McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1973) It is very rare when two examples of great artistic achievement can be combined to make something greater than the sum of the parts--where the two complement each other, instead of distracting from each other. But in the first sequence of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, director Robert Altman achieves such a moment. While Altman and master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond float their camera onto the form of John McCabe (Warren Beatty) riding through a wintry landscape, Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song"* mystically describes the scene and the man. You know when you see this inspired piece of film that Altman has a special kind of vision as regards this project and he pursues this vision throughout with the result that McCabe and Mrs. Miller is Altman's finest film. I'm adamant about this, despite the number of Nashville fanatics who try to convince me otherwise.*
After doing the frenetic M*A*S*H, Altman felt that he was financially secure enough to try artistic projects. McCabe... was his first.** It is a slowly paced, beautifully photographed, acted and edited film about the formation of a western town, a town whose foundations are two rather dubious persons: McCabe, a gambler by trade, and Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a madam. It is their vision that gives birth to the town and turns it into a self-sustaining community, a town that will soon displace their once-prevalent position and grow over them, just as surely as the snows accumulate over time.
But if Altman were to show the growth of the town as that, the growth of a town, what sort of movie would that be?*** So, as it does with more traditional westerns (a term I'm not too comfortable with), the interest of the story falls on the people, in this case, the cornerstones of the community, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. And like most Altman films, there are many characters, many occurrences, but all in the whole of the community--it's a very satisfying film, by a sometimes exciting, sometimes exasperating, but certainly the most innovative of current directors, Robert Altman.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM on Novermber 19th and 20th, 1975.
Altman would continue to be innovative and sometimes exasperating, but never less than assured in the tricks he'd play with the camera and with the perspective he allowed us to see, right up to his final film. And McCabe and Mrs. Miller continues to be (after a recent re-viewing) a wonderfully dreamy frontier film, despite the usurping of some of Altman's strategies in various TV shows since its debut in 1971. Certainly, it feels like a more realistic film about building a community—the town of Presbyterian Church, its most prominent structure, in isolation in the West than most Western films would have you believe. And Vilmos Zsigmond's innovative cinematography set a high standard that most film-makers can only achieve with CGI and post-gradation.
I find it amusing that this movie didn't find that much of an audience, especially in the West, where the story probably mirrors the origins of every town out in these parts. It certainly does Seattle, where larceny and luck...and women imported from the East Coast...were part and parcel of the city's foundation.
But, as in this review, is it his best film? That would be hard to say. Altman was an iconoclast and rebellious, attempting to subvert film genres and even the organized standards for making films, being more free-wheeling and improvisational, even with a script that was as focused as, say, The Player or Gosford Park.
* And yet I just found a glowing "Olde Review" of Nashville that I'll be putting up in a couple weeks. Nashville certainly has more reach and is a more ambitious project than McCabe... But I did love the dreamy aspect of this revisionist western. Thinking about it the last few minutes I'd be hard pressed to pick "the best" Altman film, or even to a lesser degree, my favorite. How can you compare such disparate films as M*A*S*H, McCabe..., Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, The Player, and on and on right up to A Prairie Home Companion? Like comparing apples to sweet potatoes.
** I think I might have forgotten the quirky Brewster McCloud in there, and who's to say that M*A*S*H or that film aren't artistic?
*** "Deadwood," frankly...