Why have I NEVER heard McCabe & Mrs. Miller mentioned when people are discussing the best American films from that supposedly brilliant decade that was the 1970s? Coppola's efforts always get cited, so do Taxi Driver and Chinatown, and a couple of Allens and Kubricks... even Altman's own Nashville gets the odd mention. Now I'm not saying that the aforementioned films aren't worthy or anything (I pretty much love all of them bar Annie Hall and A Clockwork Orange) but it's obvious to me that McCabe & Mrs. Miler pisses over them all? It's also the first Western that I've actually liked! Well, ok, I think Dead Man is pretty great too (I think this says something about where my tastes skew with the genre?) but McCabe... is just complete love, through and through.
The film marks itself out as an anomaly from the moment the credits start floating across the screen (unique in itself.) What's Leonard Cohen doing in this landscape, for example? A few minutes later, one starts to question Altman's insufferably brilliant use of overlapping dialogue, especially when the mumbling from the supposed 'star' of the film (Warren Beatty) is drowned out as a result. Naturally, the director is several steps ahead of us all, and these early decisions are all part of his thoroughly unique evocation of the West: Cohen underpins the film's impalpable atmosphere and thus forms a notable counterpoint to the realism inherent within the use of dialogue. As for Beatty, is it not utterly appropriate that a film so concerned with overturning the hallmarks of the genre would strip him of his star status (externally) and heroism (internally)? Take note also, of his co-star's non-entrance: Altman gives us a brief glimpse of an opium-smoking mess of a woman whilst McCabe is haggling over the price of prostitutes - and that 'mess' turns out to be Julie Christie of all people.
Considering their high-profile relationship off-screen, it's remarkable that Altman (and the actors) manage to so successfully convey the tentative nature of the McCabe and Mrs. Miller partnership. The attraction and tenderness shared between the two is more than evident, but they're denied the opportunity to let it fully materialise because of their unforgiving surroundings which insist that they think of themselves first and foremost. Their self-denied love infuses the film with a melancholy undercurrent of romanticism, but imo it's when examining them as individual types that they truly become alive as characters. Altman is concerned with deconstruction of course, but I think there's also a contemporary relevance to his work? Despite her trashy façade, Mrs. Miller is perhaps the most astute character in the film and in possession of far greater business acumen than her 'partner.' She and her 'girls' highlight Altman's refreshing focus on the significance of women in the West: their traditionally perceived role as noble homemakers is thus transposed into the realm of prostitution where Mrs. Miller is - again - a homemaker, simply cut from a different end of the cloth. Thus, Altman undermines our preconceptions re: their profession, which is used here for the women to empower themselves and to carve out a safe refuge in their daunting environment (compare their sense of community to the snide world in which the men reside.) Mrs. Miller couldn't have existed in, say, the 1940s but link her to the onslaught of second-wave feminism and her presence becomes almost a necessity.
Similarly, the role of McCabe is surely not unrelated to the ruminations on the role of masculinity that occur in those other 'classics' of 1970s American cinema? In relation to the Western, he's so far removed from John Wayne it verges on the humorous. After a short time spent on establishing the myth of John McCabe during the film's opening ("he shot Roundtree?!"), Altman devotes pretty much the entirety of the remainder to obliterating that legend altogether. He can't add up, he's submissive to his female business partner, he has a heart ("I got poetry in me!"), he spends much of the film drunk and he's a coward to boot - and this is exactly why he's so appealing as a character. The very idea of heroism strikes me as far-fetched when the main objective is plain survival as it is here. McCabe's actions, whilst not something we're accustomed to within the genre, are nonetheless completely identifiable and therefore essential for the director's realistic designs.
This is not to say, however, that Altman is entirely non-conformist when it comes to toying with genre. As soon as McCabe starts deviating from his prescribed role as hero, one gets the sense that there's a single way for his journey to end: death. This is brilliantly foreshadowed within the film itself through the character of the Cowboy: Altman records his entrance in a long-shot which perpetuates a 'foreboding lone ranger' hero-type, but then cuts to reveal a completely amicable young man looking for the famed brothel. His departure from the film is perhaps it's shocking and most heartbreaking moment: a manipulated murder at the hands of one of the hitmen out for McCabe (who himself is initially seen as a hero only to then undo himself through his good-natured greed.) The resounding idea here is one of destiny, and a fate that's beyond one's own grasp - and this in itself is a brilliant subversion of the concept of Manifest Destiny. Altman shows us how expansion was neither obvious nor certain, but instead brutal and potentially fatal. The only 'obvious' and 'certain' aspect of this film is death.
A severe lack of innocence permeates this cinematic world. McCabe's attempts to survive during the finale then, are all the most devastating as a result. It's the bravura moment in Vilmos Zsigmond's gorgeous lensing, and a superbly edited sequence that induces tension in spite of the inevitable outcome. With all his other options exhausted, the 'innocent' McCabe is finally coerced into actualizing his myth. The brilliant battle in the snow sees the town church go up in flames, and McCabe manages to gun down all three of his hitmen but he's nonetheless unable to escape his own destiny. On top of all this, Altman denies him even these final moments of 'heroism' as he tellingly cuts away to images of the oblivious townspeople concerned only with the saviour of their dilapidated church. A concluding shot of Mrs. Miller, lost in a haze of opium as if to avoid the pain of it all, is the devastating masterstroke - with this, the entire trauma of the Western experience weighs down upon the audience and Altman's dual engagement with past and present finally achieves transcendence.