Sunday, November 21, 2010

McCABE AND MRS MILLER (1971): Imagined Sins

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of those peculiar movies that when released during the early 1970s probably did not seem like much.  But it is an intelligent movie that can be watched at more than one level.  Though a bit moody, it can be watched as an enjoyable western where the bad guys get their comeuppance.  It can also be watched as an allegory about the cost of progress.  And it can be watched as the story of a likeable person who forced by circumstances does the right thing.
McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a gambler who in the past has talked too much.  He is mistaken for another McCabe who was a first rate gunfighter.  Now McCabe does not have the requisite skills to be a killer.  More importantly, he does not have the venom to want to shoot anyone.  He does, however, not mind having such a gunfighter’s reputation.  It allows others to present him with favors that he otherwise would not receive.  McCabe arrives in a small western town called Presbyterian Church, an almost desolate little community that is only remarkable for the church that is being constructed.  McCabe wants to open his own saloon and brothel.  The one saloon owner in town, who is impressed with McCabe’s reputation, is willing to work with him on the project.  Like everything else, McCabe puts little thought into what he’s doing and only by dumb luck does he make a success of his enterprise.  The luck comes in the form of a Madame by the name of Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie).  Mrs. Miller knows instantly that McCabe is in over his head and has no idea how to make a business run.  Mrs. Miller takes over the business of running the brothel, and suddenly the business takes off.
The success of McCabe’s business does not set well with the people in the church, and it especially does not set well with representatives of Sears Roebuck Company.  These representatives want to buy McCabe out.  It isn’t that McCabe in anyway represents a threat to the company.  It’s more that the representatives are greedy to control everything and can’t abide by anyone else making money but them.  They make McCabe an offer to buy him out.  McCabe, not even knowing what his business is actually worth, gives a clumsy refusal that causes the big businessmen offense.  Three gunslingers are then sent to the town to eliminate McCabe so that he can never do business again.  To show how ruthless these killers are, they shoot a happy go-lucky visitor to the brothel (Keith Carradine) for no other reason than he smiles too much, and they shoot the unarmed preacher in the church for just happening to be present when they’re looking for McCabe.
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 clich√© 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.
May 7, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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