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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 <email@example.com>
Filmmakers - intelligent ones - have to choose where they live in a film. The ordinary ones attach themselves to the narrative, usually the spoken narrative, so we get faces and clear, ordered speech to tell us what is going on. These are the most formulaic because there are after all only so many stories that are presentable.
Some attach themselves to characters, dig in and let those characters deliver a tale and situation. Often with the Italians and Italian-Americans, the camera swoops on a tether attached to these characters. I consider this lazy art unless there is some extraordinary insight into the relationship between actor and character.
And then there the few who attach themselves to a sense, a tone, a space. That situation has ideas and stories and talk, but they are only there as reflections from the facets of the place. Of the three, this is the hardest to do well; that's why so few try. And of those that do, most convey style only, not a place, not a whole presentation of the way the world works.
This film is about the best example I know where the world is 'real,' the situation governs everything and the primary substance is the presentation of a Shakespearian quality cosmology of fate.
The camera moves not so much with the story, but it enters and leaves. And there is not just one story, but many that we catch in glimpses. Words just appear in disorder as they do in life. Not everything is served up neat. We drift with the same arbitrariness as McCabe. It is not as meditative as 'Mood for Love' as it has something we can interpret as a story to distract us.
So as a matter of craft, this is an important film, one with painful fishhooks that stick. Beatty had already reinvented Hollywood with 'Bonny,' and was a co- conspirator in this. (If you are into double bills, see it with 'The Claim,' which is intended as a distanced remake/homage, that obliquely references Warren.)
Quite apart from the craft of the thing, and the turning of the Western on its head long before 'Unforgiven,' there are other values:
the notion that actors are imported into a fictional world as whores.
Not a new idea for sure, but so seamlessly and subtly injected here, it becomes just another one of the background stories. (Also referenced in 'Unforgiven.')
the business about the preacher trying to wrestle some old school
order from the overwhelming mechanics of arbitrary fate. This is the director's stance.
the final concept that the whole thing, McCabe and church and all is
an opium dream of the aptly named 'Constance,' dimly reinterpreting other events after the fashion of 'Edwin Drood.'
Ted's Evaluation -- 4 of 3: Every cineliterate person should experience this.
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