Category Archives: Western

#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

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#244 Dead Man

(1995, Jim Jarmusch)

“Your poetry will now be written in blood”

WESTERNS! As regular readers will know, I hate Westerns and have yet to see one I’ve particularly liked, especially if John Wayne is in it. That said, Dead Man is an unusual Western, one that stars professional weirdo Johnny Depp and is set in a strange dream-like world. Perhaps this may be the Western to convince me of the value of the genre.

Dead Man features Depp as William Blake, a man who travels to the mining town of Machine to work as an accountant. When he arrives, he finds that John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), the owner of the metalworks, has handed the job to someone else, leaving Blake to wander the town. This leads to a run-in with an attractive woman named Thel (Mili Avital) and her ex-boyfriend, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne), both of whom end up dead while Blake is wounded. Upon waking, Blake finds himself accompanied by a native called Nobody (Gary Farmer) and finds himself hunted for the deaths, leaving the two to wander the wild frontier.

Dead Man is what happens when Westerns get pretentious. It has all the typical elements of your normal Western, from wandering the frontier while searching and/or being pursued, to gruesome shootouts, all the way to a native spirit guide and grizzled town figureheads. But it’s also shot in highly saturated black and white, heavily quotes poetry (he’s not called William Blake by accident) and features a soundtrack composed by Neil Young sitting in a room watching the movie and noodling around on his guitar.

As a result, there are times when Dead Man can feel tiresome and almost draining. Everything is shot in a deliberately “arty” way, to make it seem like it’s trying to say something important. The only problem is, it’s pretty much saying nothing at all.

I honestly don’t know what message Jarmusch was trying to convey with this movie. It follows the conventions of Westerns too closely to be any kind of deconstruction of the genre, the poetry connection doesn’t really make sense and there’s no real message to be found in the ultimate futility of much of the movie’s events. My initial feeling was that the entire movie was a metaphor for death (which would fit the title), but it’s hard to make that stick consistently.

Instead, the movie ultimately feels like an idea Jarmusch had while watching Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and listening to 70s blues rock, possibly while high out of his mind. Even Roger Ebert said he didn’t understand what the film was trying to say, and if he didn’t get it, how do you expect a self-professed amateur such as me to grasp the hidden message?

Speaking of 70s blues rock and being high out of your mind, Neil Young’s soundtrack does not help in the slightest. I know I often find myself commenting on soundtracks only when they’re really bad, but this is a new low. It sounds like a one-take deal made by jamming out in front of the recently-edited movie which, to be fair, it was. More often than not, characters will be wandering about doing nothing in particular of note when suddenly, a loud CLANG of an electric guitar will come in for no reason other than Neil Young felt like contributing something.

The only saving graces this movie has are the fine acting across the board, especially from Depp at the centre of it all (to be fair, the movie was made when he actually could be bothered to do his job), and the sight of Iggy Pop wearing a Bo Peep dress, playing a transvestite because of reasons.

Dead Man is what happens when you try too hard to be clever in deconstructing a genre and making something even more incomprehensible than the genre you’re deconstructing. Come back, John Wayne, I forgive everything!

Starring Johnny Depp & Gary Farmer
Written by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Demetra J. McBride
Music by Neil Young
Cinematography by Robby Muller
Edited by Jay Rabinowitz

Favourite Scene: Iggy Pop in a Bo Peep dress will never not be entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: The ending got very muddled very quickly.

Watch it if: You really like Johnny Depp and/or Westerns
Avoid it if: You can’t stand Neil Young’s music

#226 Red River

(1948, Howard Hawks)

“Give me ten years, and I’ll have that brand on the gates of the greatest ranch in Texas”

Oh boy, another John Wayne Western. This’ll be fun!

Red River is about John Wayne being a manly man in the Old West, like all his films, in fact. This one he plays a man who wants to open up a hugely successful cattle ranch in Texas. After fighting some injuns and opening up his ranch, he realises that it isn’t too profitable and decides to move it to Missouri instead. Then there’s stuff about a mutiny in his group and some other things happen and…yeah…

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#208 Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid

(1969, George Roy Hill)

“You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at”

Ah, Westerns. We’ve touched on how little I like this genre. But hey, maybe Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid won’t be too bad. It’s not a John Wayne vehicle in which he drawls a lot. And it is a notable classic of the genre that kicked off a major cinema partnership between Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It’s a character piece. I generally like good character pieces. Surely I’ll like this? Let’s see.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is the apparently true story about two guys – Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) – who are famous bandits in the Old West. However, the times they are a-changin’ and the law is beginning to catch up with them. The movie deals with their attempts to evade the law and continue their thieving ways for as long as possible, even if it means fleeing to another country.

I would love to be able to say that Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid changed my opinion of Westerns and won me over and is a standout example of the genre and all of that wonderful stuff. I’d like to say that, but sadly it did little to win me over. I will admit that it’s probably among the best of its genre, but that’s because it was only mildly less boring than its peers. That’s the highest praise I can give this.

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#187 Rio Bravo

(1959, Howard Hawks)

I’ve made my opinion on the western genre pretty clear in the past, through my review of The Searchers especially. I find them very slow, very samey and generally very fond of playing up really mundane things as being incredibly important. Will Rio Bravo win me over? We shall see.

When an alcoholic former deputy sheriff by the name of Dude (Dean Martin) gets into a bar brawl with Joe Burdette (Claude Atkins), Joe shoots a bystander who tries to break it up, killing him. Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) appears and arrests Joe for murder, taking Dude on as his deputy. However, this creates trouble as Joe is the brother of local land-owner Nathan Burdette, who decides to surround the town with his men to intimidate Chance into giving up his brother and preventing him from leaving to bring in assistance. Alongside this, a passing stagecoach drops off a young woman named Feathers (Angie Dickinson), who develops a fondness for Chance.

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#160 The Searchers

(1956, John Ford)

“We’ll find ‘em in the end, I promise you, just as sure as the turning of the Earth”

I feel that it’s about time we looked at a Western, one genre that’s largely gone unnoticed on the blog so far, bar a remake (True Grit) and a Korean action western (The Good, The Bad, The Weird). But what about the old classic Westerns? The John Waynes and the Clint Eastwoods? Well, here’s the first: The Searchers, a movie generally held up to be one of the best Westerns ever made.

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#140 Blazing Saddles

(1974, Mel Brooks)

“What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?”

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#119 The Good The Bad The Weird

좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 (Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom)
(2008, Kim Ji-Woon)

“Even if a man has no country, he still has to have money”

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#98 True Grit

(2010, Coen Brothers)

“You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another”

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