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Film / McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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Not your typical Western protagonists.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a 1971 Western film directed by Robert Altman. Altman himself called it an "anti-Western", as it ignored or outright subverted a number of the usual genre conventions. The film at heart is intended as a more realistic portrayal of life in the Old West; something which one reviewer remarked would be like what a documentary filmmaker might make if he traveled back in time to the era and filmed people going about their daily lives. It's also based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton.

Starting with being set in the relatively wooded northwestern United States as opposed to the orange deserts of the southwest as most westerns are; professional gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) turns up in the tiny town of Presbyterian Church (named after its only substantial building) one day at the start of the twentieth century, and quickly has the entire town under his thumb. He establishes a brothel with three prostitutes purchased from the nearby town of Bearpaw. Not long afterwards, opium-addicted brothel madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie) turns up in town herself and convinces McCabe that she can do a better job running the brothel than he can, and that she will share the increased profits with him if he lets her do so. He accepts. The two flourish, but then a pair of agents from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company in Bearpaw arrive seeking to buyout McCabe's business. He refuses, trying to drive the price up, but they lose patience and leave town. Miller warns him that the company has a reputation for sending assassins to kill those who won't sell. Sure enough, three gunslingers arrive shortly after.

The film seeks to defy as many of the genre's clich├ęs as possible, being one of the most notable "revisionist Westerns". Life in town is portrayed as dirty and unadventurous, and McCabe eventually becomes just an obstacle to be shot out of the way by a company wanting to buy property for cheap, with the movie making clear what happens when "little businesses" cross the path of big ones, as well as the role of small middle-of-nowhere frontier towns in society's bigger picture. As mentioned above, it replaces the classic sunny desert setting with a bleak snow-filled landscape and drives the point home with a soundtrack by none other than Leonard Cohen. Needless to say, it is gloomy and cynical, but considered by many to be one of the finest movies of The '70s.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: While the fate of McCabe is the same in both the book and the film, the film's ending is interestingly grimmer than the book's, reversing the usual direction of this trope. In the book McCabe dies in Mrs. Miller's arms, and she avenges his death by killing Sheehan. In the movie, Sheehan lives while McCabe just dies wounded, cold, and alone in the freezing snow. Mrs Miller isn't around when he dies nor is she aware of it.
  • Adaptation Title Change: The movie was changed from the novel's name McCabe since Constance Miller is a prominent character in both versions.
  • Affably Evil: Butler is friendly with the members of the town and even cordial to McCabe, who is taken aback by his gregariousness. He sympathizes that the dispute between McCabe and the mining company is pretty small, but he's got a job to do nonetheless.
  • Anti-Hero: McCabe is no villain but he is not the noble cowboy you expect in a more romanticized western. He is insecure, gets drunk, bumbling, stubborn, and doesn't think smartly when it comes to taking the next step. When he does start to stand up for himself, he doesn't realize who he is messing with. When a powerful company doesn't give him a high enough offer for his business, they sent guys out to get him. He does get a typical heroic moment near the end where he gets to shoot down three of the films antagonists in a gunfight..... but he never gets praise for it because no one bothers to look for him.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: McCabe is always arguing with Mrs. Miller and complaining that she causes him pain, but he also quickly falls in love with her.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Alma, the quiet and shy prostitute, freaks out and attacks one of her clients with a knife. We never find out why.
  • BFG: When the townsfolk catch sight of Butler's enormous elephant gun, they instantly know that he's bad news.
  • Big Eater: McCabe watches Mrs. Miller put away a plate of four fried eggs, stew and rocky mountain oysters, obviously surprised by her appetite.
  • Big Ego, Hidden Depths: While outwardly and when amongst company a blustery, bigger-than-life type of guy, in private McCabe talks to himself, saying what he wishes he could say to Mrs. Miller, about the kind of person he really is.
    McCabe: I got poetry in me!
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Sheehan, the saloon keeper, seems affable and down-to-earth at first but we quickly see he's a cowardly backstabber.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: McCabe and Mrs. Miller aren't exactly paragons of virtue, but they're up against a murderous monopoly by Harrison Shaughnessy.
  • Brick Joke: In one scene, the Bartender asks Smalley whether he should shave his beard and leave his mustache. In a later scene, he's only wearing a mustache and asks Smalley for his reaction — Smalley has forgotten all about the conversation and doesn't know what the Bartender's even trying to point out.
  • Call-Back: People question whether McCabe killed Bill Roundtree, who was shot with a derringer. In the end, McCabe produces a derringer.
  • Catchphrase: "If a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass so much, follow me?" and "All you've cost me is money and pain... pain, pain, pain..."
  • Combat Pragmatist: McCabe hides and shoots his victims in the back when he can. When he can't, he plays dead.
  • Crapsack World: Altman's vision of The Wild West is one of loneliness and greed. Happiness is fleeting and tragedy looms around the corner.
  • Deconstruction: Of Westerns.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Racism: The white folks use the racial epithet "chinks" frequently and generally treat the local Chinese population with disdain. Several white men talk about whether an Asian prostitute's vagina is sideways, which was an urban legend of the 19th century. While the local black couple are allowed to operate a business and stand in a prominent location at a white man's funeral, it's telling that they hustle back to their home once the church fire has been put out and the white folks descend into revelry.
    • Sexism: McCabe purchases three prostitutes, haggling their price right in front of them and making direct comparisons to the sale of horses. One of the townsfolk is a Mail-Order Bride.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Miss Miller leaves McCabe speechless when she calls him out on his lack of planning on how he run his brothel when he first gets started.
