Thursday, April 24, 2014

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

MCCABE & MRS. MILLER        A       
USA  (120 mi)  1971  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman 

All you've cost me so far is money and pain...Pain, pain, pain...    
—John McCabe (Warren Beatty)

Traveling lady,
stay a while
until the night is over.
I’m just a station on your way;
I know I’m not your lover.

—Leonard Cohen, “Winter Lady” Leonard Cohen - Winter Lady  YouTube (2:17)

Much like jazz music, the movie western is uniquely American, born and bred in this nation, where there is a unique relationship with Americans to westerns, which took the world of television by storm in popular long running programs like Gunsmoke (1955 – 75) and Bonanza (1959 – 73), television staples of the 60’s and 70’s, where Altman actually directed some of these early episodes.  There are the Western purists, who tend to favor the traditional John Ford westerns, and there are the revisionists who attempt to break down the myths and stereotypes created by the exaggerated news coverage, hastily written dime store novels, and the first 100 years of cinema, often at odds with one another.  While John Ford lauded the bravery of a few rugged individuals that literally won the West from “savage” Indians and dreaded outlaws, where good triumphs over evil, paving the way for laws and civilization to follow, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is often considered the first modern western, a grim, ultra realistic look quite ahead of its time without a touch of false sentiment, going against the grain with an unglamorous story that has little action to speak of, but could be considered an anti-Western, moving away from those immense landscapes of Indian wars, gunfights, stagecoach robberies, or outlaw shoot outs, narrowing the focus, becoming smaller in scope, literally exposing a defining moment when no heroes rush in to save the day.  Altman’s film follows in the footsteps and could certainly be described as an anti-western, where rather than focus upon the myths of the frontier or rugged individualism, the director takes a particular interest in re-defining period authenticity, imagining it as the messy business that it likely was, deconstructing myths while creating a scathing critique of American history, suggesting it was the “savage” and unchecked capitalism in the West that steamrolled over everything in its path, grabbing whatever it wanted through greed and brute force, where the conquering of the West is no noble ideal, but part of the inevitable movement of capitalism, the outward growth of economic power.     

While many traditionalists really despise this movie for not having the very elements that it admires in a western, especially heroicism, yet it’s one of the richest works in the entire western genre, where the gentle lyricism is unparalleled, often listed as among the greatest westerns of all time, #1 here, The 50 greatest westerns – Film – Time Out London, and #2 here: IMDb: Top 20 Greatest Western Movies of All Time (The Ultimate List ..., and #8 here:  Western - AFI: 10 Top 10.  While Ford mourns the passing of the frontier, and with it the loss of individual freedoms which make way for strengthened law abiding communities, Altman sees no healing spirit, but simply the lies of the western mythology, suggesting rural communities miles from anywhere only reinforce a feeling of abject loneliness and isolation.  What Altman values is tone and atmosphere above action, where this could be the most authentic representation of wilderness life and the most gorgeously poetic western ever made, filmed by Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, whose earlier career had only included B-movies, making this his finest work, where Altman insisted upon a specific color palette to capture the look of an old photograph, briefly exposing the film stock to light in order to fade it, also using filters to diffuse the colors, and “to compliment the period, the set and the look of the people.”  Warner Brothers was furious with the original footage, but Altman blamed the Canadian film processing company, suggesting they could fix it in Los Angeles when they were done shooting.  Of course, there was no fixing it, as it was shot exactly the way Altman wanted it to look, leading to a rather contentious relationship with Altman and Hollywood studios after that. Shot entirely in British Columbia in and around Squamish and Vancouver, the town’s rustic buildings were painstakingly constructed by production designer Leon Ericksen, given an unfinished look where lumber is always left lying around on the side of the road, while rusty ore was dumped on the set to color the whole town, which is saturated in the region’s weather of relentless rain and snow.  When one thinks of the greatest use of snow in motion pictures, this film always springs to mind, especially in the amazing final sequence where it’s blended so naturally into the film’s aesthetic. 

Coming shortly after MASH (1970), where the director first used layered, multi-track sound, this is one of the more extreme uses of overlapping dialogue with multiple conversations going on at once where the audience has to pick and choose which ones to pay attention to, often hearing only bits and pieces, but that’s enough, as the keenly established atmosphere is the main thing, offering the audience a chance to eavesdrop into a piece of the American West in the early 1900’s.  Similarly, there are few utterances coming out of lead actor Warren Beatty as John McCabe that don’t sound a bit mumbled or lost in the various conversations, where he’s often captured humorously talking to himself, often inebriated, yet his overall thought process remains clear by observing his actions, where others usually defer to him or make space for him at a table.  Adapted by Brian McKay from the little-known 1959 novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton that is filled with western cliché’s, Altman places his own stamp on the film from the outset, setting his town in the damp and chilly rain of the Pacific Northwest close to the Canadian border instead of the dry and dusty deserts bordering on Mexico.  Here drowning in nature, it is always wet and cold, and later on it snows.  McCabe’s initial entrance as a lone man slowly riding into town over the opening credits wearing a giant bearskin coat is a classic Leonard Cohen McCabe & Ms Miller opening scene  YouTube (4:55), walking into a dark saloon, having a look around, and then returning to his horse where he brings in a red cloth that he neatly places over a table.  Before he is even halfway through, men are pulling up chairs.  Known only as McCabe, a gambler, the bartender (René Auberjonois) immediately starts spreading rumors about his alleged past, which includes shooting a man at a card game, warning the men “That man’s got a big rep boys, he’s got a big rep.” When McCabe sees the awe that this story inspires, he neither acknowledges nor denies the rumors, but uses it to enhance his elevated stature among the men.  One common element in western lore is the mysterious stranger is always portrayed as a man whose reputation precedes him.  Here it’s accompanied by the gloomy and prophetic voice of Leonard Cohen singing “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.” Leonard Cohen: The Stranger Song - YouTube (4:57), music that perfectly matches the somber mood of the darkly lit scenery. 

