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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Robert Altman puts his unique spin on the Western, and gives us a haunting and mournful film, and one of the best in his canon.
Warren Beatty buries himself underneath a bushy beard and an enormous fur coat to play McCabe, an opportunist who considers himself to have much more business savvy than he actually does. He appears in the ramshackle mining town of Presbyterian Church, somewhere in the wilds of Washington state at the turn of the 20th Century, and builds a whorehouse and saloon. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), also sporting her own mound of unkempt hair, arrives a little later and becomes McCabe's business partner. She knows much more about running a whorehouse at a profit, and it quickly becomes clear that she's the brains behind the operation. These two develop a timid affection for one another that's never overtly expressed, but their relationship doesn't have time to prosper, as a trio of hit men arrive to rub out McCabe after he refuses to sell his holdings to a corporation intent on buying him out.
Not surprisingly, considering the director, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is a strange film. There are virtually no scenes given to outright plot exposition or to showy acting. Much of the plot is conveyed through asides, casual glances and subtle nuances. Wilderness life is shown in all its unglamorous detail, and many of the normally familiar actors are unrecognizable behind their bad teeth, greasy hair and dirty faces. The harsh environment is a character itself, and few movies have a more memorable ending, with McCabe engaged in a most unconventional shoot out amid waist-high drifts of snow.
Altman is of course interested in debunking the usual Western myths. There are no heroes to be found here. McCabe is a decent enough guy, but he's a bit of a fool, and when the bad guys come calling, he runs and hides. The American frontier depicted here is not a sacred place waiting for brave and noble men to come and realize their dreams. Instead, it's a brutal and dangerous wasteland, in which only the craftiest can survive. The theme of corporate exploitation that pervades the film still rings resoundingly to a present-day audience.
But for all its harshness, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is a beautiful film to look at. Vilmos Zsigmond bathes everything in an ethereal light, and if there are images of icy starkness, there are also reverse images of rich warmth, notably those that take place in the whorehouse itself, which ironically becomes much more of a civilizing agent and cultural epicenter for the small town than the church that figures so prominently in other ways.
One of the best from Altman's golden period as a director, and one of the best films to emerge from any director in the 1970s.
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