McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

One year after the huge success of the War satire of M*A*S*H, director Robert Altman revisits another classic Hollywood movie genre with great results. More than forty years after its release, McCabe & Mrs. Miller still stands as one of the most interesting Westerns to ever get on American big screens. With bigger than life star Warren Beatty, still hot from his performance in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, Beatty seems to fully embrace the spirit of the 1970’s generation of young directors. While being the pretty face protagonist, he also knows how to make himself vulnerable and fit into the casting of the complex emotional story of Altman’s film. An excellent anti-hero of his era. On the other side of the bill, you have the beauty of Julie Christie who plays the classy whore that comes from the town and lives the difficult life of being in the wilderness and in the birth of a mining little town. Eventually, McCabe (Beatty) will fall for Mrs. Miller (Christie) and as the textbook of Westerns says; you should never fall in love with a whore, nothing good will come out of it.

On many levels, Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a great achievement. The sets were entirely build by the crew and the construction continued during the shooting giving a sense of expansion of the story. The photography is also tremendous, the final scenes in the white snow are simply beautiful and are worth the price of admission. The volume of the sound is relatively low and it was a problem with the soundtrack for Altman. Sometimes, it is almost impossible to hear the dialogues when there’s too much going on. On the other hand, Altman is a great visual storyteller and his stories could have been shot silent and the film would still be memorable. The color filter and the glossy finish of the photography will haunt you for days.

As mentioned before, Beatty’s presence in the film is more than noticeable : he carries the entire movie on his back with his cocksure drunkard that bullies businessmen who wants to buy his properties and expand their monopol. His hard hand with the two offers will lead him to face some consequences. It is when he meets Butler (Hugh Millais) that he looses his steady hand and he is suddently ready to make a deal. However, it is too late since Butler isn’t the man who makes deals.

The climax of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is slowly elaborated, not as masterfully as Altman’s Nashville, but still with the same legendary coolness and flow. With his already perfect framing, Altman was developping his own narrative and he was experimenting in the genres that made Hollywood. Few films display such a level of mastery, technique, and enjoyment. As a superb classic, I would highly recommend this film.

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