  • Distinction Without a Difference: Butler isn't here to kill anybody. He's just here to hunt bear. He says this to his target, McCabe, who's wearing a bear fur coat.
  • Downer Ending: McCabe dies, cold, quiet and alone, whilst the rest of Presbyterian Church attends to other business and Mrs. Miller lies in an opium haze.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Several characters are never named. Sheehan's bartender is credited as Bartender.
  • For the Evulz: The Kid murders the Cowboy purely because he's mad about bungling his target practice.
  • Formerly Fat: People ponder how McCabe got his supposed nickname "Pudgy," since "He doesn't look so fat."
  • Genre Deconstruction: The film subverts or completely ignores the tropes associated with the western genre. The films version of the west is not a world of heroes with virtue, criminal outlaws, pretty dames, and characters who fight for honor come out on top in a big showdown and then ride into the sunset. It's a rather cold and dirty world fueled by greed and people feel lonely and unvalued. The protagonists are Anti-Hero 's, the antagonists are less evil and more powerful businessmen, the prostitutes are dirty, dangerous, and even have some teeth missing, the climax is more of a cat-and-mouse game instead of a high noon showdown, and the movie ends with it's hero dying cold and alone in the snow with barely anyone even acknowledging that he died.
  • The Ghost: McCabe is hounded by rumors that he killed Bill Roundtree, but no one's quite sure who Bill Roundtree was. Butler later taunts McCabe by (falsely) claiming "my best friend's best friend was Bill Roundtree."
  • The Gunslinger:
    • There's a story circulating that John McCabe is one ("Pudgy McCabe"), and that he shot someone called Bill Roundtree. At first it seems like its untrue, but many people interpret McCabe's actions in the final scene to be a subtle confirmation of the story.
    • The three professional killers sent by the mining company are gunslingers. The Kid even forces a quick-draw against a random cowboy.
  • The Hero Dies: McCabe himself at the end.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Subverted. It looks like Mrs. Miller will play out this way in her romance with McCabe since we do see that she shows concern and care for him, but their relationship never grows beyond financial business partners, and she ends the film getting high on opium, unaware that he's died.
  • In the Back: McCabe takes out two of the assassins by shooting them in the back, and is himself mortally wounded from a rifle shot as he retreats up a hillside.
  • Kick the Dog: The Kid tries to pick a fight with a random Cowboy, but when the Cowboy repeatedly refuses to take the bait, he invents a pretext to trick the Cowboy into removing his pistol from its holster to give the Kid a pretext to murder him. This establishes that Butler and his crew are, indeed, merciless thugs.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • The blonde punk kills a cowboy in cold blood after catching him off guard just for kicks. In the film's climax, McCabe kills the blonde punk by shooting him in the back, catching him off guard. May count as a Karmic Death. To make the parallel clear, the film shows each of them floating face-down in water after their respective shootings.
    • The preacher refuses to shelter McCabe from the hired guns, steals his shotgun and forces him outside. He's then gunned down by Butler, who mistakes him for McCabe after seeing him with McCabe's shotgun.
  • Mail-Order Bride: Bart Coyle's wife, Ida is said to be a mail-order bride. She arrives in town having never met him. She seems to be uncomfortable with him, but still sees sleeping with him as her duty.
  • Meaningful Name: The title of the movie isn't "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", but "McCabe & Mrs. Miller". Using an ampersand rather than a word demonstrates that they are not really romantic partners, but a business.
  • Mysterious Past: Upon McCabe's arrival in Presbyterian Church, several townspeople speculate as to who he was and his possible reputation as a gunslinger. By the film's end we've only been given a few clues that they were correct, and these ambiguous at best.
  • Name and Name: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, our two main characters.
  • Nice Guy: The Cowboy, a chipper and polite young man who seems to steal the hearts of the entire bordello. When confronted by the Kid, he passes up every opportunity to take offense to the Kid's obvious provocations.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Leonard Cohen lent three songs from his 1967 debut album to this movie ("The Stranger Song, "Sisters of Mercy", "Winter Lady").
  • Professional Killer: Butler, Kid and Breed are triggermen for the local mining company who kill anyone who refuses to sell their land.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Butler mortally wounds McCabe but leaves him alive long enough to get mortally wounded himself.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Not only is McCabe's death lonely and sad, but it's ultimately pointless and for a dubious cause.
  • Signature Style: The film is a good representation of what would go on to become director Robert Altman's signature style: a meandering plot touching on a wide range of story lines in an ensemble cast, with lots of overlapping dialogue when characters congregate.
  • Slice of Life: Per Altman's style, a significant amount of screen time is dedicated to the common daily lives of the ensemble cast.
  • Snow Means Death: There is a blanket of snow on the ground on the morning of the climactic shootout, and it continues to snow throughout the long scene.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance:
    • The gentle, slightly mournful, "Sisters of Mercy" plays over some of the more distressing scenes.
    • A music box version of "Silent Night" plays when Bart Coyle gets beaten to death, forcing Ida to start working for Mrs. Miller.
  • Thinking Out Loud: McCabe is prone to muttering his thoughts to himself. He's introduced doing just that.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The Cowboy doesn't seem to realize that the Kid is trying to pick a fight with him. After several attempts to insult and threaten him, the Kid offers to "fix" his gun for him, which the Cowboy blithely accepts.
  • Twilight of the Old West: The film is set in 1902, after what we would consider to be the prime "Old West" period. Since it takes place in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, it's the last frontier of the contiguous United States. To drive the point home, the town has an early automobile.
  • Young Gun: One of the assassins hired to kill McCabe is a teen, credited simply as "Kid."