McCabe & Mrs. Miller did so much to reinvent and reinvigorate the western, and became so integral to how the western looks today, that it’s easy to underestimate its originality. At the time that Robert Altman was filming, however, even the most revisionist westerns were still more or less tied to expansive landscapes, widescreen narratives and heroic protagonists. By contrast, Altman’s film situates us in a drab logging town in the Pacific Northwest, and thrives on occluded, blurry, bleary perspectives. Based on the novel McCabe, by Edmund Naughton, the screenplay follows the title character, played by Warren Beatty, as he arrives in Presbyterian Church, and sets about building a brothel. He’s soon joined by Mrs. Miller, played by Julie Christie, a business woman who helps him turn his small establishment into a roaring trade, before they are both beset by agents, and then enforcers, from the Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company, who are determined to purchase the town. Through all of these events, Altman evokes a frontier driven by boredom, exhaustion and sexual frustration, suffusing the film with a brooding melancholy that mutes the palette and sound with a mildly psychedelic sense of inner time and space.
No genre was quite so associated with classical perspective like the western, which became the ideal vehicle for innovations like Cinerama that were designed to draw audiences away from their television sets and back into theatres. For that reason, no genre is quite so disorienting when filtered through Altman’s pan-and-zoom approach, which undoes precisely the linear and mathematical sense of space that the classical western embodied. Accordingly, Altman’s pan-and-zoom is a bit less pronounced here than in his early films, since it ramifies so dramatically against this genre and backdrop, perpetually promising us a stable or panoramic vantage point, only to dissolve us into the kind of ensemble perception that he had perfected over his last two films. If the western was founded in classical perspective, then the western hero – the solitary cowboy – was the figure who guaranteed that perspective to the audience, and anchored the most panoramic vistas in the most iconic westerns. By contrast, Altman never quite identifies McCabe with an authoritative sightline, continually taking him to the very brink of scopic omniscience only to diffuse him back into the perception of others, while only providing the audience a brief glimpse of a more expansive universe when McCabe is himself displaced from the events taking place.
Virtually the whole half hour of the film takes place inside, circumscribing the outside world, which is always wet, grey, snowy or windy, oppressed by the kind of weather that makes the characters seek out the indoors as quickly as possible. For the most part, these exterior scenes are accompanied by tracks from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, which imbues them with a chambered, cloistered, bedsitter vibe that makes them feel as if they are playing out indoors. There’s not a single sunny scene in the film, nor a patch of clear sky, while nearly all of the outdoor scenes trace characters as they’re making their way to shelter, with not the slightest sense of stopping to observe or contemplate the landscape. Of course, interior westerns, or chamber westerns, existed before Altman, but even the most cloistered of westerns – such as Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo – were still suffused with the momentum of the wider world, and the rhythm of characters passing in and out of town, which is all but absent from Altman’s version. Similarly, even the most introspective of westerns were still invested with a parity of sound and image that made expansive vistas feel like a theoretical possibility, while Altman instead elasticises the space between sound and image more than any of his previous films, resulting in an immersive ambience that splits the difference between nineteenth-century banality and the ennui of New Hollywood.
For much of the film Presbyterian Church plays as a part of the present, a cipher for the washed-out urban voids that would become so critical to 70s cinema, full of people huddling together against the prospect of an incompletely formulated surveillance. No surprise, then, that McCabe’s surveillant authority is compromised even before Mrs. Miller arrives in town, meaning she doesn’t have to do very much to puncture the film’s sombre atmosphere, or to rob McCabe of all his residual hubris. Part of that comes from her frank criticisms of McCabe – she dismisses his “cheap jockey club” cologne – while part of it comes from her own worldliness about lesbian attraction, menstruation, inspecting men and women for STDs, and all the other daily routines necessary to the functioning of a proper brothel. However, it also involves the way she defies the archetypes of the western, and of the west itself, as Altman uses her to backdate the vocabulary of sexual liberation to the nineteenth century.
