Attracting the attention of accomplished madam Mrs. Miller, the two soon partner in many senses of the word. When corporate speculators attempt to buy out McCabe, their alliance strains under its own hubris, fears, and vices.

Why Watch it Today: While Robert Altman, born on this day, is most well-known for MASH, and even better known for the TV series he had nothing to do with, he has made many fine films in the auteur tradition, and this reimagining of the Western is one of his finest.

Altman presents a slow-paced, moody study from the view of McCabe (Warren Beatty), a restless and vain man who is animated by a frustrated poetic energy which he vents through his entrepreneurial efforts. Certainly Altman’s ideas about sexual relations are in clear view–the movie sells the idea that whoring can be fun and more liberating occupation than housewifing. Altman’s distaste for corporation and clergy is undisguised, but so is his understanding of violence and his unique, understated way of exhibiting bloodshed without celebrating it.

Beatty’s performance involves a lot of muttering to himself; it’s a proto-mumblecore film, which the period soundtrack by Leonard Cohen heavily underscores. (If you hate Cohen, skip this movie.) But Beatty is convincing as a card-dealer handling a room of ruffians and is magnetic at as an impatient, drunk, but very companionable businessman. Julie Christie as Mrs. Miller is a fantastic pairing for Beatty and Altman should be lauded for providing us a determined, outspoken, and complex female lead who permits only the viewer to fully perceive her weakness and folly. Rene Auberjonois is superb as innkeeper Sheehan, deepening the Rabelaisque satire of grotesque frontier life.

2 comments on “February 20, 2014: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

  1. T.A. Gerolami says:

    I need to see this again for no other reason than the last time I saw it, I wasn’t a Rene Auberjonois fan and I don’t even remember him being in it! I have fond memories of watching this with my dad during the year I returned home to live at my parents house. There was a lot of great moving watching that year, and this was one of those films, made sweeter by my father’s initial displeasure at having to watch it, then slowly being one over to it.

    • It’s certainly worth a watch under the right conditions. It’s a film-crit wet dream. There’s so much going on thematically and stylistically that I couldn’t do justice to in my short take here.

      I ended up focusing on the acting, which is just unbelievably stellar across the board, but the film has this weird epic/anti-epic thing going on that defies easy explanation. It’s really more of a poem of a movie than a novel. Anyway, thanks for putting this one on the calendar. I enjoyed mulling it over.

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