Criterion Corner: Manifest Tragedy: Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller

The Western is perhaps the most American genre, visually narrating concepts of manifest destiny, freedom, and the encroachment of civilized society on the untamed frontier.  Robert Atlman's booze-soaked dirge, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a totemic embodiment of the fundamental concepts that form the true foundation of not only the Western, but of American cinema.  Blending iconic lyrics from Leonard Cohen with Sartre-esque visuals, Altman creates a nightmarish depiction of the death of the American dream.  Juxtaposing traditional concepts of heroism, love, and enterprise with the grim realities of a world without law, the final result is a somber revelation and an unforgiving deconstruction of masculinity and violence.  

Drifter McCabe wanders into the town of Presbyterian Church, muttering to himself and blundering his way into a card game.  Rumors abound that he is a gunfighter who killed a man, and this only serves to enhance his mystique, leading to the drifter establishing a house of ill repute within the community.  Affairs become complicated when McCabe forms a business alliance with Mrs. Miller, a Cockney mistress with a talent for organized prostitution.  As the mismatched pair’s relationship begin to deepen, the arrival of a ruthless mining company's proxies upends McCabe's fantasies of wealth and reputation, forcing him to confront the cold and merciless realities of the world around him.  Altman and Brian McKay's script, adapted from Edmund Naughton's novel is based on an economy of words, mirroring the world of transactions within Altman's presentation.  Words are exchanged, even misinterpreted or unheard in a natural way.  There is a rhythm within the undercurrent that pulses in between the empty spaces that surround the characters, and it is this pattern that propels the narrative forward.  While Cohen's unforgettable songs emulate the bereavement of the protagonists, silence and drunken conversation are the true locomotives, seamlessly transitioning the narrative from drama to pyrrhic love story to uncomfortable gunfight. 

Warren Beatty gives the performance of a lifetime as McCabe. Even at the height of his time on the material plane, Beatty's yearning loner is painfully mortal.  He constantly makes mistakes and is outplayed by both "friend" and foe.  It is not until he realizes the true peril of his situation that legends and flesh begin to coexist within the same persona and it this is one of the many interesting artifacts to be found within the film.  While Eastwood's William Munny ultimately gives into the blood thirst and revels in it, McCabe lives in fear of it until his last moments.  While the truth of the rumors that swirl around him are never fully verified, Altman's decision to show McCabe as most competent when all is already lost is intriguing.  This a film that is defined by layering, with tragedy being the most abundant medium.  Throughout the story, misfortune befalls not only the principals, but their employees as well, all of which dwell within a town that is on the cusp of being taken over by financial interlopers.  This presents an interesting question with respect to freedom, destiny, and perception.  The world, and those within in it are presented as just so.  What you see is what you get, and the bulk of the personalities are content to simply exist, be in a cloud of opium smoke, a soiled brothel bedroom, or the fantasies of better times.  Even the villains are presented as unstoppable titans, hounds at the door of free enterprise whose eventual consumption of Presbyterian Church is an almost ordained conclusion.  

Julie Christie's Oscar nominated turn as Mrs. Miller is a quiet masterwork of existential torment.  Her chemistry with Beatty is dangerous and subtle, a potent combination that undermines the obvious Oedipal themes by putting her at odds with not only McCabe, but her place in a world of men.  Christie's absolute embrace of the darkness that fills Mrs. Miller is miraculous to behold.  In lesser pictures the familiar thin line between partner and lover is something to be exploited, and yet in Altman's skilled hands it becomes the architect of the viewer's undoing, reminding the audience that no one, physically or mentally, is going to make it out alive.  The way this painful truth is delivered, through Vilmos Zsigmond's grimy cinematography is unforgettable, encapsulating the happenings within a fading ghost story, a tale in which America itself is the specter.  The interiors of the brothel, hellishly lit with reds and oranges further evoke an almost supernatural ambiance that oozes into every crack and corner of this desolate way station of the soul. 

Violence is another integral theme that Altman seeks to examine.  It is clear that many of the people within the purgatory of Presbyterian Church have experienced violence, either from their customers, employers, or rivals.  What is interesting is in how the concept of violence is a character unto itself.  It both defines reputations and dictates protocol.  In a world without real law, the only rule is that of the fist or bullet and this is demonstrated during several sequences.  Keith Carradine's Cowboy's showdown on the bridge and McCabe's fruitless meeting with an attorney are two sterling examples of the harshness that pervades Altman's haunted frontier.  While other films (Unforgiven, No Country for Old Men) would go on to explore the concept of violence's effect on the psyche, Altman's subtle foray into the psychology of brutality is one of the most important origins because of how the approach melds with the universe in which it exists.  It is as if everyday life could not exist without the blood of (no so) innocents being spilled and it is this ritualistic heritage that Altman seeks to reveal as the true story of the West rather than fetishized versions of the past. 

Available now on a stunning Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is not only one of the greatest westerns, it is also one of the most important American films ever made.  A dirty, absolutely feel bad ballad about the horrors of the romanticized Wild West, Altman's magnum opus is nothing short of legendary.  Altman manages to obliterate his subject matter, peeling back every piece of a tarnished veneer to reveal the bruised heart of a country built upon unequal suppositions and revisionist fantasies.  

--Kyle Jonathan