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.