Filmsite Movie Review
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
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McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) was iconoclastic and offbeat director Robert Altman's acclaimed revisionist western (or "anti-western" according to some) about the American frontier. It was the first of his two myth-busting westerns (the second was Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)). [Note: This film was competing with the recent memory of the irreverent and whimsical Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) that had completely modernized the legendary American western, with humorous dialogue, a pop soundtrack, and slapstick.] Altman was already establishing himself and known for his unique and original style that redefined American cinema, with films including Brewster McCloud (1970), and the Korean War black comedy M*A*S*H (1970).

Later, he made a more significant name for himself as an auteur with the Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe detective neo-noir film The Long Goodbye (1973) starring Elliott Gould, the country-western ensemble drama Nashville (1975), and the scathing Hollywood satire The Player (1992). Throughout maverick director Altman's entire career, and in this film as well, he was often cited for his use of naturalistic but overlapping (and sometimes incoherent) dialogue, a constantly-moving camera, and a non-traditional experimental approach.

It turned out to be a classic, dark-toned, dimly-lit moody film based on the 1959 novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton, about a naive, non-conformist, bearded anti-hero -- a vain- glorious cardsharp in the snowy Northwest rather than the hot dusty Southwest. He brought the promise of hope and revival to the unkempt frontier town, but ultimately had his business and personal life ambushed after competing against monopolistic and capitalist forces. Its tagline was:

The story of a gambling man and a hustling lady and the empire they fashioned from the wilderness.

The film was originally working-titled "The Presbyterian Church Wager," but was changed when the official Presbyterian Church denomination leaders objected to its adult-oriented subject matter - and the film's main building structures were mostly brothels, drinking saloons, bathhouses and gambling dens. The town in the film, Presbyterian Church, had taken its name from its tall, 70-foot high steeple-topped church, partly finished and led by a zealous, crook-backed humorless preacher. It was only late in the film when the interior of the church was revealed - still without pews or a pulpit, although it finally became the community's unifying focal point when it threatened to be destroyed by fire.

The shadowy, lyrical and cynically-bleak tale presented the American dream gone sour, in a story that concluded with a prolonged shootout. Gloomy, haunting but lyrical folk music from Canadian folkster Leonard Cohen organically complemented the pace of the film - a bleak, deglamourized western set at the turn-of-the-century Northwest.

Altman's rambling, semi-improvised film, shot almost entirely in sequence, featured great cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond who created an antique-like, golden-hued, sepia-toned, painterly portrait of the unsightly town in the early 1900s. Zsigmond's controversial and unpredictable technique known as "flashing" referred to the process of lightly pre-exposing the film negative before shooting, to create the effect of fuzzy, murky and blurred images in the underlit scenes. The old-time, intentionally-desaturated images were complemented by the authentic, hand-constructed recreation of the town's buildings in British Columbia by production designer Leon Ericksen and his crew.

During the production of the film, the two main stars - Hollywood playboy Warren Beatty and British beauty Julie Christie had an on-and-off relationship. There were only one Academy Award nomination for this important early 1970s film - Best Actress for Julie Christie, for her portrayal of Mrs. Constance Miller - an opium-smoking brothel madam and chief prostitute with a broad Cockney accent and frizzy hair. Anti-Vietnam War activist Jane Fonda (with her second career nomination and first Oscar win) won the award for her performance as another call-girl character in a Warner's film: Bree Daniels, a classy, highly-paid, cynical, sexually-disturbed and threatened stalking victim in Alan Pakula's stylized neo film noir Klute (1971).

Plot Synopsis

A cold and moaning wind - and part of Leonard Cohen's plaintive, lamenting and mournful The Stranger Song - played under the credits that in part scrolled horizontally from right to left across the screen:

The Stranger Song

It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
Who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
You find he did not leave you very much not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
That is so high and wild
He'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.

And then leaning on your windowsill
He'll say one day you caused his will
To weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
An old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger...

The film opened in the year 1902 with the arrival of the lone title character under grayish rainy skies and across a wooded, wintry wilderness landscape, with evidence of environmental destruction from logging and deforestation. He also passed the local Presbyterian church in the process of being built. The mysterious, roguish, bearded, well-dressed frontier drifter (unidentified at first) was named John Q. (Quincy) "Pudgy" McCabe (Warren Beatty). Covered in a thick fur blanket to protect against the cold, he rode on his horse with a pack animal in tow into the primitive, makeshift Pacific Northwest frontier zinc mining town of Presbyterian Church, a settlement on the border between Washington and Canada. Just outside of town to prepare for his grand entrance, he dismounted and removed the heavy red fox-fur blanket, revealing a dapper outfit (a vintage frock coat, white shirt, tie and vest), and then he donned a black derby hat. The ambitious-minded McCabe was muttering incoherently to himself under his breath - determined to never lose again due to personal weaknesses:

Damn it, I told you. Think I'm stupid. That's exactly what I said. Six. Six of 'em.

