A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 25, 2016

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
I have been watching Deadwood on HBO GO, and now realize how much that series owes to what may be Robert Altman's best film, which is also the greatest of all "stoner Westerns." McCabe & Mrs. Miller is very much of the era in which it was made, with its fatalistic view of its loner protagonist, doomed by his naive willingness to go up against the big corporate mining interests who want to buy him out. Hippies against the Establishment, if you will. But as shows like Deadwood demonstrate, that agon has continued to play itself out in popular culture, long after the counterculture supposedly met its demise. It's also very much at the heart of the mythos of the American Western, which always centered on the loner against overwhelming odds. McCabe & Mrs. Miller came along at a time when the Western was in eclipse, with most of its great exponents, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, in retirement, and some of its defining actors, like John Wayne, having gone over to the side of the Establishment. So when iconoclasts like Altman and Warren Beatty, coming off of their respective breakthrough hits M*A*S*H (1970) and Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), took an interest in filming Edmund Naughton's novel, it was clear that we were going to get something revisionist, a Western with a grubby setting and an antiheroic protagonist. The remarkable thing is that McCabe & Mrs. Miller, perhaps more than either M*A*S*H or Bonnie and Clyde, has transcended its revisionism and formed its own tradition. For once, Altman's mannerisms -- overlapping dialogue, restless camerawork, reliance on a stock company of actors like Michael Murphy, John Schuck, and Shelley Duvall, and a generally loosey-goosey mise-en-scène -- don't overwhelm the story. Some of this is probably owing to Beatty's own firmly entrenched ego, which was often at odds with Altman's. His performance gives the film a center and grounding that many of Altman's other films lack, especially since he works so well in tandem with Julie Christie's performance as Mrs. Miller, the only thing about the film that the Academy deigned worthy of an Oscar nomination. How the Academy could have overlooked the contribution of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond remains a mystery, except that at this point the cinematographers branch was dominated by old-school directors of photography who had been brought up in the studio system, which was to flood the set with light -- one reason why Gordon Willis's magisterial chiaroscuro in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) failed to get a nomination the following year. Altman also made a brilliant directoral decision to film in sequence, so that the town of Presbyterian Church, the work of production designer Leon Erickson and art directors Al Locatelli and Philip Thomas, takes shape around the action.