Director Robert Altman’s incomparable, (oft-labeled) revisionist western, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), begins with a lone horseman arriving at a muddy frontier town, Presbyterian Church, in a cold rain. A bearded (and very handsome) John McCabe (Warren Beatty), seemingly wrapped in a brown bear, and wearing a bowler, dismounts and enters Sheehan’s saloon, to meet and deal a few hands of poker for the locals. The action is accompanied by the legendary Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” (“he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter”). The melancholy mood is set.
(Cohen’s songs on the soundtrack also include “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady,” which, with their atmospheric music and lyrics, simultaneously cryptic/evocative and precisely attuned to Altman’s proceedings, seem as if they were commissioned for the film, but are from the great songwriter’s 1967 debut album. And I always feel a little stoned when I hear them.)
McCabe, maybe a crack gambler, feared gunfighter and once known by the nickname Pudgy (or maybe not), decides to put down roots, establishing his business, McCabe’s House of Fortune–gambling, saloon and whorehouse–as the town grows from a few rough buildings and the church. A zinc mining operation starts digging.
Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives from Bear Paw, with a shipment of McCabe’s female employees. Unamused by his banter (she sarcastically dubs him “another frontier wit”), and perceiving that he’s more swagger than smarts and strategy, convinces him to take her on as his partner, working as his madam (also available for the right price, $5–this is 1902). She’s ethereally beautiful, her face surrounded by angel curls, disguising her steeliness. A foot taller, and antique courtly, McCabe calls her “little lady.”
Business is good (happy hookers, happy drunks, and an undefined personal relationship develops between McCabe and Mrs. Miller), so good that the mining company sends representatives to buy McCabe out. His miscalculation of the worth of his business and of his corporate adversary, leads to a shoot-out in a near white-out, as the church burns, and Mrs. Miller drifts off into her opium dream.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller was shot in sequence, (and largely improvised), the sets/town built as the filming progressed. Despite the dreary winter landscape, the remote location near Vancouver, photographed (underexposed using the flashing technique) by the master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, has a rough and mythic beauty. “The whole idea was to make some old faded pictures.”
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” opens today in a new 4K restoration at Film Forum for a one-week run.
The 2017 Independent Spirit Awards will present its annual Robert Altman Award (given to one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast) to Barry Jenkins’s sublime “Moonlight” (which on Monday night won four Gotham Awards) on February 25.