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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Robert Altman [5/5]

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a spyglass into the past of not only the American West but the art form of film. It's like a 70s Italian neorealist anti-Western. What does that even mean? For starters, it's a character-based movie like those in Europe, unlike the story driven epics of Hollywood. Pauline Kael referred to is as a beautiful and difficult film similar to Bergman's work. It's reminiscent of neorealism (aside from the location shooting and improvisational spirit) because Robert Altman's camera lingers and decenters the primary characters, giving the audience the impression that the world exists beyond the plot directives and audience.

Finally, it's an anti-Western because the world it creates is one without morality or romanticism. It's a dirty and corrupt frontier where heroes have been replaced by wandering souls trying to make their way. Tripe is served for supper in dingy candle-lit taverns and mining companies send thugs who shoot young, impressionable kids for sport.

It's a dream-like, hand-crafted film. Altman built an entire town in the hazy pine forests of West Vancouver and convinced his director of photography to deliberately "destroy" the quality of the reel to achieve a dated, antique image. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter, Blow Out, The Long Goodbye) describes the movie's style as poetic realism, citing Caravaggio and the Dutch Masters as his inspiration.

Using the flashing technique, Zsigmond exposed small percentages of white light into the negative to desaturate the colors to look like old daguerrotypes of 1840s cowboys. PT Anderson and Robert Elswit achieved a similar look for There Will Be Blood (2007) using a 43mm lens stripped of its anti-reflective chemical coatings to create a desaturated, low-contrast, low-resolution aesthetic.

The only Western that's come close to creating that sense of a dated, lived-in space, to reinvigorating the myth of the Old West in flesh and blood, is Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But Altman's film achieves it to the opposite affect. If Once Upon a Time is the glamorous West of 60s Hollywood, McCabe is the grimy, poetic West of 70s nihilism set to a dreamy Leonard Cohen score who sings like a folk siren for the end of times. "Suzanne" and "The Stranger Song" are the standouts.

Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, as opium-addicted prostitute Constance Miller and silver-tongued gambler John McCabe respectively, are magically electric on screen. Beatty is his most magnetic since Bonnie and Clyde yet Altman never lets you forget the tattered strangelings around them like innkeep Sheehan (played timidly by René Auberjonois) and mining company enforcer Butler (played devilishly by Hugh Millais). We watch as the prostitute and the gambler manifest a booming business for themselves through grit and self-determination, and one can't help but think while watching the film that we have lost something valuable by the passing of this chapter of history, no matter how textured, grimy, and unpleasant it might have been.

5/5, Robert Altman's masterpiece, a dreamy poem into the strange West, an important achievement of the New Hollywood Movement, a must-see film.

Miles Stephenson

P.S. I'll leave you with a quote from Pauline Kael in 1971 on the role of Altman in this generation's artistic auteurs

Will a large enough American public accept American movies that are delicate and understated and searching — movies that don’t resolve all the feelings they touch, that don’t aim at leaving us satisfied, the way a three-ring circus satisfies? Or do we accept such movies only from abroad, and then only a small group of us — enough to make a foreign film a hit but not enough to make an American film, which costs more, a hit?

A modest picture like Claire’s Knee would probably have been a financial disaster if it had been made in this country, because it might have cost more than five times as much and the audience for it is relatively small. Nobody knows whether this is changing — whether we’re ready to let American moviemakers grow up to become artists or whether we’re doomed to more of those “hard-hitting, ruthlessly honest” American movies that are themselves illustrations of the crudeness they attack. The question is always asked, "Why aren’t there American Bergmans and Fellinis?' Here is an American artist who has made a beautiful film. The question now is 'Will enough people buy tickets?"

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