13 October 2006 | Lechuguilla
Cold And Poetic
As a Western this film is fascinating for what it does not contain. There are no sweeping vistas of the Great Plains, no Indians, no cacti, no cowboy hats. There is no sheriff, no broiling sun, and no corny music. And unlike most Westerns, which are plot driven, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is less about plot than about the tone or mood of the frontier setting.
The film takes place in the Pacific Northwest. The weather is cold, cloudy, and inclement. You can hear the wind howling through tall evergreens. And Leonard Cohen's soft, poetic music accentuates the appropriately dreary visuals. In bucking cinematic tradition, therefore, this film deserves respect, because it is at least unusual, and perhaps even closer in some ways to the ambiance of life on the American frontier than our stereotyped notions, as depicted in typical John Wayne movies.
Not that the plot is unimportant. Warren Beatty plays John McCabe, a two-bit gambler who imports several prostitutes to a tiny town, in hopes of making money. Julie Christie plays Mrs. Miller, a prostitute with a head for business. She hears about McCabe's scheme, and approaches McCabe with an offer he can't refuse. Soon, the two are in business together, but complications ensue when word gets around that McCabe may be a gunslinger who has killed someone important. Mrs. Miller is clearly a symbol of the women's liberation movement, and the film's ending is interesting, in that context.
"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is a vintage Altman film, in that you can hear background chatter, in addition to the words of the main character. It's Altman's trademark of overlapping dialogue. The film's acting is fine. Both Beatty and Christie perform credibly in their roles.
The visuals have a turn-of-the-century look, with a soft, brownish hue. Costumes and production design are elaborate, and appear to be authentic. The film is very dark, so dark in some scenes that I could barely make out the outline of human figures. In those scenes, I think they went overboard with the ultra dim lighting.
Strictly atypical for the Western genre, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" provides a pleasant change from cinematic stereotypes, and conveys a different perspective on life in the Old West. It's a quality production, one that has Robert Altman's directorial stamp all over it. In that sense, it's more like a cinematic painting than a story. And the painting communicates to the viewer that life on the American frontier was, at least in some places, cold and dreary, and had a quietly poetic quality to it.