Into the impossibly soggy, Pacific Northwestern frontier “town” of Presbyterian Church rides John McCabe. Call him a “gambler” and he’ll gently correct you (“Businessman… businessman,” he’ll say in an attempt to convince himself more than you). Call him a gunfighter and he’ll avoid the subject altogether but only after you believe he very well could be. Before hitting the heart of the ramshackle huts and rickety structures that seem to be constructed on top of one another in the town, McCabe stops and does a quick wardrobe change while muttering some mostly inaudible, solitary grievances. But once clad in his best gambling duds, John McCabe enters the central meeting point that is Patrick Sheehan’s Restaurant and Boarding House and, within ten minutes of screen time, he will have charmed most everyone in the town and planted his flag with dollar signs in his eyes. For it is here that he will get wealthy by operating a saloon and whorehouse. After all, men like to drink, gamble, and screw so building a grand sporting house would be almost like having a machine that printed money.
Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a poetic ode to the kind of moronic, Friday-rich, American choade whose long vision is stunted and for whom aiming higher always leads to disaster. Warren Beatty’s John McCabe is almost like a distant, frontier relative of George Roundy, the lothario hairdresser character Beatty and screenwriter Robert Towne would create for Hal Ashby’s Shampoo a few years later. Businessmen who seem to understand only their clientele’s most basic of needs without any real plan for personal or professional growth, Roundy and McCabe both manage to make it to the precipice of success before plummeting into the abyss due to their own foolishness. At the end of Shampoo, Roundy stands cliffside in Beverly Hills the morning after Richard Nixon’s inauguration and watches his future roll away in a luxury car into the hazy hills of Southern California. At the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, McCabe sits mortally wounded in the snow, caught between death and frozen contemplation. And in both films, Julie Christie has become mournfully fed up with him and what he’ll never be able to give her.
You see, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film adapted from the Edmund Naughton novel simply titled McCabe. Altman knew that to understand the tragedy of John McCabe, Mrs. Constance Miller would have to be given an equal importance in the equation. And so Julie Christie’s brusque, whip-smart prostitute-cum-madam enters into the scene early and joins McCabe at the hip, steering his business into more profitable waters merely by paying attention to the cleanliness of the house and catering to its employees’ personal concerns. But with an elevated awareness of her position in a rapidly changing America, Mrs. Miller is also the one in the partnership who is smart enough to understand that there often comes a time to pack it in and cut your losses. And though she’s addicted to opium which helps keeps her emotionally at an arm’s length (McCabe always pays for it), she isn’t hampered with the kind of artificial courage afforded to McCabe via the copious amount of whiskey he ingests while trying to deal with a couple of mining representatives charged with buying his holdings in the town from him.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is to the western what M*A*S*H was to the war film. And while the films of Sam Peckinpah had already done their best to demystify the west and pretty much put a period on the western itself, Altman couldn’t help but use the most American of the genres to completely drain the accepted iconography and themes and to elevate contemporary meditations on independence, ruthless business practices, the hypocrisy of the church, and the impossible predicament of women in our society. And to the last point, Altman makes amends for any misogyny that might have still been in the air after M*A*S*H by giving the gaggle of prostitutes who swagger into Presbyterian Church something more to work with than garish rouge work and frilly lounging clothes, most recognizable in countless westerns of the time. Here, they have missing teeth, might defend themselves with a knife if the client gets a little out of hand, explicitly need to take bathroom breaks, and otherwise act in a manner needing a more human touch than McCabe. Constance Miller becomes the advocate for the women who quite literally helped settle the west and built the foundation of the society which we take for granted today. In short, if you’re living in an established community, prostitutes helped establish it.
In the traditional western (and even those of Peckinpah), the church is almost the central point of the town and the one place that everyone congregates. But while the town is called Presbyterian Church, the actual Presbyterian church in the town is a slow construction and nobody seems in a big hurry to complete it. We only ever see Reverend Elliott (Corey Fischer) toiling away at it which is juxtaposed with the remainder of the able-bodied men in the town who, like a bunch of monkeys on a jungle gym, clamor all over the frame of what will become John McCabe’s little slice of paradise once its been completed. The only time we ever see anyone engaged in anything remotely non-secular is at the funeral of Bart Coyle which is executed in a perfunctory and rushed manner with Rev. Elliott moving through the eulogy if he were dispassionately reading the ingredients for a stew. So it is the film’s most jaw-dropping moment of irony that, in the film’s finale, the entire town braves a brutal (and 100% authentic) snowstorm to save the burning church about which they’ve previously shown zero interest while John McCabe, the guy who arguably made their life more immediately fulfilling, fights for his life all by his lonesome in the other side of the town. I can think of nothing that is more representative of America’s lopsided lip-service to faith and religion than the film’s final twenty minutes.
It’s a cinch that, along with the following year’s Images, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of Altman’s most gorgeous pictures. By indulging in a process called flashing (slightly exposing the negative before actually using it) cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond gives McCabe & Mrs. Miller a distressed, leathery look in its interiors that looks like vintage photographs come to life. Weaved into the dreamy atmosphere are the indelible original songs by Leonard Cohen which seem to work in tandem to the narrative in such a way to suggest the film is some kind of ballad that exists in the grey matter of the American consciousness.
All of this works to create a film that feels at once nostalgic and also like nothing you’ve ever seen, the cinematic equivalent of what hearing The Band must have been like in 1968. And it also further illustrates what Altman ultimately thought about formulas, situations, and tropes that were routinely the stuff of genre films. Instead of seeing the hard lines in which he was to keep his colors, he saw a whole new opportunity to be endlessly creative that would lead to one of the richest resumes in modern cinematic history.