McCabe & Mrs. Miller is less a deromanticized Western than an emasculated one. It’s a de-pantsing, really, of the strong, silent men who have long dominated the genre. Drop a stronger, louder woman into their midst, and they’re done.
Directed by Robert Altman, McCabe & Mrs. Miller begins with a man who is seemingly in control. John McCabe (Warren Beatty, offering a sly self critique) arrives on the outskirts of the Pacific Northwest town of Presbyterian Church, circa 1902. Before entering the lone bar/hotel, he takes off his burly fur coat and dons a more sophisticated bowler hat. He is, after all, a “businessman, businessman,” and there’s something suspicious about the way he insists on that twice. Nevertheless, the grungy citizens are duly impressed, and before long McCabe has opened a grimy little gambling house/brothel and become the most prominent man in town.
Not impressed is Mrs. Miller (a superb Julie Christie), who arrives some time later in a lurching, belching steam carriage of sorts. (The attention to period detail is impeccable throughout.) Refined but hardly delicate – she blows her nose with vehemence and polishes off a plate of food in seconds – Mrs. Miller proposes that she and McCabe team up to run a “proper” whorehouse, one in which baths and clean sheets are part of the equation. A new venture is born, and while you’d be hard pressed to say Mrs. Miller brings a feminist justice to Presbyterian Church, she does bring civilization.
You’d be hard pressed to say Mrs. Miller brings a feminist justice to Presbyterian Church, but she does bring civilization.
Visually, Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond emphasize the harshness of the period setting in a way few Westerns have. More than a soundstage production or even a location shoot, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has the feel of life being lived on the edge of survival. Presbyterian Church isn’t a stop along a dusty road that leads from one studio back lot to another, but a true outpost – an outcropping in the wild, clinging to some semblance of structure as the Pacific Northwest winds howl around.
This is a time and place, conventional wisdom goes, for men. Yet McCabe & Mrs. Miller disarms that manner of thinking even beyond the dynamics of its central relationship. From the start, the men of Presbyterian Church are more “feminine,” timidly gathering in groups at the bar, softly gossiping about this and that. When Mrs. Miller brings more prostitutes to town, they come in hard – smoking and swearing. The men are sheepishly eyeballing them from the corners, while the women are staring them down, seeing dollar signs.
The film’s tragic ending comes as a result of McCabe trying to reclaim a sense of masculinity that he really never quite had. Having run afoul of the local mining company, McCabe insists on standing his ground. There’s a remarkable scene – a re-enactment of his first trip to the town bar – in which he tries to negotiate a deal with the company’s strongman (Hugh Millais, indelible in only a few moments). “I don’t make deals,” McCabe is told, before being humiliated before the same crowd he had once so impressed.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller ends dismally for its title characters, who are given parallel, parting shots that both convey a specific sort of loneliness. This being an Altman film, though, the finale also allows for an ensemble’s sense of community. As McCabe and Mrs. Miller fade away, each on their own, the rest of the town joins together – men and women – to save a burning building. Gender differences are blurred in the chaos, then ignored after the building is saved and there is a joyous celebration. McCabe, mired in the traditional Western’s notion of masculinity, has no place in it.