Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is one of the few and first great films that can sum up the style and feel of American movies in the early ’70s, and yet Altman’s style is so distinct in this film and all his others that no one made films quite like him.
“McCabe” is a Western, just one of Altman’s many journeys between genres, and it bucks so many tropes right out of the gate in the way Altman’s camera purveys the surroundings and effortlessly colors the tone of the room. Instead of watching McCabe (Warren Beatty) parade into a saloon as the doors swing open and the room goes silent, Altman gives us the murmurings and mumbling about this fancy, suspicious newcomer, all mixed in with the innocent details that show just how rich this community is.
One man wonders aloud whether he should shave his beard and leave only his mustache. Another asks what’s on the dinner menu, and a third finally starts quietly spreading the news that McCabe is the violent gunslinger who shot Bill Roundtree. Who’s Bill Roundtree? The movie doesn’t say, and the characters don’t seem to know him personally, but in a society this close-knit and colorful, the urban legend is enough.
McCabe rides into town to the tune of some Leonard Cohen songs, a wistfully pastoral sound that colors Altman’s film with eerily beautiful melancholy. His goal is to open a saloon, brothel and bathhouse and get rich quick, but his hard-nosed attitude quickly reveals he’s in over his head, specifically when Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) shows up. She sits down to breakfast with McCabe, scarfs down four fried eggs and gets down to brass tax to explain they should be business partners because McCabe doesn’t know the first thing about managing women in a whore house.
Altman’s film is a movie about loss and death, but it also is about survival, loneliness and the act of just trying to make it in this world. Roger Ebert points out in his Great Movies piece that it’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” not “and.” They’re a business, not a romantic couple, and each one needs the other to survive, but neither can fully relinquish their control or positions of authority. As the two have sex for money but fall back in and out of love, they establish a figurative impasse in their relationship. “I guess if a man’s fool enough to get into business with a woman, she’s not going to think much of him,” McCabe says. Something here is not going to end well.
But soon the movie establishes a literal impasse. A wealthy company offers to buy out McCabe’s business and property, which he flatly declines in the act of negotiation. Before long, the killer Butler (Hugh Milais) is in town to settle McCabe’s transaction. “We can make a deal,” McCabe coolly pleads while chomping on a cigar. “Not with me,” Butler says as though belonging to a different movie entirely. His posse ends up brutally killing a hapless teenager just passing through town, blocking his path on a narrow bridge and then convincing him to take out his gun. “I’ll fix it for you,” one of the guys says before shooting him dead.
In Altman films, the dialogue is always so free-form and the plot seems to be just the happenings of a daily routine. Less so than hard wired stories with beginnings and ends, you can live inside an Altman movie. There are no “character actors” to provide comic relief or establish a set piece. There are just people, and everything feels natural.
Its leads Julie Christie and Warren Beatty were two of the biggest stars of their era, Christie displaying a lived-in, adult performance different from her young days of beauty in “Doctor Zhivago,” and Beatty by this point had completely shed his boyish typecasting he unwillingly harbored in the early ’60s, ready to become an institutional actor and director. Their performances helped give Altman’s film the defining mood that colored ’70s cinema in America.
And yet most people rediscovering “MASH” or “Nashville” are a bit perplexed. Altman, for this generation, is not one of the directors young people become attached to anymore. A difficult or interesting art film today feels not as open, congenial and naturalistic, and something with an open story is more minimalistic than Altman’s brand of rich community building.
“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” may just be the film to start with in the Altman oeuvre. It may not look or feel like most classic Westerns, but it takes you on a wonderful journey.