John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a charismatic gambler, arrives in a mining town and decides to open a brothel. Shortly thereafter, savvy prostitute Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives on the scene and offers to use her experience to help McCabe run his business for a share of the profits. But just as their enterprise begins to thrive, a powerful mining company comes into town, threatening to destroy what they’ve built up.
If a man is fool enough to get into business with a woman, she ain’t going to think much of him.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman’s anti-western film, is one of the most realistic portrayals of the Old West in the genre. Unlike the western films in previous decades, when the genre was at its peak popularity, this film doesn’t glamorize the setting or its characters. The town itself is under construction throughout the film, with piles of wood waiting to be used on top of an ugly, muddy landscape. Even in the film’s climactic shoot-out, the townspeople aren’t around to witness it. The title characters also have perverse expectations; John McCabe is presented as a tough outlaw, with rumors circling around him that he killed a man, while Constance Miller is initially seen as just a pretty woman. Miller proves to be a smart, assertive character, while it’s revealed that McCabe’s reputation exceeds him. Despite the differences in their personalities and ideologies, the unlikely pair become a dynamic duo as they try to conquer the business side of a western mining town.
Robert Altman is a director whose work I’ve always enjoyed, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is no exception. It has all of his great trademarks mixed into the Western setting (in some ways John McCabe reminded me of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye). Both Warren Beatty and Julie Christie also give stellar performances, and their chemistry is undeniable. This is now one of my top favorites of Altman’s films, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it a few days ago. I look forward to seeing it again as it took me by surprise with its approach, though I really shouldn’t expect any less from Altman.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Directed by: Robert Altman
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Julie Christie)
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