In a string of films in the 1970s, Robert Altman placed his alternative spin on everything from crime movies (Thieves Like Us, 1974) to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe (The Long Goodbye, 1973). But Altman's self-proclaimed anti-Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which followed popular comedy M*A*S*H in 1971, might just be the most sublime: A blend of economy, chemistry and fine performances, brought down to human level by Altman's trademark layered chatter, a stark Leonard Cohen soundtrack and the rain-sodden cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, it's a movie that the late Roger Ebert called Altman's most perfect film.
Warren Beatty stars as John McCabe, a gambler with money in his pocket who arrives in the rough and muddy streets of the town of Presbyterian Church, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, with plans to open a brothel, saloon and bathhouse. He's a talker and the rumor flies that he's a gunslinger, but he gets off to a rocky start with a two-bit, three-girl whorehouse that lacks all niceties, but serves a purpose.
That all changes when the shrewd British madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town on a spectacle of a smoking steam engine, hungry as a horse with one mail-order bride and a wagon-full of highfalutin' whores the likes of which have never been seen in Presbyterian Church. Over dinner, Mrs. Miller, whose intelligence clearly outruns McCabe's, strikes a deal to partner with him in a proper whorehouse.
And it doesn't take long for him to realize that she's the most interesting woman in town -- McCabe is more than willing to pay the five dollars she eventually charges him to share her bed. A relationship ensues. In such a godforsaken place, they need one another.
Things turn sour when a mining company sends agents to Presbyterian Church looking to buy up the entire town. McCabe doesn't fall easily, standing up to them with false bravado. A contract is put on his life; three gunmen arrive, looking to collect on his bounty. At this point, McCabe -- never the gunman he was once rumored to be -- is running scared. Snow begins to fall.
Without giving up too much, it does not end well for John McCabe -- though he does get some parting shots. As often happens in those early Altman films, the audience has rallied behind a less-than-perfect protagonist and learned to love the big lunk, even as he heads out to meet his end.
Susan Froyd, in another life, toiled for a few years in some of Denver's most beloved and belated repertory cinemas. She has also seen a lot of movies over a lot of years. In this weekly series, she'll recommend forgotten films, classics, cult favorites and other dusty reels of celluloid from the past. You might like it.
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