#106) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
OR “North by Northwestern”
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Altman and Brian McKay. Based on the novel “McCabe” by Edmund Naughton.
Class of 2010
The Plot: The small Pacific Northwest town of Presbyterian Church is turned upside down when John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives and builds a saloon and makeshift brothel. Arriving later is Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who sees through McCabe’s hustle and goes into business with him, turning the brothel into a respectable business. All goes well until a mining company tries to buy out the brothel. When McCabe refuses, three bounty hunters arrive and McCabe’s story of being an infamous gunslinger is called into question. Also there are Leonard Cohen songs throughout for some reason.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises Altman’s direction, Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Leonard Cohen’s music score, and cites the film as one of many westerns that comments on contemporary American culture. There’s also a pretty thorough essay by assistant professor and Western expert Chelsea Wessels.
But Does It Really?: I guess I’m missing the boat here because I couldn’t get into “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”. I even watched it again for fear that I didn’t “get it” the first time. It’s fine, but there are other Altman and Beatty movies that I think are better. I know Altman was more concerned about character and atmosphere over plot in his films, but ultimately I didn’t care about either of the leads. The film gets enough shout-outs from time to time to warrant eventual inclusion on the NFR, so I’ll just label it a “minor classic”, sit here on my metaphorical fence and await cries of heresy from my fellow film snobs.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the cast and crew will appear elsewhere on the Registry (Primarily for Altman’s other entries, “MASH” and “Nashville”) but we’ll single out William Devane’s cameo as McCabe’s potential lawyer. Also be on the lookout for Jack Riley (aka Elliot Carlin/Stu Pickles) as one of the townspeople.
Wow, That’s Dated: “Songs by Leonard Cohen”. Also there’s nothing that says ‘70s cinema more than Altman’s trademark extended zooms.
Take a Shot: Lots of references to McCabe and Mrs. Miller individually, but no one actually says “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”. Had the film gone by its original title of simply “McCabe” we’d be off to the races.
Seriously, Oscars?: “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” received just one Oscar nomination: Best Actress for Julie Christie (even though it’s really a supporting role). Having already had her moment in the Oscar sun six years earlier for “Darling”, the Academy went for Jane Fonda’s turn in “Klute”. Most egregious amongst the unnominated is Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography.
- I gotta say this film is beautiful to look at. Not only exquisitely filmed in Panavision, but there are some simply breathtaking shots of the Pacific Northwest. They could have reused this footage as a travelogue for British Columbia.
- ADR is a pretty easy thing to notice, but it’s especially noticeable in an Altman film.
- Want to talk signs of the times? Most of the extras in this film were American Draft Dodgers.
- Jesus Christ Warren Beatty, stop mumbling! Even by lax Altman standards this is a bit much.
- “Butternut muff diver” is my new favorite insult. It’s downright Shakespearean!
- Jeez, I could walk and get to where I’m going faster than the steam engine Mrs. Miller arrives on.
- Is there anything sexier than Julie Christie’s lion mane of hair?
- A reminder to you kids that Julie Christie is so much more than just Madame Rosmerta in the third Harry Potter film. Watch this film, “Doctor Zhivago”, “Away from Her”, the list goes on and on. She’s one of our greatest.
- This film gets progressive points for including two black characters in 1971. Now if only either of them actually got to do anything…
- I’m beginning to think that men who film westerns may have issues with women.
- Well, Merry Christmas I guess.
- That’s Keith Carradine in his film debut as the cowboy who becomes quite familiar with each of the ladies in the brothel. And you can insert your own “I’m Easy” joke here.
- If nothing else, Robert Altman is responsible for bringing Shelley Duvall into the cultural zeitgeist. She gets more to do in his later films, but you can see the beginning of a solid director-actor collaboration with Duvall’s performance here.
- McCabe’s jacket, man. Look at that thing. Did he skin Trekkie Monster? Is he playing the saxophone at a ‘20s college party?
- I forgot that in his youth William Devane looked remarkably like Jack Nicholson. And in a film with a lot of great facial hair, Devane wins in a walk.
- It happened by accident, but there’s something quite brilliant about having the final shootout in a western set during snowfall.
- This was the first collaboration between Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. After their high-profile relationship ended, they worked together on “Shampoo” and “Heaven Can Wait”.
Listen to This: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Leonard Cohen song you’ve been waiting for; “Hallelujah”.