McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Genre: Western Running Time: 2 hrs.

Release Date: June 24th, 1971 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Robert Altman Actors: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Corey Fischer, Bert Remsen, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Hugh Millais, Manfred Schulz, Jace Vander Veen




elancholy music and rainswept, grainy cinematography preside over the arrival of John McCabe (Warren Beatty) as he saunters into a ramshackle town soaked in mud and filth. for much of the picture, it appears as if smoke wafts across the lens, clouding the imagery. It’s dark (seemingly illuminated only by natural lighting), dour, and unglamorous, but it’s also strikingly moody, particularly as Leonard Cohen’s songs narrate a gruff, soiled, uncomfortable collection of environments and characters. With its perpetually blustery, wintery setting, this is certainly an unusual design for a Western.

In director Robert Altman’s signature editing style, voices overlap continuously, placing viewers into the midst of the confusion and hubbub and gossip. Commentary and conversations are abundant, unfocused, and cursory. McCabe’s dialogue is more pointed, however, as he sets up a table in Patrick Sheehan’s (Rene Auberjonois) bar and arranges a friendly game of five-card stud. “You know I don’t gamble with no professionals.”

Words continue to spill out of unidentified faces and background roles, crowding the soundtrack, while a plethora of scrutinizing eyes study the newcomer. There’s even a fiddle player plucking at strings in the corner of the establishment. Although McCabe doesn’t offer up his name, Sheehan suggests that the stranger is a renowned gunfighter. McCabe corrects him, insisting that he’s merely a businessman. That business transitions from gambling to acquiring chippies – or prostitutes – for a saloon and hall being constructed on the edge of town. Starting with just three women in small tents, McCabe’s undertaking is modest, but it’s quickly filled with construction materials and laborers and passerby. And then Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives from neighboring Bearpaw, keen on speaking with the ambitious entrepreneur.

The camera frequently studies minuscule grotesqueries, such as greasy food, oily fingers wiped on tablecloths, and copious dirtiness of all types, while the sound effects of burping and grunting mix with drunken stumbling and disheveled characters in soaked furs trudging through thick muck. In its attempt at a certain realism, the film is steeped in visual ugliness, removing every element of typical Hollywood style. In a curious contrast, Mrs. Miller proposes that McCabe refine his whorehouse (or gooseberry ranch) with higher-class hookers, clean linen, and proper hygiene, crafting a partnership that will increase profits and protect the health and wellbeing of both the girls and the clients.

Despite the subject matter, which is inherently coarse, the characters are largely unlikable, even when they’re not behaving crudely or speaking boorishly. The two leads may not be evil, but they’re the opposite of inspirational. They’re not righteous or courageous or compassionate. In many ways, it’s as if Altman’s purpose is to highlight the narrowness and insignificance of these people as they navigate through minimal, trivial scenarios; the main characters aren’t as important as in a traditional narrative. The ideas here are very small and occasionally unpleasant, though the design is considerable in its uniqueness. It doesn’t help that when generally dependable acts of violence crop up, they’re treated casually or even dismissed with a touch of Christmas music.

The film also takes its time to develop the story, meandering on all sorts of seemingly irrelevant subplots – including an insatiable cowboy (Keith Carradine) and a small-business lawyer (William Devane) – as if intent on documenting the minutia and futility of life during this harsh, primitive, bedraggled, lawless era. Some of it even provides comic relief, though it’s fleeting at best. Conflict is similarly drawn out, the first major component of which doesn’t rear its head until more than halfway through the overlong runtime. As the conclusion nears, the plights do escalate, moving toward a more traditional Old West showdown (yet riddled with uncommon gore, cowardice, and luck rather than steely bravery, once again exemplifying its anti-Western aura), centering on tension over excitement. It’s an amusing finale, but the lead-up isn’t nearly as enticing.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10