50 years on, McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains essential cinema for the inversion it plays to the myth of the Western. The popular stories of the West are those of gunplay at noon, of good guys and bad, and of trails so dusty you may forget it is not all desert out there. Americans tell themselves these stories because they need to believe they arrived to settle the West as a civilising force against the ravages of nature and against those who already called the region home. The Western myth is then a national myth, a lie designed to smooth over any honest reflection on the past. Robert Altman, in his greatest film, asks the spectator to step back and put into question our generic expectations.
McCabe – Warren Beatty in a resplendent fur coat – rides in the rain and the mud into the town of Presbyterian Church. A stranger riding into town looking not to shoot, but to speculate, he brings his own tablecloth into the ramshackle bar. Gamblers gather around the table and word worms through to the bar’s owner that this is none other than John “Pudgy” McCabe, who’s garnered “big rep” for having shot Bill Roundtree. Altman leans into Beatty’s star power to cut a character we assume will know how to get just what he wants. Despite commanding these opening scenes, McCabe is an odd, dandyish character set against the lived experience of this faraway miner’s town. While the lashing rain might in another film signify a coming dramatic storm, here it serves only as a constant reminder that these men live in yet undeveloped wilderness.
This sense of wilderness, of raw earth, offers one of the real pleasures of watching the film. There’s more weather and mud in this than any other American Western I’ve seen. The only Western I know in which the mud plays such a prominent role is Sergio Corbucci’s Django. The story coincides with the slow development of this small town, the set of which was constructed alongside the production. The inhabitants of this town – featuring Altman staples like John Schuck and René Auberjonois – expertly round out the ensemble. Working their days in the nearby mines, what the townsfolk lack, McCabe identifies, is diversion. Here he stakes his claim. He purchases a trio of women to turn tricks, smelling a sure thing.
Shortly thereafter, Constance Miller (Julie Christie) hitches a ride into town to bring her experience to bear on McCabe’s amateur endeavour. She plays the ambitious, level-headed foil to McCabe’s cardsharp manoeuvrings. Notably, Mrs. Miller is the only character seen reading, gesturing towards an inner life conspicuously missing from those around here. She comments on McCabe’s cheap, “jockey club” cologne, which illustrates the diverging ambitions of these titular characters. McCabe is vain, a desperate peacock, while Constance is clearly directing her every attention towards steering her destiny towards something befitting her talents. Together they open the brothel and bathhouse which will come to pull together the disparate threads we’ve so far seen.
Conspicuously absent are cowboys. The small population of the town is unarmed; they drink, they carouse, they work. When a cowboy does arrive in the person of a brilliant Keith Carradine, he is ringed in heroic light, but dons comically oversized chaps and an impossibly high-crowned hat. He rides into town for the girls and soon disappears, with boyish vigour, into the warm flesh of McCabe and Miller’s establishment.
Carradine embodies the “oh, geez” naivety of the Western myth. He rides into a setting that has and wants nothing to do with him. Presbyterian Church, rather, is becoming the arena of so-called civilised interests. The Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company has already sent representatives, played by Michael Murphy and Antony Holland, to float an offer to buy out McCabe’s holdings. When he refuses, Miller recognises that the company will send hired guns to secure its interests in Presbyterian Church. This is where the competing notions of the Western myth come to a head. A gun is drawn only after ninety minutes. And when it is, Carradine’s cowboy is tricked into reaching for his own as a pretence for one of the hired guns to assert his presence. No heroics, only short bursts of highly organised violence.
McCabe, in the scene that perhaps best encapsulates this non-heroic ethos, seeks legal advice on this business problem. The lawyer (William Devane) takes on the case in support of his gubernatorial aspirations. He speaks in grand terms of defending small businesses against more moneyed players, claiming the free enterprise system has room enough for big and small alike. McCabe, articulating his only desire, says: “I just didn’t want to get killed.” They are at cross-purposes, each using the other towards incompatible ends. The Western tale we are generally told is of justice secured by the gun. Altman reserves his gunplay for the pursuit and protection of vested interests. The hired guns, led by Butler (the unsettling, charismatic Hugh Millais), are dispatched on the order of the mining company. The object over which these men quarrel is property.
Altman is primarily concerned with how this small town settles itself. As Presbyterian Church develops, the spire of its namesake always prominent, the more outside forces begin to show an interest in this frontier community. What was once mud looks more and more like an American town. Now diffuse, the townsfolk no longer appear to orbit around McCabe and Miller’s establishment. The drama unfolding for the former is one descending from outside, poised only to strike at what stands in its way. And what is deconstructed can be constructed anew.
