McCabe and Mrs Miller

I’m a little embarrassed that I had never seen this. In fact, I had not even heard of it until I was leafing through a bad book of essays by Roger Ebert recently. I watched it as part of a double bill with ‘Nashville’ (which I had seen before) and really enjoyed it. The grittiness of the mining town (mud, rain, misshapen people) is done very well; ‘Deadwood looks downright slick against ‘McCabe.’ I had associated the less glamorous image of the West with Eastwood’s later Westerns (esp. ‘Pale Rider’) but Altman clearly got there first.

The principals were not particularly impressive. Warren Beatty mostly mumbles his way through the movie, looking bemused, and I’d say that Julie Christie was wasted except that I’m not sure if she can act (she raises banality to the level of an art form in the brief interview Peter Whitehead does with her in the Pink Floyd documentary that John mentioned a while back: “What do you love?” “The sun, sunflowers, cats… strong relationships”). But the strength of the movie is the background scenes. A young hired gun provokes a kid into drawing his gun and then kills him. Prostitutes enjoy a hot bath. Beatty boasts of his bargaining skills all the while showing his fear. And the final extended sequence is a masterpiece: the townspeople rush to put out a fire, oblivious to the cat and mouse game between Beatty and the gunmen hired to kill him. He slides around in the snow trying to hide while an early fire engine chugs up the hill to help put out the fire.

Anyway, well worth watching, not least to see so many actors who re-appear in ‘Nashville’ in larger parts. And of course, Keith Carradine was here and in ‘Deadwood.’

6 thoughts on “McCabe and Mrs Miller”

  1. You think Beatty’s mumbly here, you ought to see Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, an out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth performance matched only by Robin Williams in Popeye (it may be an Altman fetish) and beaten only by Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects.

    I love McCabe, but Michael is capable of astonishing flights of critical pleasure when talking about this film, so I’ll wait to hear what he says. There’s no way I could say anything half as insightful as what he has said in various wonderful beer-soaked evenings.

  2. michael (and maybe even bruns) will jump me for this but i was not overly impressed by mccabe and mrs. miller. i saw it only a few years ago and much of the revisionist edge was blunted by years of (possibly inferior) revisionist westerns. as for the rest of the altman’isms, i suppose they are more restrained here than in his later films, but still. i’m not sure about the liberal sprinkling of leonard cohen either.

    feel no shame, chris: i haven’t seen nashville. i came to altman via the later films and they’ve made me wary about going back to all the early ones.

  3. I love Altman. Mash, McCabe, Nashville–but especially Long Goodbye and the astounding California Split, which is the best film ever made about gambling, and one of the best about male friendship. I only saw the latter in the last couple years, as it was unavailable on video and never made it to revivals when I was around.

    So this is all gushy. But there you have it. A more nuanced defense of Altman is possible, but I’m leaving it to the others.

  4. I agree with Mike about McCabe, the Long Goodbye, Nashville and California Split. however, I don’t care much for Mash. I’d also recommend Thieves Like Us. though even 1970s Altman faltered with Three Women and Images.

    and I can’t really rise to the poetic challenge that Mike honors me with. at least not without a few shots of Wild Turkey.

    but I will say that McCabe is the first film I saw that made me realize that not everything was a Japanese monster thriller or a hollywood blockbuster (I had just been tremendously impressed by The Poseidon Adventure at the time, which re our other thread is still a pleasure). everything was beautifully indirect–the lighting, the acting, even the storyline which only coalesces into a straightforward narrative in the final tragic moments (whose offhandedness reject the idea of “tragedy”–more like the coming of the loss you expected). the movie feels like the most elegaic wistful compassionate western at the end of the line. I love a movie that stops for several minutes while an old guy, a minor character, does a kind of shuffling dance to a jug and a fiddle. I also love a movie where the small pleasures people take, including activities thought of as ‘vice,’ are taken as small resistances to oblivion. I think the movie is beautifully made and also acted by Beatty and Christie.

    as a revisionist western, only Pat Garrett–with a different tone and approach–comes close (and the Wild Bunch, too).

    in my personal pantheon of cultural items that catch the most elusive feeling of regret, loss, confusion, small pleasures, brief joy and strange satisfaction McCabe ranks up there with Beckett,Le Samourai, Bob Dylan’s “World Gone Wrong” a variety of songs from The Ramones and George Jones, and, yes, a couple of warm shots of Wild Turkey.

  5. I love a movie that stops for several minutes while an old guy, a minor character, does a kind of shuffling dance to a jug and a fiddle.

    A lot of Westerns do this–the scene that leaps to mind is the scene from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid when Pat is resting by the riverbank. Along comes a raft carrying a father and his son and daughter. The father is shooting at bottles in the water–probably teaching his son, who knows? Pat takes a shot, misses. Then the father aims his rifle at Pat and shoots. They have a staredown. Nothing happens.

    The studio refused to let Peckinpah shoot the scene because it had nothing to do with the story. Peckinpah shot it anyway, without telling anyone.

    Douglas Pye has a nice essay on the Western, and he says that there’s always a tension between a realism of presentation on the one hand, and a greater degree of abstraction on the other. Pye’s example comes from My Darling Clemetine, when Wyatt Earp is invited to join the town dance. “The whole passage is something of an interlude in the main development of the narrative, contributing nothing to the plot…Yet it is partly the reduction of narrative interest that gives the passage its particular force.” This “abstraction” is what Pye calls John Ford’s “visual shorthand.”

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