Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. With 267 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. This week, he takes on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
There is one thing you probably already know about Robert Altman: he doesn’t really care about story. Conversely, there is one thing you should know about me: story is what I hold in highest regard. But despite Altman’s predilection to favor atmosphere over a driving narrative I found this to be a surprisingly good film. Though the story can be easily summarized, there is more to discuss here than I thought there would be. And with this brief introduction, let’s dive right in!
- Director: Robert Altman
- Writer: Edmund Naughton, Robert Altman, Brian McKay
- Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie
While this film is a Western in many respects, it actually makes several choices that pull it away from the genre. It doesn’t rely on epic gun battles, sweeping panoramic landscapes and characters riding around courageously, searching for some sort of justice or purpose. As a certain terrorist at the Nakatomi once said, “The cowboy may not be riding off into the sunset with Grace Kelly this time!” On the contrary, the film begins in a small northwestern mining town where hard work seems to have left. All the men there seek to spend their free time drinking, gambling or having the brief companionship of a prostitute. In this environment, John McCabe (Warren Beatty) has found a place where he can run a business (a brothel) with minimal effort, allowing him to spend his time either at a poker table, drunk, or both. Conveniently, McCabe has been rumored to be a gunfighter, allegedly responsible for killing Bill Roundtree, thus allowing him to hold a respectable amount of unquestioned clout in an isolated mining town.
One of the most cliched screenwriting conventions is introducing characters who will end up romantically involved by making them opposites who dislike each other at the start. It establishes a conflict that will leave audiences wondering how the hell they’ll end up together by the end of the film. Though this storytelling convention can be tired and trite, there are an infinite ways by which an interesting romance can be accomplished, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a great example of film where this convention is well executed.
One of the most compelling parts of this story is the developing interaction between McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie). While McCabe is complacent with his small minded operation. Mrs. Miller, arriving as a professional madam to help administer the brothel, quickly decides and begins to convince McCabe that his business has much more potential. And so, in what is by many accounts an ordinary story, a gambler and loser falls in love with a prostitute with a possible heart of gold. The woman here essentially wins the heart of a man while he reluctantly begins to employ the changes that she advises for his brothel. Mrs. Miller “thinks big”, and through her vision of what could be, it is highly entertaining to see how McCabe opens up to accept what is possible.
The other compelling aspect of this story is the danger that comes when thuggish capitalists decide that they want to buy McCabe’s growing business interests whether he likes it or not. Te stage is set for an escalating metaphorical poker game where each side much decide how to play their hand. Mrs. Miller warns McCabe that they’ll send someone out to kill him, and persists in her strong push to get McCabe to sell. By caring for his life despite the success she has achieved and may, quite possibly continue to enjoy, her love for McCabe has clearly arrived. In his refusal to sell, McCabe seeks the advice of a lawyer who pushes for fighting monopolies in the courts. Indicative of the lawless conditions of this western mining town, and with the darkest of humor, McCabe is heard asking the lawyer, “So what you’re saying is that they’ll be so afraid of the courts that they won’t want to kill me?”
The showdown at the end of the film is technically not so much a showdown as it is a hide-and-seek gun battle that seems like a more realistic final encounter than those heroic ones we’re used to seeing in more conventional Westerns. I was reminded of the scene in No Country for Old Men where Javier Bardem’s character hunts down Josh Brolin’s character inside the established space of a hotel and through the streets of a small town. Every footstep, every sound and every shadow matters, as your killer could be found around any corner. Talk about directing action in a wonderfully established sense of space, this last scene is magnificent in its ability to create the kind of tension you’d expect from a life of death situation.
Robert Altman’s story is simple and I found myself liking the film more and more as it progressed. I am not however, a great fan of the look of this film. The film basically looks dark and old. I can appreciate that Altman intended for each frame to look antiquated, reflecting the turn of the century when the story is set. This is consistent with what I know about Altman, who seeks to frame his shots as if they were paintings. The look of the film, however, is tough, especially during the night scenes.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
There are people who consider this film to be the best Western ever, merely because it stands against the grain of what is typically associated with Westerns (stereotyped Indians, open range gun battles, and one-dimensional gunslingers), which I think is a bit of a cop-out. It is too easy to claim that something is the BEST, simply because it doesn’t conform to the traditional elements of a genre. So, what if this film was made at a time before all these conventions became conventions? Without being able to see this film as something of a protest against a fully established genre, what is it that we’d be left to say about this film?
Well, for one, I agree with you, Mr. Ebert, that “few films have such an overwhelming sense of location”. As mentioned above, not only is there a great sense of space in the final scene, but throughout the film, you get the sense that this is a real location and not a set. And there is definitely something very natural about this film, as is typical in an Altman film. As you state, “this is not the kind of movie where the characters are introduced. They are all already here. They have been here for a long time. They know all about one another”. And, in your review, I especially love the following description, “It begins with one fundamental assumption: All of the characters know each other, and the camera will not stare at first one and then another, like an earnest dog, but is at home in their company. Nor do the people line up and talk one after another, like characters in a play. They talk when and as they will, and we understand it’s not important to hear every word; sometimes all that matters is the tone of a room.”
But I don’t entirely share your sentiment when you say that this is one of the saddest films you have ever seen. For the record, some of the movies I consider among the saddest are The Elephant Man, Come and See, The Best Years of Our Lives, Mask, El Norte, On the Waterfront, and Make Way for Tomorrow (this last title was also considered to be one of the saddest by none other than Orson Welles). I do really like and respect this film, there is definitely a naturalistic vibe throughout. I just never felt completely moved by any particular moments, and though this lack of emotional response kept this from being a “great” film in my book, I can objectively give this film the credit it deserves.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like McCabe and Mrs. Miller? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Make Way for Tomorrow