McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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This week on Western Wednesday I continue the trend of non-traditional Westerns. If the Dollars trilogy features a hero who could technically be considered evil McCabe & Mrs. Miller features a hero that could be considered just plain inadequate.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a professional gambler, rides into the fledgling town of Presbyterian Church. Upon noticing the existing hotel’s lack of class, he sets out to build a saloon of his own. As he’s first getting underway, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) appears on the scene wanting to become his partner. She manages the whorehouse portion and McCabe handles the gambling half. The saloon does a roaring trade thanks to Mrs. Miller’s business acumen, but that is all threatened when a large mining company is determined to buy them out.

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The film employs a lot of dramatic irony which is crucial to its success. You don’t know that McCabe’s doomed from the beginning of the film, but you do about halfway through. In the beginning, the film has you thinking he’s something of a big shot. The owner of the bar spreads a rumor that he killed a man and the camera zooms in on him smiling like you’re supposed to recognize and remember him. Mrs. Miller takes him down more than a few pegs, and towards the end it’s her looks of concern and dire warnings that make us fear for him the most. There’s a bit of foreshadowing with another hapless fellow (Keith Carradine) that rides into town; it’s clear that he’s supposed to be another version of McCabe. His fate doesn’t bode well for either of them.

Typical of Westerns, the film ends with a shootout between McCabe and a representative from the mining company. The way the film approaches this is indicative of McCabe’s ineffectiveness as a hero. First of all, it takes Mrs. Miller to convince him that the company is out to get him. He doesn’t understand that he can’t negotiate with them anymore. He goes to see a lawyer who babbles on and on about corporate America against the little man but it’s clear McCabe doesn’t even understand what he’s talking about, or how it applies to him. McCabe is a character who doesn’t really have a good understanding of his situation, or how to get out of it.

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When the final shootout does come, it’s not your typical western fare. As always, the landscape and how the characters relate to it is very important. This isn’t an open desert; the film’s set in the Northwest. There’s snow and pine trees instead of tumbleweeds and cacti. This helps it look different than other westerns, but it also means that McCabe and the company man have a much different area to fight in. They don’t stand in the middle of the town because there isn’t one really; the hide behind trees, buildings, and snowdrifts. They don’t simply face each other and shoot; there’s trickery and cowardice at play here. This is not how a man who faces his enemies, be it for revenge or what, and wages battle; McCabe is simply a man who wants to remain alive.

Just to be clear, McCabe isn’t a bad man or a complete coward, just a normal guy who is a bit too fragile for the frontier. It’s strange and fascinating to put a man like this in the position of the hero, but that’s exactly what the film does and it works well. The dramatic irony gives an appropriate sense of impending doom, the landscape keeps things interesting and despite how crowded it is still gives as great a sense of desolation as any desert, and I haven’t mentioned it yet but the soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs also creates a sense of moroseness in the picture. McCabe & Mrs. Miller shows a lot of things Westerns don’t normally show in ways they don’t normally show it, and is all the more interesting for it.

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“That man? That man never killed nobody.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review
New York Times’ 1971 review

Listen: Quentin Tarantino on McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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