McCabe and Mrs. Miller
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Sitting down to the immersive experience of Robert Altman's masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) is as close as movie watching may ever come to time travel. Virtually nothing sensual is elided: it's a film you can practically smell, feel on your skin, taste on your tongue. Always acclaimed, the film may still have never received its just due - as not only Altman's best film hands down, resonantly and texturally outpacing M*A*S*H (1970), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975) by a country mile, but also as among the top dozen of American films made in the '70s, that August era when Hollywood experimented with New Wave grit and authenticity, and began to speak the truth.
The movie's unique spell is largely visual: set in the late 1800s in the mountains of the foggy Northwest (but actually shot right over the border in British Columbia), McCabe exudes from its very first frame the quality of a gaslight memory, a diffuse, smoky, groggy return to the past. Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond attained the movie's distinct hazy look by flash-exposing the film stock before shooting, a daring experiment no other American film has ever dared to do. The result is a feeling for snowy dusks and damp forests and cold wind that no other film has ever approximated. You are there, in this germinating mountain mining town so small most of the buildings are still being framed from raw lumber, surrounded by mountains and paved entirely with packed mud. In this Old West, everything is new, because that was the reality - communities were just being formed and constructed, on the edge of the frontier. (In most Westerns, the buildings look a century old, which is just bad historical design.) Altman's camera floats into this dead-on milieu with wide-open eyes, piercing the mist and exploring as if it were one of the town's newcomers, half-hearing conversations (in the audio-deflective manner Altman made his own), squinting through bustling human fauna, and simply inhabiting the landscape. Altman built the town in the woods, and then asked his cast members to show up in character - the natures of which they were allowed to define for themselves. It's less a movie, finally, than a place you live in.
The story, from Edmund Naughton's novel McCabe, begins with character: McCabe himself (Warren Beatty), a somewhat clueless and drunken frontier gambler in a bowler hat and massive fur coat, riding unceremoniously into the nameless ersatz village and setting up a card table in the town's one bar. It doesn't take long, amid Altman's mumbly tangle of socializing and interrelationships, for McCabe to strike a deal with the bar owner (Altman stalwart Rene Auberjonois) to bring in a few girls and set up a brothel. Which he does, and with every scene change the bluff McCabe seems to own a little more of the town, with nearly all of its inhabitants happy to buy his whiskey, pay for baths in his tub, and blow their wages on sex with his whores. But nothing stays the same, even on the frontier, and news of enterprise spreads, attracting first Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a Cockney opium junkie with real brothel-running experience, who insists on partnering up with McCabe, and then, eventually, agents from the East, who have come to buy out McCabe, by hook or crook. Naturally, things turn bad soon enough.
All of this unfolds so organically it's like heavy snowing falling off a pine branch. But it's only part of the story - a huge portion of the film is spent roaming around on the edges of other stories: Shelley Duvall's vulnerable young widow (after her belligerent husband, played by Bert Remsen, is killed in a brawl), Keith Carradine's good-time cowboy, Auberjonois's wary attempts to play every business interest against the others, a young black couple's observant existence on the social edges, William Devane's vainglorious lawyer, a half-dozen other recurring personages, all alive and busy in the life of the town even when, it seems, they're not in the frame. Not that the stars aren't pivotal - Christie is playing an iconic type, but Beatty, honing his trademarked diffident-hesitant-but-defiant persona under a beard and behind a ubiquitous raised glass of liquor, became more than just a good-looking young movie star here, more than just the generational hot shot he appeared to be with Bonnie & Clyde (1967) four years earlier. John McCabe is a vulnerable, four-dimensional American loser trying to hide his past and recreate himself in the wilderness, and Beatty fills him out without telegraphing or telling us how to feel about him. Like Altman's film, which revels in the gaps and ellipses of what we don't see or know, Beatty is never less than authentic because we don't know everything about him.
An anti-Western that is in the end more like a classic capitalist tragedy-slash-morality tale, McCabe is more than the sum of its uncountable textures and details (notice how a few dancing whore-and-john couples pause and watch when the newfangled grandfather-clock-shaped player-piano changes its disc), but even if it weren't, it'd still be one of a kind. I haven't even yet mentioned the soundtrack - comprised entirely of three droning, dreamy, elusive Leonard Cohen songs, not of the period but hauntingly appropriate, and just as often faintly heard in the background, like something someone is remembering, as heard over the action. It's an idiosyncratic choice for this magisterial film, but once you're in the thick of it, nothing else would be as fitting. Altman was in 1971 still at the beginning of his amazing career-peak ascent, but McCabe & Mrs. Miller might remain the one film in his oeuvre (some would choose Nashville, but not me) that, if it stood alone, would still define its director as one of the era's great visionaries.
By Michael Atkinson