Movie Review: McCabe & Mrs. Miller

A Joseph Looking for a Manger, a Mentor, a Manager
Sat, 02/08/2014 - 3:00pm

The cold, snowy entrapment of January/February has kept me reaching for movies with the same seasonal feel. For this I apologize, and introduce one of the coldest, snowiest, most entrapped movies of them all, which is available to borrow at the Island Free Library if you dare to venture more than 500 feet outside your home.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is director Robert Altman’s finest film, one where all the hallmarks of his style — overlapping dialogue, peripheral conflicts, eavesdropping behind the lens — come together seamlessly.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) boldly arrives in a frontier town called Presbyterian Church wearing an oversized bearskin coat and stylish bowler hat. He makes quite an impression on the handful of locals residing in this drab, unfinished settlement. Here, the American Dream is underway, along with the grim realities it brings forth.

With the prospects of opening up a saloon/brothel of his own, McCabe buys a couple of “chippies” (prostitutes) to keep the men inspired while they build his brothel. One finds no families or children in this town — just single male workers and the female help they hire to get them through the late autumn days, soon approaching winter.

Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), like McCabe before her, arrives boldly and has plans. A shrewd businesswoman with a cockney accent and sensuality to match her wit, she convinces McCabe to front her the money to build a real classy joint, the type with exotic girls and an adjoining bathhouse, and to split it all 50/50. Like any prideful man, he’s smitten by the way she cuts him down. She costs him “nothing but money and pain...pain.”

When Mrs. Miller’s parade of call-ladies arrive in town, they’re not dressed to the nines and waving to the boys from a luxury train. It’s raining, the carriage is broken; they’re sloppy and carrying their belongings through the mud.

In 2014 it’s hard to imagine how underdeveloped America was over 100 years ago. “McCabe” comes as close to realizing the conditions a growing community faces during expansion as any movie I’ve seen. It’s the most authentic depiction of (Northwestern) frontier life imaginable. Cinematic flourishes are spared; gone are the dustbowl saloons, rolling hills and wide open skies we associate with the Old West. Presbyterian Church and the dull golden glow of its interiors & inhabitants are dirty, slapdash, undeveloped — always under construction.

The days are as stark as the nights, the songs of Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack circling and reaffirming what we already know.

Once the brothel of McC & M is turning a profit, McCabe’s pride shoots through the roof. With money in his ledger and a double whiskey with a raw egg in his stomach (a dubious concoction, and a favorite of mine), he feels invincible, unstoppable on the financial front, going as far as to turn down a reasonable offer from a mining company that wants to buy him out. This company, Harrison-Shaughnessy, is notorious for using muscle to get their way, and when McCabe refuses their bid — in a cocky manner no less — they reach out to the strong arm of lawless men. Although Mrs. Miller had warned him earlier, McCabe only realizes his mistake once sober.

And before he gets a chance to set things right, the opportunity is gone. When Smalley, a bar patron and McCabe’s business associate, tells him of the businessmen’s early departure — “You handled them beautifully. They know they weren’t dealing with no tinhorn.” — our hero looks pained, marked for death.

A tinhorn; a man with an unknown past and ‘big rep’ no-one can confirm, a showman with just enough charm and wherewithal to have an audience: this is McCabe. Only Ben Gazzara’s role in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” where he plays Cosmo, a low-rent hustler whose questionable rep precedes and one day humiliates him, can match McCabe’s stubborn will to remain in charge of the few willing to stick around. Like Cosmo, McCabe’s lifestyle earns him a death sentence against multiple gunmen in a bleak setting: alone and left to his own devices.

Such is the world of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” One moment the townspeople are happily drunk, playing fiddles and dancing on ice without a care in the world, other times they’re floating in the fissures of an icy tomb.

One moment McCabe is drunk, talking to himself, dreaming of the courage to live honestly, other times he’s defensive, reluctant to take the advice from the only woman he’s ever loved, a prostitute that charges him top-dollar like any other client. This woman shares his love but would rather be sedated in an opium pipe-dream.

But to receive the affection of one you love, only when death is imminent, yow – that is a tragic life. Too bad about that McCabe fellow. He had poetry in him.