Set in winter in the Old West. Charismatic but dumb John McCabe arrives in a young Pacific Northwest town to set up a whorehouse/tavern. The shrewd Mrs. Miller, a professional madam, arrives soon after construction begins. She offers to use her experience to help McCabe run his business, while sharing in the profits. The whorehouse thrives and McCabe and Mrs. Miller draw closer, despite their conflicting intelligences and philosophies. Soon, however, the mining deposits in the town attract the attention of a major corporation, which wants to buy out McCabe along with the rest. He refuses, and his decision has major repercussions for him, Mrs. Miller, and the town.Written by
John J. Magee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The stranger, the winter lady & the sisters of mercy
Leonard Cohen's songs don't seem an ordinary choice for a western, but Robert Altman was no ordinary director, and his "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" was definitely not your traditional western. This film can be called a western because of its settings, but if anything, this is a "revisionist western" (à la Clint Eastwood's more recent "Unforgiven", a film that also subverted all the clichés and morales of this traditionally macho genre). And, more than anything, it's a love story.
John McCabe (Warren Beatty), charismatic but no so smart, sets up a whorehouse in the Old West. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), beautiful, strong and determined, soon arrives in town and offers to run the "business" and share the profits with McCabe. They start a tempestuous relationship while business thrives... but when a major corporation tries to buy McCabe & Mrs. Miller's enterprise, McCabe refuses to sell it. It's the beginning of his, her and the town's doom.
Even when exploring such a visual genre as the western (and visually the film is also very compelling, with great use of real snow and a beautifully shot "duel" on a bridge), Altman uses one of his most notorious trademarks: the overlapping dialogue, commonly used in ensembles but also wisely used in a more intimate, character-driven story like this. It works very well, although the 1 on 1 dialogues are deeply insightful themselves (the scene when Christie teaches a very young widow, played by Shelley Duvall, how she is supposed to behave in her new job, is brief, human, and dry). Beatty gives one of his most subtle, captivating performances, and Christie empowers Mrs. Miller with flesh and blood - she was definitely one of the most beautiful and intriguing actresses of her time, alongside Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda, who set up a standard for beautiful, strong women who were much more than sheer eye candy. McCabe and Mrs. Miller's relationship is so fascinating that even the bang bang fans will be drawn into it and root for them to end together.
So, next time someone says Clint Eastwood reinvented the western with his masterpiece "Unforgiven", remember: 21 years before, Altman had experimented and succeeded on that with his "McCabe & Mrs. Miller". Because love stories are more than kisses and happy endings, and westerns go beyond blood and testosterone.
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