Monday, December 29, 2008

The Great Movies: "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"

McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a Western, more or less, but it reverses all of the usual conventions of the genre. Start with the setting: instead of the sun-baked prairie, McCabe is set in damp, dripping forests in the mountains of the Washington Territory. The hero, such as he is, doesn't strap on his guns to take on the bad guys who have been terrorizing the town; he straps on his guns because he's being hunted down by hired goons from a company that wants his mineral rights. The final shootout doesn't happen on Main Street according to some oddly gentlemanly set of rules ("draw!"); the participants, much more sensibly, shoot each other in the back from hiding. So all in all, it's a very gloomy but somewhat more satisfying story of the old West than you usually get on film.

The name of the town is "Presbyterian Church," and in the opening scenes the only building close to completion is the Presbyterian church. The rest of the town gets built as the movie progresses -- you can watch it gradually expand from a campsite to a bona fide little village -- but that church still sits there unfinished throughout, its construction forgotten what with all the moneymaking and the bad doings to be done in the rest of the town. It's a nice piece of symbolism, subtler than it sounds.

Plot: McCabe, a gambler, arrives in town. He wins some money at poker, and uses it to buy three floozies with whom to start a squalid little tent brothel. Mrs. Miller, an entrepreneurial prostitute, shows up and convinces him that her help, he can run a more profitable operation. That works pretty well until the mining company develops an interest in the area, and then things take a decided turn for the worse.

Visuals: Evocatively gloomy. The gradual emergence of the town out of the woods is particularly fine, and the interiors, all raw wood and makeshift decoration, have a charming apparent authenticity to them. It's worth mentioning that I had no clue, while watching this film, when it was made. Altman captured the look of the 1900s so well that very little of the early 1970s intrudes.

Dialog: Ebert makes the point that in an Altman film the individual lines of dialog often don't matter so much as the mood or feel of the setting. That's certainly true here. Except for a few specifics, such as the hero's inept negotiations with the mining company, you could watch this movie with the sound off and still understand pretty much everything that happened.

Prognosis: McCabe & Mrs. Miller is good stuff. Unless you have a specific dislike for historical drama, I'd recommend it pretty highly.


Anonymous said...

I am going to check the instant watch for that now. It's one of those movies that you know a out but for distraction haven't rented.

Thanks for the tip. Winterbreak is a good time for the movie marathons.

d said...

excellent. it's on my queue.