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 comedyM*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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