There were only a few structures and tents lining the muddy street in the shoddy, stagnant mining town marked by ramshackle huts, empty zinc mine shafts, a Chinese ("chink") ghetto of workers, and squalid living conditions. The town survived only due to its zinc mining enterprises. McCabe crossed a flimsy, narrow, wobbly plank rope footbridge to enter the darkness of the lamp-lit Sheehan's Saloon and Hotel. [Note: This opening sequence was almost incomprehensible with lots of rowdy drunks and half-heard mumbled conversations in the dimly-lit bar.]

The opportunistic 'stranger' instinctively asked to confirm the location of the back door for a quick exit, returned to his horse to retrieve something from his pack, then re-entered with a dark red cloth. He ceremoniously opened the cloth to use as a table-cover, and spread out a new deck of 52 cars across its length. Grizzly, unshaven, and unkempt bar patrons eagerly fought for available chairs at his table for a friendly card game with the two-bit gambler. The cocky, well-groomed, heavy-drinking, small-time entrepreneur McCabe argued with the scroungy proprietor and Irish owner, Patrick "Paddy" Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), about cash flow. He negotiated and out-bargained him for a lower $2 a bottle price on whiskey in exchange for bringing in more customers. And then while smoking a long cigar, he vaguely introduced himself to the card players gathered around him:

Well, you boys don't know nothin' about me, and I don't know nothin' about you. So whaddya say we make this a nickel game, huh, to start off with.

The newly-arrived hustler proposed the rules and limits for their poker game: "Five card stud with a three-bet roof on the card and then maybe we get to say 15 cents on an open pair on the last card." After he called out the first-round deal of hole cards, he noted that one player had the highest card, a Jack of Spades. He made a vulgar sexual joke: "Jack Off" - causing laughter that eased the anticipatory tension. The camera zoomed in on his toothy smile, revealing one prominent, sparkling gold tooth. Card shark McCabe was capitalizing on two of the workers' main pleasures (besides work): drinking and gambling - and soon keenly observed that the males were missing another typically western frontier past-time: prostitutes.

The entry of the town's Reverend Elliott (Corey Fischer) was announced - he was the minister of a Presbyterian church in the process of being built. Another town resident, well-dressed but humorless local businessman Mr. Freddy Smalley (John Schuck) declined an invitation to play with the "professionals." A mistaken, mythologizing rumor was started by Sheehan who interrupted the game and asked if McCabe was the reknowned and notorious gunman 'Pudgy' McCabe with a reputation ("big rep") for killing Bill Roundtree. McCabe dodged the question and simply answered that he was a "businessman" - he wouldn't deny that he was the infamous gunfighter (a fatal and flawed mistake for his future).

After excusing himself to take a pee outside as rumors flew about his identity (encouraged by the overly-impressed Sheehan), the uncouth McCabe returned for his favorite concoction - egg-nog (a double whiskey and a raw egg). He downed the drink, then asked Sheehan's bartender (Wayne Grace) and Smalley about the town's leadership:

McCabe: Tell me something, boys. Who owns the property around here?
Smalley: Sheehan owns all the property this side of town.
Bartender: The Chinese don't own no property. They just poach in mines.
Smalley: Joe Shortreed, J.J., Bill Cubbs, myself own that whole other side of the church.

Sheehan offered McCabe a room in his hotel for two bits a night and led him upstairs, as McCabe asked: "You got many chinks around here?" He was told: "You just turn over a rock." The accommodations - a cramped upper-floor bunkhouse was dirty and unsatisfactory for McCabe's tastes and he complained: "I wouldn't stay up there for free if you had a goddamn San Francisco whore in every bed." The amiable McCabe then returned to the poker game and made another crass scatalogical joke ("Do ya know how to square a circle? You shove a 4 x 4 up a mule's ass"). He easily upped bets to a quarter a game, without objection, and graciously purchased another bottle for the players.

