Tuesday 17 May 2016

Movie Review: McCabe And Mrs. Miller (1971)

A different kind of Western, McCabe And Mrs. Miller features two flawed characters trying to carve out a better life through entrepreneurial instincts. The setting, aesthetics and grim realism create a memorable and unique visual experience.

Professional gambler McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides into a small ramshackle mining town in the dreary Northwest and senses an opportunity to make some money. Noting the near total absence of women to satisfy the frustrated men, he imports three whores and sets up prostitution tents. But McCabe, who may or may not have a background of having killed a man, is not thinking big enough. Professional prostitute and sharp businesswoman Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town and convinces him to partner with her to build a classy saloon with baths, gambling and high class rooms for a larger number of prostitutes.

Constance, who also has a love for opium, brings in a gaggle of whores from Seattle, McCabe fronts the money, and the saloon is built. The business initially struggles but eventually thrives, while McCabe and Constance become a couple of sorts, although she holds on to her sex-for-money ethos. Their success attracts the attention of a mining corporation represented by businessmen Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland). They offer a large amount of money for McCabe to sell all his holdings, setting off a series of events that will challenge all of McCabe's skills.

Directed and co-written by Robert Altman and filmed in British Columbia, McCabe And Mrs. Miller steers clear of all traditional Western elements. There is no quest, no heroism, no revenge motive, no wrong that needs to be righted, no journey towards redemption, no sheriffs, no outlaws, and for the first two thirds of the film, not even a conflict to speak of. Instead Altman focuses on the struggle of unremarkable individuals to just live and create a business, perhaps one of the more realistic portrayals of common life in frontier territory.

Coupled with the unique subject matter, Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond create a a washed-out aesthetic, the negative somewhere between sepia-toned and destroyed beyond repair, with the intention of creating a visual experience evocative of pictures from the era. It works. Combined with Pacific coast rain, mud, snow and general grey bleakness, McCabe And Mrs. Miller is distinctively dreary.

Not everything about the film is as successful. The lack of drama and tension takes a toll, the interesting but limited characters of McCabe and Constance only able to carry the film so far. The audio soundtrack pursues realism by featuring plenty of mumbling, simultaneous talking and a general abundance of background noise. And the secondary characters barely make an impact. Many of the men and whores populating the emerging town of Presbyterian Church are interchangeable beneath their bedraggled clothes and layers of grime. The cast includes the likes of RenĂ© Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine and William Devane.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie bring to life two enduring characters. McCabe is one of the best fits with Beatty's persona, and he keeps his sex appeal in check by underscoring the shades of dimwittedness within the character. Christie creates in Constance a no-nonsense prostitute with a nose for business, and that is all she wants to reveal. McCabe tries hard to create a meaningful relationship between them, but Constance knows enough to set hard boundaries.

McCabe And Mrs. Miller ends with the shadow of capitalism creeping across the West. Corporations move in, the big look to swallow the small, and men of modest means will have to understand their role. Finally there are good guys stripped of legends, bad guys cashing a pay cheque, and shootouts in the snow. It all takes place away from the public eye, as one difficult era draws to a close and the more surreptitious age of company dominance through questionable tactics slithers towards the ocean.

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