May 29, 2010
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonis

What it's about. A western set in the Pacific Northwest circa 1900. Gambler, wanderer, and dreamer Warren Beatty arrives in a booming mining camp, and decides that what it needs is a whorehouse. But his capabilities as a businessman are limited, and he considers his task accomplished once he has a trio of plain women servicing miners in makeshift tents.

Opportunity comes knocking in the form of Julie Christie, an attractive thirty-something madam who knows the earnings potential of a well-run cathouse. But she lacks capital, and strikes a bargain with Warren Beatty. If he will finance the construction of a proper whorehouse and pay for the transportation of prostitutes, Christie will manage the enterprise and split the profits with Beatty.

The partnership proves successful, and Beatty is soon the town's leading businessman. Neither Beatty nor Christie are romantic, but each develops an unspoken affection for the other. The tranquility of the mining camp is disturbed only briefly by Bert Remsen, who arrives in town upset that his wife Shelley Duvall has moved there to work under Christie and Beatty.

One day, a ruthless mining corporation sends two agents, Michael Murphy and Antony Holland, to buy out Beatty's profitable business. But the gambler Beatty overestimates the value of the cards he is holding, and his greed and amateur negotiating skills offend the two agents. They decide to switch to plan B. Instead of buying out Beatty, the corporation brings in three gunmen to run him out of town or kill him.

They are hulking, boisterous Hugh Millais, taciturn Jace Van Der Veen, and boastful, young, and cold-blooded Manfred Schulz. The mining camp has no law, so the three gunmen do as they please, which is murder the whorehouse's best customer, Keith Carradine, and hunt down the hapless Beatty. The miners do their best to ignore the gunmen, but they spring to action when the wooden church catches on fire, since that threatens to engulf the town in flames.

How others will see it. The turning point of director Robert Altman's career was MASH (1970). The momentum from that acclaimed film continued for the rest of his career. McCabe and Mrs. Miller was an early successor, and it benefitted from the charismatic presence of Beatty and his close friend Christie. The era of white hats and black hats had long faded by 1971, and Robert Altman was the right man at the right time to provide his vision of the frontier town. It was a spartan, unhealthy place where people sans family lived, not for adventure or dreams of wealth, but to eke out a modest existence through repetitive daily toil.

Audiences and critics embraced this version of the West. Christie received a Best Actress nomination, the film made money in theaters, and it remains well regarded today. The user ratings are high, particularly for male viewers, who are more likely to be fascinated by the movie's bleak atmosphere.

How I felt about it. The mining company would not send three high profile to kill McCabe. Instead, a single assassin would quietly move into the hotel across the whorehouse, and wait for an appropriate opportunity to take out McCabe. But that would be less dramatic, and is therefore unfeasible within a movie.

McCabe does quite well taking out all three gunmen. It is impressive that he can read their minds, and thus knows that today is the day all three will roam door to door to hunt him down. Obviously, he should have left town. Guess lawyer William Devane's only purpose within the story is to keep him around until the High Noon-style showdown.