Mrs. Miller, a hardheaded businesswoman, who throws herself into her work to prevent herself from getting connected up with anyone, becomes smitten with McCabe. (By the way, we never know if Mrs. Miller was her real name, or if there ever was a "Mr. Miller" in her life.) She’s unhappy and spends her time smoking opium in a den run by the Chinese laborers. Though disdaining McCabe for all of his impracticality, she also sees that he is a decent man who would do anything to make her smile. It’s for her as much as anyone else that he decides not to flee and to take on the killers as best he can. The odds of his success are, of course, practically nil. Yet by bluffing and a little trickery, he manages to take all three out. The last and the toughest of the gunfighters turned out to be the most difficult one. That killer shot McCabe in the back and McCabe, by playing dead, managed to put a bullet in the gunfighter’s head. Unfortunately, McCabe was unable to extract himself from the snowdrift he had fallen into and he either bleeds to death or freezes to death in the cold winter weather.
This 1971 film was Director Robert Altman’s was released one year after the movie, M*A*S*H. Like in so many Altman films, it’s about a seemingly ordinary man who ultimately does extraordinary things. It’s also about the price such a good man has to pay when such a man gets in the way of the machinery of big business. Like in M*A*S*H, there are a number of flaws in this movie. For example, it has become almost a cliché in modern westerns for some character to smoke opium in a den to escape their troubles. Also, Julie Christie as Mrs. Miller is not always so likeable, and sometimes one wonders what McCabe sees in her. Only in one scene, where McCabe does get her to smile, you begin to sense her appeal. The movie can be a bit disjointed and the viewer is not always sure where it’s going. And at other times, the symbolism may be a bit too obvious (for example, explicitly naming Sears Roebuck as the big corporation bad guys).
It’s that we feel for the predicament that Beatty is in that makes this movie commendable. We especially feel is predicament with the rain and sleet and snow constantly falling around him. Beatty is perfectly cast as McCabe. McCabe’s charming and clumsy and occasionally dopey. He’s a winning character because he’s courageous and humble and cares about other people. He’s not afraid to do the right thing. Like so many movies from that era it has an anti-establishment theme, but Altman does a terrific job from preventing making the theme seem obvious. The movie does not completely depart from the formula of all other westerns. As mentioned earlier, it can also be watched simply as a somewhat somber adventure. Yet it does depart from the formula in other ways in that McCabe is not particularly good at being a hero. He only succeeds because he is determined to make the best of what he has got. Hopefully, most viewers can’t identify with being pursued by three killers. But I think that most can identify with the feeling that McCabe had of being considered expendable for the benefit of some institution.
© Robert S. Miller 2007