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McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
A desperately haunting and poetic film
If you expect a traditional Western you will probably be disappointed - McCabe & Mrs. Miller has left out all the myths that the genre has symbolized for so many decades. In fact, the director himself, Robert Altman, labeled it as an anti-western. With its dark imagery and unusual story, it paved the way for modern pieces of art such as Unforgiven, There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Removing all the varnish applied to the Old West, the film gives an honest account of John McCabe, a man who is essentially a gambler. Luck put him in a relatively comfortable position of power and wealth as he arrives in a remote north-western town at the turn of the 20th century. Leaving a strange but discreet past behind him, he's ready to set up a business of his own, and a brothel for the local miners seems like the right idea. Constance Miller comes to offer him partnership. Seeing great potential in the plan, she is willing to run, and work in, a fine whorehouse. McCabe reluctantly accepts, but their business proves to be flourishing - and it surely wouldn't have been as clean and as respectable without Mrs. Miller's intervention. Then, as they prove to be one of the growing community's leading citizens, things start getting out of hand as the inevitable truths of capitalism unravel.
The film is mostly about the way the two leads interact with each other. McCabe is smitten by Miller's manners, and from their first encounter it's obvious that he has fallen into a dizzy spell. Some might call it love but it really is the desire for something that you can't fully obtain, something too distant. This Constance Miller who calls herself a madam is a whore, doesn't have much of a heart and doesn't try to hide it, yet she's enterprising, shines with the charm of a real lady, and, deep down, she's a sweet person. Their relationship is awkward and not based on love, but there is an indescribable feeling to it.
Julie Christie embodies her role magnificently (Al Pacino called her the most poetic of all actresses, watching this you can understand why). Warren Beatty is very convincing as the cigar-smoking John McCabe, a pathetically flawed man, not a hero, but a man you can identify with, for his weaknesses as well as for his strengths. The photography of wet, muddy landscape and Leonard Cohen's music confirm the melancholy mood. The pace is cautious and succeeds in revealing only as much as necessary, yet isn't slow and keeps the story going, as the details are paid attention to. The directing is perfect for the film - the characters and their conflicts, the dialogue, the humor: all perfect. Everything fits, what else can I say?
This is, in my book, one of the most understated masterpieces in the history of American cinema. It is strange and peculiar, and not for everyone to like and understand. But McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a unique and powerful film - it accomplishes everything it sets out to do.