Robert Altman’s anti-western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, like Thieves Like Us and The Long Goodbye, is so self-contained and effortlessly executed to be read as a deliberate exercise in genre deconstruction. Altman’s obsession with the myth of frontier life (its destruction, its re-civilization) is a mere backdrop for a struggle that pits the individual against big business. If not the greatest western ever made, McCabe & Mrs. Miller could be the most authentic representation of wilderness life ever put on screen. If the film feels like it’s never really about any one thing, it’s because Altman wants it to be about everything. The director displays a love for his characters here that never compromises his signature and often criticized objectivity. Like all great Altman films, the only way to enter McCabe & Mrs. Miller is by eavesdropping on the film’s text via Altman’s familiar use of zoom and overlapping dialogue. With Leonard Cohen’s ethereal songs and Vilmos Zsigmond’s timeless camerawork, Altman evokes a tragic western landscape on the brink of economic and spiritual exhaustion.
On “The Stranger Song,” Cohen sings of dealers making empty promises and of an “everyman” named Joseph looking for a manger. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that John “Pudgy” McCabe’s (Warren Beatty) ride into the town of Presbyterian Church (he is followed closely by a group of newly purchased prostitutes) brings to mind the image of the Wise Men coming to worship Jesus in Jerusalem. Altman understands that the frontier will fall yet he refuses to romanticize its destruction (both John Ford and Jim Jarmusch do similar things with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Dead Man, respectively). McCabe’s reputation, like that of Johnny Depp’s William “Bill” Blake from Dead Man, precedes him. Barkeep Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois) is just as fascinated with the legend of how McCabe once killed a notorious cowboy as Dead Man‘s “Nobody” is with the possibility that Depp’s Bill could be the spirit of English poet William Blake, writer of the Proverbs of Hell. Neither man perpetuates these false reputations yet they find the mystiques impossible to shake and, in the end, feel propelled to actualize them.
Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) rides into town from Seattle aboard a steam engine, accompanied by a mail-order bride, Ida (Shelly Duvall), whose husband dies when he defends her from a man who believes her to be a prostitute. In his review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Roger Ebert calls special attention to the importance of the “&” in the film’s title. Ebert stresses that McCabe and Mrs. Miller are, first and foremost, business partners. She scoffs at McCabe’s “crib cows whores,” promising high-class prostitutes to the town’s men for $5 a pop. It’s a steep price of course, but no one objects because Miller’s reputation (not unlike McCabe’s) also seems to precede her. McCabe is a stringent individualist, though that may have less to do with his wariness of business partners than with his feelings of inadequacy. Mrs. Miller calls attention to his “fuzzy math” and the importance of hiring a madam who knows how to run a proper sporting house and deal with a woman’s period and unexpected pregnancies.
Mrs. Miller insists that McCabe must “spend money to make money.” Naturally, McCabe is distrustful yet Mrs. Miller does not represent the capitalist threat of free enterprise. In the end, she’s just another lost soul trying to find a comfortable niche in America’s ever-changing frontierland. He’s in love with her beauty and wit. She’s is in love with the truth beneath the mystique. Their romance is fascinatingly underplayed because they both fear to compromise their business relationship. Mrs. Miller suffers in silence when she believes McCabe is going to kill the innocent Cowboy (Keith Carradine). In actuality, the boy is merely one of her prospective clients. Soon after, McCabe goes to visit Mrs. Miller only to be told that she has “company.” A wonderfully expressive Beatty (this is easily the actor’s greatest performance) is neither involved with Mrs. Miller nor does she own her, yet he is torn by the thought that she is with another man. In reality, she was merely comforting Ida in the wake of her husband’s death.
Sears (Michael Murphy) of the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company wants to buy McCabe’s land. The offer is a good one and while McCabe must be surely frustrated with the idea of selling property he has yet to make prosper, his failure to negotiate with Sears is also indicative of his inability to function and communicate within his self-contained universe. A lawyer-cum-politician speaks of free enterprise to McCabe when all McCabe wants is protection from the mining company’s hired thugs. Mrs. Miller sinks into an opium-induced funk and the Cowboy is irrationally killed when he attempts to cross a bridge in order to buy a pair of socks. Then, the Presbyterian Church nearly burns to the ground. Just as irrational as the Cowboy’s death is McCabe’s irrational need to uphold the myth of his false reputation. Then again, his struggle through Altman’s timeless frontier wonderland suggests a man vigilantly fighting off the threat of western expansion. Hopeless in the sense that it recognizes the inevitability of said threat, the ethereal McCabe & Mrs. Miller suggests that big business is less threatening than man’s own naïveté.