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McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

The Old West as depicted in most movies consisted of heroes and villains, cowboys fighting indians and outlaws to protect a tiny rural town. Well, needless to say, the Western genre does not generally provide an accurate portrayal of the Old West. McCabe & Mrs. Miller turns the Western genre on its ear with its gritty, realistic portrait of a Western town where there are no heroes or villains, only people struggling to survive and live their lives uninterrupted.

McCabe (Warren Beatty) comes to a one-horse town called Presbyterian Church in the Pacific Northwest, where he stresses to the local gentleman that he is a businessman, though they have heard whispers that he killed a man. McCabe's intention is to build a saloon-slash-whorehouse that will make him some money and provide the men in town with some jollies. While the construction is underway, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) makes her way into town and strikes up a partnership of sorts with McCabe. She figures he's not too bright and she can help him run a successful business. McCabe develops a liking for Mrs. Miller and her, urrmm, assets, but she does not return his affections; she gets her kicks from opium, not sex.

Before long, business is booming, and a large corporation sends a few representatives to buy out McCabe's properties in town. McCabe balks at the offer, hoping to hold out for more money, but instead the men just walk away entirely, leaving McCabe confused, until he finds out that bounty hunters have been sent to eliminate him. He fashions himself as a spokesman for the small businessman standing up to the large corporations, but his time is becoming precious.

The late '60s to early '70s was a time when some brilliant filmmakers were allowed to be daring and make the kinds of films they wanted to make. Directors like Mike Nichols and Martin Scorsese flourished, as did Robert Altman, the director of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The visual style has hints of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, but also adds a sepia tone quality to give it the look of old photographs, which is perfect.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller moves at a languid pace, and is less concerned with telling a compelling narrative than it is with exploring its characters. Warren Beatty brings McCabe to life with an aw-shucks approach, creating a character who so desperately wants to be a successful businessman that when he's doing something foolish he doesn't even notice. His heart, while in the right place, does too much of the decision-making.

Also, the film is very sly in its commentary on business practices, which resonates to this day. It shows the small business struggling to retain its identity outside the scope of the corporation trying to destroy it for its own benefit. Overall, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a worthy film that stands the test of time.

Christopher Moyer
May 4, 2005

- Directed by Robert Altman
- Written by Robert Altman, Brian McKay
- Produced by Mitchell Brower, David Foster

Warren Beatty - John McCabe
Julie Christie - Constance Miller
Rene Auberjonois - Sheehan
William Devane - The Lawyer

- Genres: Western, Drama