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A gambler and a prostitute become business partners in a remote Old West mining town.
In the autumn of 1902, brash, small-time gambler John McCabe arrives in the rough-hewn northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church and at Patrick Sheehan's saloon asks about buying property. Sheehan, Reverend Elliott, Mr. Smalley and several of the townsmen speculate that the overconfident McCabe might be a gunfighter, but McCabe insists he is a businessman and announces his intention to open the town's first bordello. After purchasing a partially finished building with his gambling winnings, McCabe visits the neighboring town of Bearpaw where he negotiates for three whores. In a pouring rainstorm, McCabe returns with the women to Presbyterian Church where over the next couple of days, he struggles to maintain harmony between the loutish miners and the distrustful whores. Some days later, McCabe is startled by the arrival of British cockney Constance Miller who proposes that he back her in establishing a professional brothel. When McCabe points out that he already has a whorehouse, Constance responds that as a whore, she is in a unique position to understand the business of managing women and their customers, along with questions of hygiene and health issues that lie behind a truly successful business. Taken aback by Constance's assertive attitude, McCabe nevertheless agrees to the deal and is surprised when Constance insists upon improving the crude accommodations for the women, including erecting a separate bathhouse and providing the women with new linens and toiletries. Although the miners initially resent and resist the requirements to bathe before visiting Constance and McCabe's facility, they are soon tempted by the variety of women Constance has engaged from Seattle and settle into regular visits. Although outwardly querulous over Constance's brisk and efficient business manner, McCabe nevertheless is attracted to her and annoyed when she occasionally services customers for the extravagant sum of five dollars per visit. One night several weeks after the opening of the brothel, Constance joins McCabe in the bar with proceeds from their venture. McCabe is delighted by their success but Constance chastises him for his sloppy, inaccurate accounting and accuses him of losing money. Although several of the Seattle women know that Constance uses her proceeds to pay for her opium addiction, McCabe remains unaware of her habit, which she guards scrupulously. Just before Christmas, miner Bart Coyle is killed while defending his new, mail-order wife Ida from slander that she is a whore. The day after Bart's death, Eugene Sears and Ernest Hollander, representatives for the Harrison and Shaunessy Mining Company, approach McCabe and explain the company would like to purchase McCabe's holdings in Presbyterian Church. McCabe airily rejects the men's offer of $5,500, then goes to the bathhouse before paying a call on Constance. When McCabe boasts about his rejection of the mining company representatives, Constance calls him a fool, but he insists they will make him a higher offer. That same evening, Sears and Hollander locate McCabe at the brothel and increase the offer to $6,250, but are amazed when he again turns them down and suggests he will only entertain an offer of $14,000 or more. Pleased with his financial acuity, McCabe returns to bed with a now stoned Constance. Later that same night, Sears and Hollander dine at Sheehan's and Sears suggests they make McCabe a final offer of $7,000. Indignant over McCabe's high-handed conduct and the shabbiness of the situation, Hollander refuses, declaring that the company's hired gun, Butler, will handle McCabe. The next morning, McCabe is mystified to learn of Sears's and Hollander's departure. As the townspeople gather for Bart's funeral, Constance and several miners note the arrival of a lone rider, who proves to be a cowboy in search of women. As the funeral breaks up, Constance offers Ida a place in the brothel. Word soon spreads through town of the arrival of three strangers and Constance immediately deduces that they have been sent by the company. She pleads with McCabe to leave town, if only to protect their joint investment, but McCabe remains confident that the company representatives will return. Smalley reports to McCabe and Constance that the men, Butler, Breed and Kid, refuse to speak with McCabe, who nevertheless sets off to Sheehan's to meet them. Although daunted by Butler's enormous bulk, McCabe attempts to bargain with him, admitting his exorbitant demand was a joke. Declaring he will settle for $6,550, McCabe is bewildered when Butler states that he does not make deals. Having learned from Sheehan that the miners originally considered McCabe a gunslinger, Butler tries to provoke McCabe by accusing him of shooting an acquaintance. McCabe does not refute the claim, but nervously departs, prompting Butler to observe that McCabe has never killed anyone. That evening, an increasingly anxious McCabe frets about Constance's inability to appreciate his romantic nature, then early the next morning departs for Bearpaw, where he asks for Sears and Hollander at the mining company's main office. Learning they have departed, McCabe visits a lawyer to inquire about obtaining legal protection from the company. Although the lawyer agrees to help McCabe fight against the might of big business, McCabe returns to Presbyterian Church convinced that he must face Butler and the others on his own. That afternoon Kid confronts the affable cowboy and shoots him down in cold blood as Sheehan and the others watch helplessly. That night, McCabe struggles to apologize to Constance and she sadly reassures him that all is well. Early the following morning as snow blankets the mountains, Constance takes a long walk. Armed with a rifle, McCabe goes to the partially constructed church where, from the tower, he spots the killers splitting up to search for him. Elliott discovers McCabe and, after confiscating the rifle, throws him out of the church. McCabe hides nearby and witnesses Butler kill Elliott, mistaking the gun-carrying minister for McCabe. McCabe then sneaks to his bar where he retrieves a pistol. Upon creeping away to a neighboring building, he is confronted by Kid who wounds him in the stomach before McCabe kills him. Meanwhile, the newly wakened townspeople are alarmed to discover the church has caught fire and rush to fight the flames, allowing Butler and Breed to search for McCabe more openly. Although bleeding heavily, McCabe kills Breed then heads to the forest at the edge of town. Butler follows and shoots at McCabe through a cascade of snow and when McCabe feigns death, Butler approaches to investigate, after which McCabe shoots him between the eyes. As the townspeople rejoice over saving the church, a snowstorm builds and everyone returns inside. McCabe struggles to reach the brothel, but collapses in the snow and dies slowly as Constance settles into an opium daze.
Cast & Crew
|MPAA Ratings:||R||Premiere Info:||New York opening: 24 Jun 1971|
|Release Date:||1971||Production Date:||
Robert Altman & David Foster Productions
AFI Library VHS; EB, Netflix*
|Color/B&W:||Color (Technicolor)||Distributions Co:||Warner Bros., Inc.|
|Sound:||Mono||Production Co:||David Foster Productions, Lion's Head|
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User Ratings & Review
People complain of the sound quality-- get over it! This movie is magnificent even if Warren Beatty didn't appreciate what he and Altman...
Favorite film ever
I am a movie buff, having seen literally thousands of films. This is the best.
mc cabe/mrs. miller
kevin sellers 2016-04-10
Robert Altman's too long, visually powerful, narratively weak look at sin, death, and capitalism in the old west was done much better in the TV series...