One of Robert Altman’s very best films, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an elegiac, cynical, revisionist Western–some say anti-Western–boasting top-notch performances from Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the leads.
Altman, right after his huge commercial success with “M.A.S.H.,” took advantage of his elevated status to make a more personal, stylized, and contemporary Western, which demonstrated his vivid mastery of details and images.
With the exception of one major critic, Vincent Canby of the “N.Y. Times,” most critics praised the film for its innovative format, inventive approach in debunking some prevalent Western myths, and its atmospheric effects. At the time, Altman told the press: “I just wanted to take a very standard Western story with a classic story line and do it real or what I felt was real, and destroy all the myths of heroism.”
Set in 1902, in a frontier-mining town near the Canadian border, the saga details graphs the rise and fall of John McCabe. At the prime of his career, Beatty plays a small-time gambler who claims to have been a gunman. He moves into the small town of Presbyterian Church, and after winning big in poker, he buys property and sets up a whorehouse.
After meeting the tough-talking, opium-addicted whore-madam, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), the two cooperate on a commercial enterprise, expanding the bordello more desirable girls from the neighboring Seattle, and with a more professional-like approach to the business.
Things change, when a big, greedy local mining company moves into town with goals of its own. When McCabe rejects their original offer, they decide to take it over by force. In the end, the church burns down, Mrs. Miller takes refuge in drugs, and McCabe is shot and killed in a snowdrift after battling with the hired gunman sent in to murder him.
But the movie is not about plot as about characters, ideas, and mood. The opening and closing sequences are indelible in terms of visual imagery. Upon arrival, McCabe is asked if he’s a gunfighter, to which he laconically answers, “No, I’m a businessman”; his business is gambling and pimping. “Partners is what I came up here to get away from,” McCabe says early on, but then he takes Mrs. Miller as a partner—and lover. In the anticipated, tragic conclusion, Mrs. Miller loses herself in opium dreams, while McCabe is gunned down by killers hired by a big company that wants to take over the brothel.
The movie reflects Altman’s melancholy, ironic vision of American as a people imprisoned, exploited, often destroyed by the system of capitalism, which was supposed to liberate them. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” serves as a parable about free-market capitalism and the struggle of small entrepreneurs vis-à-vis the encroachment of big, greedy, carnivorous corporations. Thus, when McCabe asks the help of a lawyer, the latter lectures him on the American way: “If men stop dying for freedom, freedom itself will be dead.”
The star charisma of Beatty and Christie, who were an item at the time, is in full evidence, and Christie received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrait. As the frizzy-haired, hard-nosed madam of bordello, coercing McCabe into setting her up in business in exchange for half of the profits, Julie Christie gives a memorable, moody performance, her best since “Darling,” in 1965.