I’m sure you’ve seen westerns before, but never under the artful gaze of Robert Altman. His films do tend to be rather hesitant, almost as if they are trying to mimic reality but are too afraid to really go all the way into neorealism territory. This largely makes for a difficult watch for me, who doesn’t take to neorealism very kindly, but with McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman plants his feet squarely in the realm of period piece and runs with it. Still, this isn’t what you would expect from a period piece, and likewise, you shouldn’t expect too much Western out of this either.
Warren Beatty plays John McCabe, who arrives in a small town in the northwest named after a Presbyterian church amid rumors that he is the notorious gunfighter Pudgy McCabe. Using the hearsay to his advantage, he sets up a brothel, into which rides Constance Miller, played by Julie Christie, and through some good old fashioned talking the two become partners, and build the business and the town into something. Then comes a couple of businessmen from the Shaughnessy company, who wants to buy out McCabe and his business, and who is known for not taking no for an answer. McCabe, true to his character, says no, and the film leads up to a climactic gunfight with Shaughnessy’s hitmen that is well known for being pretty much the antithesis of what a Western climactic showdown should be. Really, the whole film exists to take Western tropes and conventions and turn them end over end, so much so that Altman called it an “anti-western”. In what seems to be typical of an Altman film, the plot isn’t really told to us, or divulged in some way; it more or less happens, and we either choose to pick up on the events or not. This sort of aloofness makes the film seem much more real than actors following scripted dialogue, and I can see why Altman and his scripts are considered a big part of the New Hollywood to emerge in the 70s. Altman really wanted to experiment with this film, not just with the story but with the actual film itself. To get the distinctive hazy look of the film, Altman flash-exposed the film, both to achieve the look he wanted, and to make it so that the studio couldn’t force him to alter the look in post to something more normal, as it would be ingrained into the celluloid. The lengths some directors go to to get what they want, I guess.
I found this more enjoyable than MASH, if only slightly. The fact that the period piece setting put it more in the realm of fantasy than pure realism definitely helped, as did the performances by Beatty and Christie. Really, there was a lot to like about this film, and little to dislike. I didn’t personally feel that this was masterpiece territory, but it was certainly unique enough to make the list, and served to have me reassess my views on Altman’s work a la entertainment value. I may not exactly be looking forward to more of his work, especially given how lengthy it seems to be, but I’ve at least found one standout film in his oeuvre that I can say I genuinely liked.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10