Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)


(director/writer: Robert Altman; screenwriter: Brian McKay; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond; editor: Lou Lombardo; cast: Warren Beatty (John Q. McCabe), Julie Christie (Constance Miller), Rene Auberjonois (Sheehan), Hugh Millais (Butler), Shelley Duvall (Mrs. Ida Coyle), Bert Remsen (Bart Coyle), William Devane (Lawyer), John Schuck (Smalley), Corey Fischer (Mr. Elliot), Keith Carradine (Cowboy), Jackie Crossland (Lily), Elizabeth Murphy (Kate), Michael Murphy (Sears), Antony Holland (Hollander), Manfred Schulz (Kid), Jace Van Der Veen (Breed), Rodney Gage (Sumner Washington), Jeremy Newson (Jeremy Berg); Runtime: 121; Warner; 1971)
“The result is a poetical western without heroes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John McCabe (Beatty) cuts a nifty businessman’s pose, dressed in a derby and a suit as he wanders through the rain on horseback into this half-built, muddy wasteland mining town, Presbyterian Church, in the mountainous hinterlands of Washington. In the background Leonard Cohen sings his prophetic ballad, with the poetical refrain “It is hard to hold the hand of anyone who is just reaching for the sky to surrender.” Cohen’s song will pop up continuously throughout, giving the film an arty flavor to it; it also adds to the explanation of the film’s despondent theme of a small businessman pitted against the big capitalist.

It is the kind of town where it’s easy for everyone to think they know one another, as one of the patrons in Sheehan’s saloon thinks McCabe is a gunfighter by the nickname of Pudgy who once shot a man in a card game. It is a dark place that McCabe has entered where it either rains or snows, there is very little sunlight in town. McCabe, as the stranger, anxiously cases the saloon he enters until he gets to feel at home in this rough atmosphere, and he then goes out to his saddlebags and comes back to put a tablecloth on the table and start a card game.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is an antiwestern western; whose themes of love, gambling, alienation, suffering, death, and the evils of capitalism, are as haunting as the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond’ colorful Pacific Northwest territory is beautiful. Leonard Cohen’s ballad is also haunting, as is this desolate winter wonderland of a makeshift town.

McCabe is a two-bit gambler who thinks of himself as more important than who he really is, and who has the romantic notion to dream the American Dream of financial success. He decides to open a saloon and a whorehouse in town, after winning at cards. He thereby purchases three unrefined “chippies” to get his business started, figuring on the 100 or so horny men working in the area as likely customers.

Mrs. Miller (Julie), a drifter and a whore, comes to town, running away from the big city and offers McCabe a business proposal that they become partners and she will become the madame. She will bring in classier prostitutes from the big city and take care of the girls, something she declares that she knows more about than he does. She also tells him that this partnership will increase his profits.

Mrs. Miller is a very sullen woman, who prefers her opium pipe fantasy world to anything else in town and that includes McCabe. He is taken with her, but doesn’t know quite how to love this disconnected woman. Their sexual contact comes when he pays for her services like any other customer. Though she soon recognizes he isn’t operating on all cylinders and feels sorry for this lost soul, still it doesn’t bring her any closer to him.

For Mrs. Miller, marriage is compared to prostitution. When a mail-order bride, Ida (Duvall), marries a lame older man, the bride soon finds herself a widow when her husband takes umbrage at a street ruffian who treats his wife as a whore. The other fellow reacts violently to being reprimanded by her hubby and cracks his head open. Upon his death, in order to get room and board, Ida becomes one of Mrs. Miller’s working girls.

The drunken McCabe succeeds by luck. He is at the right spot at the right time, and not by any skills he might possess as a businessman. His success catches the interest of the big mining company and they sent out representatives to buy him out. But he foolishly turns down their offer, thinking he could outsmart them. He suddenly realizes when they are not there the next morning to bargain with him, that it’s all over for him. They will send someone to kill him, as is their custom when dealing with small businessmen they want to gobble up.

The final scene, shot in a snow storm, has the three hired gunmen for the mining company tracking him down. It’s as emotionally gripping as it is darkly played against the glacial beauty of the natural surroundings. The hapless McCabe has gotten into a mess that is way over his head, not quite understanding the life and death struggle inherent in American capitalism.

The town has a church but when McCabe comes calling for shelter, he is forced out by the reverend and must face off with the hired guns looking for him. The point is that there is no help forthcoming from anyone in this wild country: the law, God or God’s servants. Man is on his own. He is struggling against nature, his own fears, and the coldness of the citizens around him.

Altman’s film is strikingly lyrical; it is dreamlike and hauntingly memorable. It sadly touches on McCabe’s yearnings to find love and a place to put down roots. The result is a poetical western without heroes. McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s wishful dreams are seen as either foolish romantic notions or drug induced inspirations, dreams that never had a chance of coming true.