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 filmaker might make if he traveled back in time to the era and filmed people going about their daily lives.
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 clichés 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:
- 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.
- Catch-Phrase: "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..."
- Crapsack World: Altman's vision of The Wild West is one of loneliness and greed. Happiness is fleeting and tragedy looms around the corner.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: "I'm payin' you boys 15 cents an hour after you've been in them goddamn mines all day so's you'll have something to do at night besides go home and play with Mary Five Fingers!"
- Deconstruction: Of Westerns.
- Distinction Without a Difference: Butler isn't here to kill anybody. He's just here to hunt bear. (Guess who wears a big, shaggy bear coat?)
- Downer Ending: McCabe dies, cold, quiet and alone, whilst the rest of Presbyterian Church attends to other business. Things aren't exactly peachy for Miller, either.note
- Drink Order: To the disgust of several, McCabe will have his usual whiskey with a raw egg in it.
- Faux Affably Evil: Butler. Sure, he's an amoral killer, but he's so well-spoken!
- For the Evulz: The youngest assassin offers to help a kid with his gun, and then as soon as he reaches for it, draws his own and shoots him. Why? Because he was embarrassed for failing in shooting practice.
- Formerly Fat: Possibly. McCabe's reputation asserts his former nickname was Pudgy McCabe. A townsperson notes "He doesn't look so fat".
- 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 Hero Dies: McCabe himself at the end.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: One of many subverted tropes. Miller and the prostitutes are out for themselves, and themselves only. While it seems like Miller might care for McCabe a bit more than she lets on, in the end she abandons him.
- And in the context of the film, she is justified since John made a dumb decision out of Delusions of Eloquence and pissed off powerful people who could endanger not only McCabe but her and the prostitutes.
- As she explains herself to Shelley Duvall's character, a mail order bride whose husband was murdered in a petty fight, women in the west are at the mercy of stupid, alcoholic and Ax-Crazy men and it pays more to work as a prostitute than as a wife and mother, which is a major Take That! to patriarchal macho society.
- Instant Death Bullet: Averted. After John shoots him, one assassin manages to shoot back twice (and hit him both times) before dying. Another manages to stagger quite a way through the snow before keeling over, and McCabe himself takes several minutes to die. The only one who dies instantly was shot in the forehead.
- 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.
- Laser-Guided Karma: The blonde punk kills the unarmed Keith Carradine character 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.
- Mail-Order Bride: Bart Coyle's wife, Ida.
- 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
- Pop-Star Composer: Leonard Cohen lent some of his songs to this movie, including "The Stranger Song" and "Sisters of Mercy".
- Pyrrhic Villainy: 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. Did we mention this is a Deconstruction of The Western?
- Slice of Life
- 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.
- Twilight of the Old West: A tombstone confirms that the film is set in 1902, well after what most would consider the classic "Wild West" era.
- Young Gun: One of the assassins hired to kill McCabe.