Top 50 Countdown – #11

-11-

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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Year: 1971

Director: Robert Altman

 

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Altman’s stated intention in making McCabe & Mrs. Miller was to “destroy all the myths of heroism”, and the result is so thorough a revision of Western movie mythology that the abiding impression one is left with might best be described by an ironic inversion of that famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the facts become legend, print the facts.” Instead of glorifying the pioneering spirit, Altman depicts a harsh portrait of pioneering life (and death) in the wintry Northwest. Instead of celebrating rugged individualism, Altman shows Big Business running roughshod over the small businessman. Instead of mythologizing heroic gunmen, Altman presents a hero hardly worthy of the appellation. Far from being the noble larger-than-life savoir of civilization from western movie lore, Beatty’s John McCabe, though rumored to be the gunfighter who shot a bad hombre named Bill Roundtree with a derringer, is actually a belching, heavy-drinking, two-bit gambler and businessman who operates a profitable, “high-class” bordello in a small frontier town with his partner and lover, Mrs. Miller, an ambitious, no-nonsense, opium-addicted English madam.

 

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Apparently lacking any loftier sense of purpose, McCabe is just trying to survive in a dangerous environment and to find a little female companionship. Finding said companionship is made frustratingly difficult by the noncommittal Mrs. Miller, who bewilders McCabe by steadfastly making him pay for sex with her (she’s less a hooker with a heart of gold than a hooker with a heart for gold), while simple survival becomes a dicey proposition when a powerful mining company, upset with McCabe after he turns down their offer to buy the town, enlists the services of a hired gun to take him out, ultimately leading to a climactic gunfight in the snow between McCabe and a ruthless bounty hunter and his merciless henchmen (one of whom murders likable Keith Carradine in one of cinema’s most devastating death scenes). As Mrs. Miller lies zonked out on opium and the rest of the town scurries to put out a church fire, the outnumbered and overmatched McCabe makes a poignant last stand against his murderous adversaries, and when in the end he whips out a derringer, the gun with which he reputedly shot one Bill Roundtree, we’re forced to reassess everything we thought we knew about the seemingly unheroic John McCabe. Perhaps Altman found room for the legend, after all.

 

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Other notable elements:

• Production designer Leon Erickson’s meticulously hand-constructed sets have a remarkably realistic “lived-in” quality:

• Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning cinematography beautifully contrasts the overcast, wintry barrenness of the outdoors with the sepia toned amber glow of the candlelit interiors:

    

• Altman’s free form style is at its best, using overlapping dialogue and skillfully improvised performances to further enhance the film’s naturalism.

• Leonard Cohen’s haunting songs. Critic Danny Peary once wrote, “If you aren’t one of singer-composer’s Leonard Cohen’s eleven fans, beware of the soundtrack.” Apparently I’m one of the Cohen Eleven because I think his folksy ballads add immeasurably to the film’s elegiac mood. Listen to “The Stranger Song” here.

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