McCabe and Mrs Miller

One of a handful of Robert Altman films being re-released following a major retrospective of the director’s work at Britain’s National Film Theatre, McCabe and Mrs Miller is arguably the first movie to demonstrate its maker’s true intentions and abilities. It is the most successful of his genre restatements, mainly because the Western is incorporated intact rather than destroyed in the process. Mounting a careful physical reconstruction of a bleak, snow-bound mining town (clearly an inspiration to Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim), Altman plays out his own version of the Western myth. The stranger who comes to town, gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty), has a fearsome reputation as a killer but proves to be nothing of the sort. In terms of theme, McCabe is Altman’s clearest, and most affecting, treatment of his preoccupation with losers and misfits, emotional misunderstandings and lost opportunities. McCabe is for a while distracted by the inkling of business opportunities in the raw town, and fate presents him with a partner and potential soul-mate in Constance Miller (Julie Christie), the local madam. But inarticulateness and emotional confusion keep McCabe from declaring himself. His last, futile gesture, electing to stay and face the gunmen who have been sent to take over his thriving little enterprise, is his ‘heroic’ assertion of the tradition of High Noon. For Altman, as the brilliantly staged gunfight in the snow makes clear, it is also the final absurd move in a game McCabe had lost from the start.

U.S.A., 1971.
Panavision anamorphic.
120 mins.

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