As Ang Lee now redefines every genre he touches, so did Robert Altman three and more decades ago. Here’s his remodelling of the western, an “anti-western” according to him, though these days what Altman was doing decades ago has mostly been incorporated in the mainstream – the “anti-western” is now just a western. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie take the leads – he a lousy entrepreneur with a plan to build a whorehouse, she a Cockney madam with an opium habit and a determination to make McCabe succeed in the enterprise they agree to jointly undertake. They sleep together but she charges him top dollar. It’s that sort of relationship and that sort of town. This is the American West as it is being made, a building site of half-dug holes and half-built buildings where such niceties as manners and morality have yet to arrive.
McCabe & Mrs Miller is a painfully elegiac film, and thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, and Leonard Cohen’s songs on the soundtrack, beautiful and fragile too. It plays out in a landscape where it’s always just about to rain, or sleet, in a town called Presbyterian Church. It’s the sort of film where little is said outright. At one point McCabe is offered money for his land. He suggests a price that’s way too high. It’s only later that he, and we, realise that by doing that he’s effectively signed his own death warrant.
Like Altman’s Mash, Altman’s western gives us characters who arrive on the screen fully made and situations we feel privileged to be overhearing. It’s probably Altman’s best film, Christie’s and Beatty’s too.
© Steve Morrissey 2013