Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, checking in between winter storms. And thinking: It’s a lot colder in this classic movie. So why not suggest it? Readers will feel better about themselves as they watch a great film they may have missed.
Robert Altman liked to say he hated Westerns. He didn’t much enjoy working with Warren Beatty. He was silent about directing Julie Christie. He probably disliked her too.
But in the winter of 1970, Altman took Beatty and Christie to the Pacific Northwest and made one of the best Westerns I’ve ever seen.
Well, not exactly a Western as you may think of it: John Ford, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood.
In 1970, our President was a crook, we were locked in an Asian war we could not win, our kids were growing their hair long, smoking weed and fornicating in the stairwells.
With that going on, no way does Robert Altman make a traditional Western.
This movie is about much more than the plot, but here’s the plot: Warren Beatty (McCabe), a small-time gambler with more dreams than brains, comes to the tiny community of Presbyterian Church to open a bar and bordello. It is his great good fortune to run into Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller), an opium-smoking prostitute who actually knows how to run a whorehouse. They join forces, get successful, have an awkward romance. A corporation decides to buy them out. Christie’s in favor of the deal — she understands the power of Big Business — but Beattie fancies himself a negotiator. So the corporation dispatches three gunmen to kill him.
I was just out of college when “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was released. I was a disciple of Leonard Cohen (whose early songs provide a gloomy, dreamy soundtrack). I admired Altman, respected Beatty, had a crush on Christie. My reaction to the film was predictable: It was one of the greater films I’d ever seen. [To buy the DVD from Amazon for $6.35, click here. To rent the video stream and watch it now for $2.99, click here.]
Watch the opening sequence and see if you don’t fall under its spell:
Most critics didn’t agree. Here’s Vincent Canby, of The New York Times: “The intentions of ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ are…meddlesomely imposed on the film by tired symbolism, by a folk-song commentary on the soundtrack…and by metaphysically purposeful photography….Such intentions keep spoiling the fun of what might have been an uproarious frontier fable.”
Talk about wrong-headed! Canby wanted Altman to make another “M*A*S*H.” But Altman wanted to get inside a genre, to show that the West wasn’t Gary Cooper and John Wayne — it was just like now, with little people starting small enterprises and getting a town going, then the Big Boys muscling them out and sucking the soul from the community. The story of the hardware store and Wal-Mart. Kind of the domestic story of our time….
But forget all of that. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is no more about its plot than your life is. It’s about dreams. And wanting to build something for yourself when you’re over your head and you don’t really know the players and all you have is you. And then it’s about taking the next step — gambling on love, on dreams. The Leonard Cohen lyric about the gambler says it all: “He’s just looking for a card so high and wild he’ll never have to deal another.”
And then it’s about weather. First drizzle, then snow. And as the snow blankets the town, the movie gets quieter and quieter. The climax is inevitable and dark; it’s played out in bright, silent snow. What ends badly also ends beautifully — so beautifully that you can only imagine what lies Altman told to get the money for this film.0
This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 12th, 2013 at 12:29 pm. It is filed under Books, Jesse's Book Reviews and tagged with Julie Christie, Leonard Cohen, Robert Altman, Warren Beatty. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.