Specifically, Mrs. Miller forms a fascinating riff on the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope so precious to the classical western. At one level, this figure was a prostitute who only had sex for money to survive, or to fulfil more traditionally feminine functions, such as providing for a child after she had been abandoned by a man. At the same time, however, this figure was a woman who only got into business to fulfil these feminine functions, since the prospect of the female businesswoman often felt considerably more threatening to the classical western than the prospect of the virtuous prostitute, undermining, as it did, the entire economic apparatus of the west and its division of labour between enterprising men and enabling women. By contrast, Mrs. Miller is frank about her sexual and libidinal appetites – she’s always hungry – but also sees business as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, confiding in McCabe that her ultimate goal is to own and manage a boarding house in San Francisco. The fact that she continues to work as a prostitute in her own establishment just makes her even more incoherent within the classical western framework, sending McCabe’s hubris and omniscience awry whenever he converses, engages or sleeps with her.
With that hubris and omniscience divested from the film, Altman’s vision lacks the traditional movement and momentum of the regular western. The action starts in Presbyterian Church and remains there, as the film’s rhythm instead comes from the development of the brothel, the evolution of the town, and the arrival of Harrison Shaughnessy to try and buy McCabe and Mrs. Miller out. In that sense, the film is probably quite realistic in suggesting that most people in the west were confined to one place, rather than embarking upon journeys from town to town, or peripatetic sojourns in the wilderness. Watching Altman’s film, I realised that the vast majority of westerns are about the establishment of the west – the moment when the west was still a frontier – while McCabe & Mrs. Miller seems to take place after the west has been settled as a fait accompli, without the slightest trace of Indians or hostile topography to contend with. The fact that the town is still evolving just makes this establishment all the more visceral, since at no point does the wrestle between McCabe, Mrs. Miller and Harrison Shaughnessy ever take on the heroic valency of the classical western, or the sense that the total future of the frontier is at stake.
Paradoxically, this situation of the film in a single space, and an established west, makes Altman’s vision more dynamic than even the most peripatetic western, since it allows him to immerse the film in the public sphere of Presbyterian Church. Caught between brothel, bar and baths, this public sphere exudes a warm, fuzzy, hazy sheen, and is driven by texture as much by narrative, allowing Altman to draw out the vagaries, contingencies and serendipities of character, which quickly become inextricable from the vagaries, contingencies and serendipities of what Altman’s camera can capture from his mise-en-scenes. Beyond a certain point, the actors feel inseparable from the characters they are playing, as the entire fate of the counterculture is embodied in Beatty and Christie’s shifting presence from scene to scene. Some countercultural directors focused on alienation, but Altman preferred communality, affirming a public sphere even – or especially – when it felt most picaresque or precarious. The result is a gorgeous texturality that demands a big screen, partly because it is so synaesthetic and immersive, but also because it opens up a dialogue with the public sphere of the cinema itself, like so many of Altman’s films of the 70s, explaining why he was so resistant to Nashville, in particular, being distributed on VHS.
That sense of the public sphere as both precarious and picaresque made Altman an inherently comic director, and makes McCabe and Mrs. Miller and inherently comic film, or at least an inherently bathetic film, which makes for an odd tone when paired with the immerse, elegiac pace that accompanies McCabe’s gradual devolution. It is as if Altman wanted to chart the fate of the counterculture without being self-pitying about it, as Beatty’s face subliminally moves from handsome to buffoonish to mirror his vague sense of being cuckolded by Mrs. Miller’s business acumen and sexual self-possession, albeit not in a way he can directly articulate. Yet Mrs. Miller isn’t the enemy, and McCabe is finally undone by the gangsters hired by Harrison Shaugnessy to force the sale of the town, since these are the figures who most approximate the heroic individuals of the classical western, here reframed as pillagers, criminals and agents of corporate business interests. In response to them, McCabe turns inwards, drifting between dialogue and monologue, and situating himself at the very cusp between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, not unlike the voiceover, or semi-voiceover, of Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye.
