Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Short Take: McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman's atmospheric "anti-western," is one of the most richly textured period films ever made. This 1971 picture is my favorite in the Western genre, and my choice for Altman's masterpiece. The story centers on John McCabe (Warren Beatty), who is the American entrepreneurial spirit personified. He sees a market for liquor, gambling, and whores in a Pacific Northwest mining community, and he brings the place a brothel and saloon. Julie Christie plays Mrs. Miller, the madam who becomes his business partner. Their biggest challenge comes from the mining company, who see their success and want it for themselves. All the clichés of the genre are present: the outlaw gunfighter trying to settle down and go straight; the hard-nosed businesswoman seen through sentimental blinders; the dastardly established interests trying to step on the little guy; and even the climactic gunfight in the town streets. But all of it is presented in a way that had never been seen in movies before, although it is probably the closest to how such things really were. The film makes one feel that one has stepped out of a time machine. The effect isn't due only to the revisionist approach to the story material. It also comes from Altman's ability to evoke the interrelationships of the people in the community, and the extraordinary work of the behind-the-scenes artisans. The costuming and production design, overseen by Leon Ericksen, could not fit the period better. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography, which renders the candlelit interiors and inclement weather with equal delicacy, is astonishingly beautiful. And then there's the sound. Altman used a more layered approach to ambient sound than had ever been attempted before. John W. Gusselle, William A. Thompson, and Barry P. Jones, who helped him achieve it, deserve applause for one of the finest sound-engineering jobs in film history. The cast also includes Shelley Duvall as a novice prostitute, and Keith Carradine as her first customer. They're the most touching characters in the film. The screenplay is credited to Altman and Brian McKay. It is based on the novel McCabe, by Edmund Naughton. The film's songs were written and performed by Leonard Cohen.

1 comment:

  1. Your post made me wonder, what is my favorite Western? It has to be The Searchers or, maybe, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance because I think that John Ford was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. I don't know... maybe I'm forgetting something painfully obvious which is the feeling that I get whenever i think of these "best of" things. But, anyway, this is not the reason why I'm writing this comment. I always love to see a well done period film. The touchstone to judge that is the question: do I know when this film was made (it's usually the women's dos that give me the answer)? Even if I also love this film it isn't it. In this Western case the touchstone is Tombstone (1993). The Brits were always a lot better at it than the Americans and I think that it was with Tombstone that the latter finally joined the former. Today we are living in an absolute golden age of period reconstruction. There's only one thing that bothers me: really old glass has imperfections that today's glass lacks. No one ever thought of that. I hate to see windows with perfectly transparent glass in, say, the 18th century.

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