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Jennifer Jason Leigh,
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>
I spent the entirety of my final year in college reading western literature, reading about western literature, and watching western films. Although I had long been a fan of Altman's 1971 masterpiece, I would probably never have called it the greatest western film. Having sat through most of the Rios, the Searchers, Red River, Stage Coach, the Leone Spaghetti Westerns, and the more current incarnations of the genre (Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, All the Pretty Horses, et al.), I will say without hesitation that McCabe is a superior film (and a superior western) to all those listed.
It is not, of course, a traditional western, nor does it hold true to traditional 'values' of the western. You will not find any rampaging indians, and the typical shots of vast prairies or a surreal Monument Valley. Your hero is a conniving gambler and the heroine is a whore (and one that quite distinctly lacks a heart of gold). They're sympathetic, but they're also quite real with all the faults and foibles humans typically have. The landscape is brown and green; trees are everywhere and it looks like it's wet most of the time (which is appropriate to a film taking place in the Northwest). One of the few "cowboys" in the film dies in his underwear.
By a long shot, then, this is not your typical western, but it is better.
The wooden characters of old are replaced with real people to whom we can relate and about whom we can care. Furthermore, the environment - dark, dirty, wet, and all around not terribly inviting - seems more in line with the historical west than the traditional western. The West was not the nicest place to live; it was dangerous and inhospitable as it is in McCabe.
I could go on and on about how Altman inverts the western film tradition throughout the movie (as well as how he dismantles the notion that capitalism is a good economic and social system), but I will not. There is no need to treat McCabe that academically. The film is simply wonderful and entertaining - terrific performances, wonderful cinematography, a fascinating story, and great (and very Altman-esque) direction with overlapping conversations and well-handled improvisations. The movie also has the most perfect soundtrack I have ever heard. The songs - by the one and only Leonard Cohen - perfectly match the mood and atmosphere of the film and moreover feel like artifacts of that bygone era depicted in the film. That they were not written or recorded specifically for McCabe is astounding, as they are such an integral and organic part of this film.
If you have not seen this film, please do so; it's well worth the time and, unlike Nashville and Short Cuts - Altman's other masterpieces - it's very accessible.
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