A+ list: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (and Lawrence of Arabia)

I visited the Castro Sunday afternoon to see my all-time favorite Robert Altman film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. (It was on a double bill with the Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound for Glory, which I saw long ago and didn’t care for. I skipped it this time.)

For its daring rethinking of the western genre, it’s atmospheric photography, and it’s sad tale, McCabe and Mrs. Miller earns an A+, a grade I give only to masterpieces, at least twenty years old, that I have loved for years if not decades. For other films that made the grade, see my A+ List Table of Contents.

But before we go on to McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I’d like to point out another film on my A+ list, Lawrence of Arabia. I won’t discuss it here, because you can read my thoughts on this classic elsewhere.

On to the main feature:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller‘s plot sounds like a western cliché: A lone rider with a rep as a gunfighter comes into town. He launches a peaceful business. But when a big, criminal-run organization wants to take over his now-successful company, he refuses. So the organization sends three hired guns to kill him.

But that’s a very poor description of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. And not only because the peaceful business he creates is a whorehouse.

Robert Altman’s best film is a beautiful, sad tone poem of a lost town growing up in the middle of nowhere. The town’s name, Presbyterian Church, suggests a reach for community and respectable civilization. But communities have outcasts, and respectable civilization is always questionable.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) doesn’t seem like a western hero. He wears a derby. Despite his rep, he seems fearful and inept around violence. Rather than being strong and silent, he talks to himself–all the time.

And he knows nothing about running a whorehouse. He’s a hopeless amateur who doesn’t understand how to keep his “chippies” safe from the customers and the customers safe from the chippies. And everyone safe from the clap.

And that’s where Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) comes in. She’s smart, she’s an experienced prostitute, and she knows the business. She turns his pathetic line of tents into “a proper sportin’ house,” as she says in her English accent.

They enjoy a successful partnership, but neither will acknowledge to the other that they’re also falling in love. And Miller is sadly aware of the fact that McCabe is an idiot. Don’t expect a happy ending.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of the best photographed films ever. Altman may be the film’s director and auteur, but cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond made it a masterpiece. And not only for the golden and yet dirty glow that permeates all of the interiors. Zsigmond diffused much of the film, creating a world where people can’t always see clearly. His lenses (most of them long to isolate one person from everyone else) capture the weather so well you feel it. This is a western that starts in a rainstorm and ends in blizzard, with plenty of mud in between.

As with so much of Zsigmond’s work in the 1970s, McCabe and Mrs. Miller was shot in Panavision. He was a master of the format, and could do wonders with the anamorphic lenses that were the heart of the process.

But Zsigmond’s photography isn’t the only tool Altman used to make us not just know but feel the town. He shot the film in sequence, as the picture’s main set–the town of Presbyterian Church–was built. The builders, in period clothes and using period tools, became extras. As the town slowly fills itself in, unrest and full conflict erupts around what sort of town it will be. But that’s only background to the story of the title characters.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller uses music sparingly and beautifully. A handful of Leonard Cohen songs come up on the soundtrack–a cliché at the time,
but one that works well in this particular movie. They catch the inevitable sadness of the film. It helps that they’re all quiet, acoustic folk songs, and that none of them were hits. Most of the other music in the film comes from characters onscreen playing instruments.

The late 60s and early 70s saw several revisionist westerns, including Little Big Man and The Wild Bunch. But Robert Altman, Vilmos Zsigmond, Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and many others created the best of them all. This one haunts you.

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