#305 McCabe & Mrs Miller

(1971, Robert Altman)

“If a man is fool enough to get into business with a woman, she ain’t going to think much of him”

It’s that time again! Time for me to slog my way through a film in one of my least favourite genres – the Western. Fortunately, this time John Wayne isn’t coming over the horizon and there don’t appear to be any Cowboys and Injuns propping up the story. In fact, today’s movie claims to be an “anti-Western”, although Dead Man claimed that too and look where that got us.

McCabe & Mrs Miller is about a man named McCabe and a woman named Mrs Miller (duh). McCabe (Warren Beatty) comes to the town of Presbyterian Church, a lawless mining town with no direction, and asserts himself on the people with his aggressive personality and rumours of a gunfighting past. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives shortly afterwards and informs him that she could run a successful brothel in the town, and the two form a professional partnership and occasional romantic one too. However, the town’s growing prosperity is threatened with the arrival of two agents from a ruthless corporate mining company, who wish to take the town from them.

Normally I don’t like Westerns, as regular readers will know, but sometimes exceptions do turn up. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid was one (to an extent), and McCabe & Mrs Miller is another. That said, this doesn’t translate into a love of the movie, more a respect for the quality film-making at work even though I still personally didn’t enjoy it.

Let’s start with the good parts, shall we? McCabe & Mrs Miller is full of some really great moments, mostly centred on the title characters’ interactions with one another. McCabe desperately trying to drunkenly gain Constance’s attention, her ability to chew him out for his apparent lack of genuine business sense, and the fact that we have two brash, headstrong characters respectfully (and not so respectfully) clashing with one another time and time again.

McCabe, loud and drunk and boastful, is actually a useless businessman and a coward when it comes to gun fights. Mrs Miller is far from being a hooker with a heart of gold, and more a savvy, scheming woman with grand ambitions living in a time when being a woman with ambitions was frowned upon rather heavily. Both Beatty and Christie play these roles to their absolute best, and I loved their characters.

I also felt that the town itself was beautifully realised. It gradually builds up as the movie progresses, and almost becomes a character in its own right. Set design isn’t something I normally point out, but it’s an integral part of this movie, and it feels wrong not to mention it.

Despite these wonderful things though, I felt the movie was lacking in other areas. Plot-wise, I felt that the movie was a little unfocused. The central conflict at the heart of the movie just didn’t really feel like it was there at all. We’re supposed to believe the town is under threat by unscrupulous corporate forces, and yet we only see two agents and a possible hitman who sits in a nearby café biding his time as if he’s a final boss waiting for McCabe to clear his dungeon.

Also, while the interactions between McCabe and Mrs Miller were awesome, they also felt a little sparse. There’s apparently a romantic angle to their interactions, but it feels a little poorly-handled at times. There are times when I feel it could have been explored better, since we get hints of McCabe being upset about Constance sleeping with other men (she is a prostitute, after all), but it’s only partially covered. It felt like it was building to something but it was ultimately unresolved.

Also, I struggled to follow the final shootout that ended the movie. Characters seemed to teleport around the mountain and stalk each other. It went on for far too long and didn’t really seem to achieve anything. It also led to a fairly unsatisfactory ending that left me feeling hugely disappointed.

McCabe & Mrs Miller is probably the best Western I’ve seen alongside Butch Cassidy, but it still doesn’t go far enough to make me like the genre. I tolerated this thanks to some fine performances, but certainly not a film I’d rush to see again.

Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Murphy, William Devane, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, Keith Carradine & Bert Remsen
Written by Edmund Naughton (novel) and Robert Altman & Brian McKay
Produced by Mitchell Brower & David Foster
Music by Leonard Cohen
Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond
Edited by Lou Lombardo

Favourite Scene: Mrs Miller chewing out McCabe for his apparent inability to do his own finances pretty much sums up their whole relationship.
Scene That Bugged Me: Why exactly is that hitman just sitting around in a café for most of the movie?

Watch it if: You’re looking for a decent non-Wayne western
Avoid it if: You like straightforward westerns


Posted on September 4, 2014, in 1970s, Western and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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