McCabe’s big idea is building a saloon and whorehouse, with an attached bathhouse, and bringing prostitutes into the nearly all-male world of Presbyterian Church, mostly filled with builders, miners or prospectors, men used to working outdoors who rarely ever see a woman, much less take a bath, which seems compatible with images of a half-built town where structures remain unfinished throughout the film.  In this town, besides work, there’s little else to do besides drink, gamble, and partake in the pleasures of women, where McCabe brings in three of the most unrefined and ragged women on the planet that work out of outdoor tents, one with no teeth, another largely oversized, but they’re an instant hit in this scruffy town layered in mud and filth, though one is quickly seen stabbing a man with an unexpected ferocity.  Enter Mrs. Miller, Julie Christie, a sophisticated, take charge woman with a Cockney accent who arrives in town on a steam engine, bringing along a mail-order bride (Shelly Duvall) for a man who is soon stabbed to death for defending her from a man who thinks she’s a prostitute, inadvertently forcing her to become one, shown simply by eye contact with Mrs. Miller at the funeral.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller become business partners, a relationship born out of economic necessity, bringing in high-class prostitutes from San Francisco, as she knows he doesn’t know the first thing about properly taking care of the women or running a respectable business, but she needs his investment capital.  Of course, despite McCabe’s constant griping about “money and pain,” their business is a huge success, drawing interest throughout the territory, charging a dollar a girl, and a whopping $5 dollars for the madam of the house, Mrs. Miller herself.  The relationship between the two, who were lovers in real life, is particularly noteworthy, as it takes place almost entirely under the surface, where both are loath to admit their feelings and instead sit on opposite ends of the bar in near silence counting their daily profits, with McCabe never really admitting to his feelings except when he’s alone muttering under his breath.  While McCabe is quick to confess “Madam, I’m not here as a customer” when entering the premises, actually he is, as he’s quite simply amazed at what he sees, never believing that a bunch of roughnecks would ever be able to appreciate such classy elegance.  Of course he takes all the credit for building a successful enterprise, eventually drawing the outside interest of other potential investors, while privately he’s seen paying the $5 dollars whenever he needs the madam’s company.    

This is one of the first films to capture the visual poetry of the as yet undiscovered Terrence Malick, whose first feature BADLANDS (1973) was still two years away, as the rhythm of the film is consistently driven by the unique beauty of the imagery, where the golden interior lamplight in otherwise darkened rooms has a painterly detail that matches the extraordinary outdoor beauty of the natural landscape, where it looks like a town is built in the middle of a vast timber forest.  As the weather turns colder, the plot darkens, taking a bleak turn when two businessmen from a wealthy company show up interested in the nearby mining deposits, wanting to buy out all of McCabe’s interests.  They are simply baffled at McCabe’s uncouth business manner and can’t make any headway with him, as to their amazement he turns down their offers, leaving them little choice but to send in the hired guns to do the talking.  McCabe never realizes the full implications of his actions, always thinking he was negotiating, driving a hard bargain to up their price, but Mrs. Miller is more astute, telling him you don’t say no to men like that, and she fears for his life, knowing at any minute that the next men riding into town could be the killers.  By the time McCabe sees the error of his ways, the businessmen are long gone, leaving behind an oppressive emptiness of fear and dread, which is a signal for the snow to fall.  In the wintry landscape, filled with an ethereal silence, the hand of fate is about to call John McCabe’s bluff.  How it plays out is what separates this film from other westerns, as the suspense is palpable, but the unique beauty is a joy to behold, showing Altman at the peak of his creative powers, bringing all the forces together in a snowy choreography of doom, allowing nature to take its course.  Snow falls steadily throughout the finale, showing at first a heartbreakingly senseless death of an innocent, which is just a prelude for the main course, told with a wordless precision, including an apocalyptic fire that threatens to destroy the entire community.  Altman brings us back to the Western myth, of an ultimate showdown between the individual pitted against the threat of more powerful forces, where it’s hopeless to think he can win, as hopeless as Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON (1952), or Alan Ladd in SHANE (1953), iconic moments in Western mythology, breaking new grounds here where all hope gives way to an inevitable end of Manifest Destiny.  While the town rejoices in saving itself, reminding us there is power in numbers, they’re cluelessly unaware of the fight taking place in their midst, where exhilaration soon gives way to an exhaustive and mournful death of the frontier myth, where a man is undone by refusing a business deal and believing in the mistaken notion that he is a gunfighter, a hero despite himself, whose heroic actions are never seen by anyone, who dies for no noble purpose or higher cause, but for absolutely nothing, shown here in the sad and devastating, yet magnificent ending sequence McCabe & Mrs. Miller - Finale YouTube (4:18). 

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