An unspecified time later, McCabe rode to the nearby valley town of Bearpaw, the business center of the region, where he approached a bearded gentleman named Archer (Tom Hill), a pimp running a brothel, to spend his evenings' winnings by purchasing a few of the whores as an investment. He believed there was an opportunity at Presbyterian Church to bring more prostitutes (he called them "chippies") to the market. He was bluntly told: "You don't know what you're doin', McCabe. You got no experience at this," but was reluctantly offered one toothless older Indian woman: "You can have her, but you'll have to get her some teeth." [Note: There was a brief view of Mrs. Miller glimpsed through a doorway, mildly eavesdropping.] He was offered three of the prostitutes at $80 apiece. McCabe bartered for the trio at $200 dollars, and then lectured the cheap-minded brothel owner:

All you gotta do is tell me how many spare chippies you got in there, you goddamned butternut muff diver, and I'll tell ya how many I need!

McCabe undoubtedly worked out a deal but may have been out-bargained. In the next sequence, three ‘Bearpaw whores’ (one toothless, one obese, and one teenaged) were riding back to Presbyterian Church doubled up with McCabe on horseback - through a wooded area with trees backlit by the winter sun. Progress was being made on the construction of the town's church - a cross was being attached to the pointed towering steeple.

Back in the raw and rough settlement, McCabe questioned his dim-witted, bespectacled work supervisor Jeremy Berg (Jeremy Newson) and crew: "Where's the tents?...For the ladies." Foreman Berg gave a long-winded excuse for not having completed McCabe's two-story gambling hall, saloon, and brothel, and temporary tents for his prostitutes. The second floor (McCabe's future office and living quarters) had been completed but there was only a skeletal structure for the first floor. Berg blamed rampant diarrhea:

The roofing material didn't come in, so we had to start on the front here. We can get them up for you by tomorrow. We would have had them up by now, except Robbie's had the runs, so we've been tryin' not to use him too much this week. It's been goin' around, Mr. McCabe.

Berg's workers stood around and eyed the new female recruits (fat, cheap-looking, shy and homely), and McCabe had to defend his new prospects from assault. They were escorted up the newly-built stairs in the unfinished structure to the top floor. McCabe turned and reprimanded the male gawkers - while creating anticipation for his new business:

Well, what the hell are you...? Ain't you boys never seen no crumpet before, for Christ's sake?...Ain't nobody gonna touch one of them little ladies til we're open for business. And we ain't open til we get them goddamn tents up. Now, you get on back to work...Get your ass off your shoulder, we'll have a little fun around here. You boys gotta make up your mind if you wanna get your cookies, because if you want to get your cookies, I got girls up here that'll do more tricks than a goddamned monkey on 100 yards of grapevine.

Upstairs with his new "crumpets," the cocky, not-very-bright, heavy-drinking braggart McCabe took a swig of whiskey from his flask. The small-time entrepreneur wondered to himself if the illiterate, dirty, hungry, and unclassy females would fulfill his plans for a remote yet high-class saloon-casino-brothel. Eventually, three white canvas tent structures were erected, where the prostitutes temporarily lived and advertised their wares with wooden placards, as customers lined up for their services:

  • "Two-for-One Lil" or Lily (Jackie Crossland), grossly overweight with huge breasts
  • "Pinto Kate" (Elizabeth Murphy), a toothless Indian woman
  • "Almighty Alma" (Carey Lee McKenzie), young, timid

Aware of McCabe's competitive success and the flourishing of his new enterprise, Sheehan entered McCabe's upstairs office and living quarters to nervously suggest that they could become business partners: "Well, you and me's the only two real businessmen in Presbyterian Church...The minute I seen you arrive in town, I knew you was a man to be reckoned with." McCabe didn't want to be flattered: "Sheehan, that's a lot of s--t, and you know it. Now, why don't you tell me what the hell it is you came up here for." Sheehan offered his idea for a partnership:

Sheehan: Now, listen, McCabe. I'm no dummy. You're no dummy. You know what's gonna happen to this town when it gets big enough to have three saloons, maybe even four, hmm? You and me could form a partnership. A partnership that'll keep any outsider from comin' in here and buildin' other saloons without you and me sayin' it's all right and takin' our cut. Huh? What do you say to that?
McCabe: Well, partners is what I come up here to get away from.
Sheehan: Sometimes, you can't have things your own way. Sometimes you got to make a deal.
McCabe: Deals I don't mind. It's partners I don't like.

McCabe quickly outwitted the awkward-speaking Sheehan with his favorite, private one-liner joke about a 'foolish' frog: "Sheehan, if a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass so much. Follow me?" Their conversation was interrupted by screaming heard outside of one of the whore's tents. McCabe rushed to disarm knife-wielding Pinto Kate who was fighting off and stabbing an abusive customer with his own knife.

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