McCabe, rather than facing the hired guns head-on, plays cat and mouse. He first scopes out his enemy from the spire of the church before the Reverend Elliot (Corey Fisher) throws him out for having brought a gun into the holy place. Butler then kicks in the door and kills the Reverend, who appears to be armed. This causes a lantern to break, which sets the building ablaze. As McCabe skulks around in a bid to survive, the population gathers to put out the fire. He takes out two of the three hired guns, though is wounded in the process. The sacred edifice burns, our protagonist scurries through the snow in a bid to survive. He is eventually mortally wounded by Butler. By playing dead, McCabe is able to draw the assassin close enough to dispatch him with the derringer with which he allegedly shot fellow cardsharp Bill Roundtree. The community extinguishes the fire. McCabe dies alone in the snow.
The film closes with Constance Miller in an opium-induced stupor. Her planning and foresight overshadowed by the vanity and arrogance of boys with their toys. What is sacred in the Western is myth, a myth which here is gunned down and burned. Miller is likewise trampled by the myth. She is a rugged realist, whose hardnosed determination stems from wanting something better than what she has. She knows better than McCabe how to run a business because that is how she has lived her life; she does sums faster than McCabe, she sees things in grounded, more thorough terms than McCabe. However, she can do little to turn the tide her business partner unwittingly calls onto himself. She is functionally cast aside when the film reaches the finale Altman has constructed. McCabe dies by the legend he desperately wants to write; Miller lives by the reality thrust upon her.
What Altman accomplished is to create a Western milieu informed not by other films, but by an attempt to imagine how a burgeoning North-western town might have looked. Monument Valley, where John Ford shot nine of his films, plays heavily on how we think about the Western. The desert is a harsh place where hard men stake their claim against radically inhospitable wastes. Stoic determination, set against the endless, dusty horizon of the desert, secures the future in the Western myth. That the desert expands in all directions suggests the boundless possibilities of America’s so-called Manifest Destiny to deliver itself across the continent. Simply put, there is nothing there, so we can exert our influence from within a historical and geographical vacuum. America, we are told, built itself atop the nullity of sand.
Altman’s Presbyterian Church, however, rises out of the mud and trees of the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver, where the production was set, stands in for what we can take to be Oregon or Washington. The limits of the town are set by the towering tree line. Moreover, this is a setting where the earth is fundamentally confronted. The inhabitants make their living by extracting ore from the ground. When they ascend from the mines, they sink into the mud and the snow. Nature, as that which comes before humanity, is inescapable. When characters enter any interior space, they first kick off the mud from their boots and shake the water from their hats. In this way, the outside world encroaches on the artificial dwellings of the townsfolk. There is a constant reminder that whatever we build is done so from what is already present in – and on – the land.
It is within this arena that Altman weaves his players. The ensemble suggests a community whose history precedes the events of the film. Beatty’s McCabe – introduced to the plaintive strain of Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” – arrives with his own history, the baggage of which weighs on his actions as he gradually loses his grip on the situation. Constance Miller’s history has left her with the tools to carve a road towards her own, self-constructed destiny. This coexistence of the old and new elements within the town dissipates as soon as the interests of industry descend upon Presbyterian Church.
What McCabe and Mrs. Miller establish, alongside the ventures of other citizens, falls prey to the economic imperative of expansion and control. Agents of The Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company, its own history of violence well established, barely appear before the assassins arrive in their place. And this is where Altman most notably stakes his anti-Western claims. The shooting erupts not from competing ideals, but from the unchecked desire for economic expansion. Cattle rustlers and noble lawman, the Clantons and the Earps, are nowhere to be seen in this stretch of historical imagination.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains provocative 50 years later precisely for what this historical imagination demands from the spectator. Likewise, Altman’s use of sound and image remains as idiosyncratic and compelling now as it did during the New Hollywood period. He scores his scenes with overlapping dialogue, snippets of speech emerging briefly as though we are eavesdropping on intimate, yet inane, conversation. This is further achieved through the use of zoom lenses, expertly employed by Vilmos Zsigmond. The camera here surveys the scene, glancing briefly at stolen moments. Rather than intruding on the scene, Altman’s images look on as from a distance. Combined with the soundtrack, this creates the impression that there is life bleeding in from beyond the frame. In this way, Altman contributes new life to an old genre. It is this lively formal strategy, alongside the act of historical imagination, that makes McCabe & Mrs. Miller – and Robert Altman – a pillar of the American cinema.