Thursday, January 30, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

One of the most endearing things about the films of Robert Altman is his seemingly effortless ability to create a world around his central characters.  Not a world in the sense of scenery or detail of landscape - although that is prevalent as well - but a true community of people.  Even the most minor of characters in a Robert Altman picture work in symphony with anyone and everyone around them to cultivate a world in and of itself.  After a few smaller films in the sixties, Altman directed his breakout comedy, MASH, defining his signature style of cinema as a communal atmosphere on the screen.  A year later Altman, in my opinion, perfected what he started in MASH with a transcendent Western.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller was one of the films that helped launch the 70s renaissance in Hollywood, and is still widely considered as one of his three or four masterpieces.

Like almost any Altman picture, multiple viewings are almost required.  For me, the first time with an Altman movie is simply an absorption process of sorts, where the terrain is laid out in front of me; all viewings beyond the first allow me to take my spot alongside these characters, right where Altman had intended.  The communal vibe of his pictures allows us not to be spectators but to be participants in the war-camp hospitals or saloons in these early films.  Characters often speak over one another, because it isn't as vital as what they are all saying as it is the mood they create with their speech.  And yet, as he does so masterfully, Altman is still able to hone in on such rich characters like John McCabe and Constance Miller, even amid so much wonderful chatter.

McCabe, played by a youthful and bearded Warren Beatty, is a gambler and a hustler who drifts into a sleepy, snowbound town high in the mountains in the dead of winter.  He immediately conducts court in a saloon where some men know him and others are simply curious.  Before long, McCabe picks up the angles of the town and decides to open up a whore house with some local women.  Things don't go well early on; the women are inexperienced, they attack some men, they are unhealthy and unkempt, and they take care of their customers in ramshackle tents.  McCabe has the right idea, but not the right tools to make his business function properly.  This is where Mrs. Miller comes into play.

Beautiful and elegant Julie Christie plays Constance Miller as a beautiful and elegant woman whose had just enough world experience and spent enough time running brothels in her time to know how to handle the roughnecks in this mining town.  She immediately sees the weak spots in McCabe's operation, decides to bring in some of her own women from San Francisco, and basically takes over the day to day.  Of course McCabe, a prideful and resourceful man, wants to object, but he cannot in all honesty.  Beatty plays McCabe as an introverted man who keeps himself isolated much of the time, opting to have most of his emotional outbursts while talking to himself in his room.  Some of the best chemistry Beatty and Christie have with each other is early on, before their frustrations and banter become more emotionally weighted.

Things are going along well for the company of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, until larger entities begin to show up in town and start staking their claim to the town.  The third act involves a shootout in the snow, with McCabe trying desperately to hide.  The scenery is majestic, almost always hidden in fresh snow, concealing the rugged nature of the men and women in the saloon.  Altman wanted the film to have a tarnished look, as if it were filmed in the time it were made, so his exposed the reels throughout to give it a faded, grainy feel.  This technique is even more prevalent in these later sequences, and adds a great external layer to an intimate Western.  And Altman captures the mood perfectly of a town lost in the snow, of souls abandoned and sad and in need of attention, regardless of where that attention may come from.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of Altman's best, but it's hard to believe it arguably isn't even his own personal best of that decade.  He had many more years in the 70s to work, and McCabe was simply a master perfecting his craft in time to deliver an even better film the next time out.  But as a Western, this picture is a permanent fixture.  And aside from the organic nature of Altman's camera in McCabe, the haunting and tormented voice of Leonard Cohen on the picture's soundtrack enhances the sadness and loneliness of this sleepy mining town.  The plot is almost secondary to character and environment, and Altman always realized those aspects were the most important in trying to tell human stories.