During these scenes, the last whiffs of McCabe’s mysticism vanishes, as we realise that he never shot a man during poker – the story that has accompanied him from town to town – forcing him to desperately insists that “I got poetry in me.” His last breath of hubris is to brand himself as a figure of social justice, making it his mission to “break up the big trusts and monopolies,” with the help of a lawyer whose lexicon is straight out of the post-war period, as he insists to McCabe that “until people stop dying for freedom, it ain’t gonna be free.” Unfortunately, this lawyer, like the baby boomers, believes that change to the system can only come through the system turning the last part of the film into a poignant allegory of the counterculture’s failure to live up to its own aspirations. During a superb final act, Altman confirms that the west wasn’t driven by countercultural individuals, as a typical western would affirm, but rather by brutal, mercenary, cut-throat corporations. Worse still, the heroic protagonists of the classical western, and the emblems of Hollywood’s horizons, turns out to be forces of precisely this conservatism, much as John Wayne was one of the most brutal and outspoken opponents of African American and Indian American civil rights.
This sobering message plays out in a sustained scene in which McCabe wakes up to an empty town, decimated of its public sphere, whose absence finally enables the sightlines and vistas of the classical western. These are only enhanced by heavy snowfall, which imparts a mystical hush to every shot, and intensifies the grainy texture of the film, which grows almost silent by the time that McCabe has set out to try and regain control. Before the Harrison Shaugnessy gangsters even appear, this reversion to a classical western optic signals their presence, as Altman finally situates us within the panoptic space that we might expect from the genre, only for his camera, and McCabe, to be unable to properly process it. McCabe’s first instinct is to make his way to the church tower, the highest point in the town, and the structure that gives the town its name. Once he arrives, however, the tower is destroyed, and consumes the public sphere along with it, thanks to a fire that sees McCabe fleeing into the town, and all the townsfolk heading to the tower, leaving the streets and stores even more denuded and desolate than before, while jettisoning McCabe into a space that is no longer truly public, even though it occurs where a public once lived.
This vision of a public sphere made over by corporate interests and by surveillance technology was the ultimate fear of the counterculture. It’s beautifully and eerily expressed here, as the snow grows so thick that it abstracts and defamiliarises the town infrastructure, while the scope of the action grows so enormous that it is effectively discontinuous, forcing Altman into a series of pans and zooms whose start and end points bear no relation to one another, anticipating the cavernous landscapes of Images, his next film. It’s a landscape that immediately infantilises anyone who tries to resist, as McCabe’s body is unable to live up to his eye, or his omniscient aspirations, rendering him childish, clumsy and awkward, as he reverts to crawling on all fours, before being shot as he tries to run away, causing him to half-roll down a snowdrift, where he comes to ground in a bathetic and abject heap. Despite his passage being almost entirely impeded by snow, he makes his way back to the main street, where he collapses outside the bar, and is gradually covered by snow, which sinks even our most charismatic memories of him into a deeper and deeper silence, until his head and face is disfigured beyond all recognition by the snow, like an inchoate inanimate object.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Miller is forced to take up residence in the Chinese quarters of town, and the film ends by comparing the warm sensuality of her face with the gradual abstraction of McCabe’s features into just another local iteration of the snowy landscape, and the corporate sweep of Harrison Shaughnessy. In the very last shot, however, Altman collapses this distinction between organic and inorganic surfaces, zooming in to Mrs. Miller’s eye, before shifting towards a small stone that she is directing her eye towards. So close is the camera at this point, and so extreme the zoom, that eye and stone are fused into a single surface, neither organic nor inorganic, and neither possessed of sight nor divested of sight. And it is in that strange space of provisional sight, of sight that never quite achieves omniscience or panoramic authority, that this incredible revision of the classical western occurs – the greatest film in Altman’s career so far, and one of the best in his whole career.