Sunday, May 11, 2014

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

“I don’t really care very much about story in a film—I think more of it as painting.”
       -- Robert Altman, director of McCabe & Mrs. Miller

And that sentiment just about says it all.  Starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, this 1971 movie was very much of its time.  Beatty plays McCabe, a man who arrives in an isolated northwest coast mining town and somehow manages to become the richest man there through ventures in gambling and prostitution.  Christie plays Mrs. Miller, a businesswoman who convinces McCabe he needs her to run his brothel.  Assorted other characters populate McCabe & Mrs. Miller but they are not clearly defined except for Sheehan, played by Rene Auberjonois, who is a rival saloon keeper.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller opens in a dark saloon and I hate movies whose scenes can’t be seen clearly because of the low lighting.  The action in the beginning of the movie was slow-moving but once Mrs. Miller arrived, it picked up.  Many scenes shifted abruptly back and forth and, while that might be an interesting cinematic style, I found it made it hard to follow the plot as the continuity just was not there for me.

But continuity really wasn’t the point of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  Rather, the film showed slices of life in a new town at the turn of the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of these two main characters who are trying to do more than just eke out a living.  Much grittier than Alias Smith and Jones, it was probably a much more realistic depiction of that time period: Streets were muddy, buildings were in various states of construction and furnishing, the saloon was definitely not as comfortable or well lit as all the ones in the TV show, and the clothes worn by the people were much more ragged and well-worn.  Even the long johns were mud-stained and loose-fitting, unlike those Heyes and Curry wore in, for example, The Posse That Wouldn’t Quit or Everything Else You Can Steal.

There was also lots of cussing in the movie which, for obvious reasons, wasn’t heard on the 1970s TV show.  Some phrases also stuck out as likely being of that time, such as “gooseberry ranch” for brothel.  This, combined with the production design and location shooting, gave an aura of verisimilitude to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, although I found the song that was sung repeatedly throughout to be annoying.

Robert Altman and David Foster, a producer of the movie, provide audio commentary as a bonus feature, which I listened to for about 15 minutes and it was quite informative and is the source of the opening quotation to this blog entry.  But I found the 9-minute “Making Of” bonus feature more interesting than the actual 121-minute feature film, so I didn’t listen to the entire commentary as I was not about to watch McCabe & Mrs. Miller a second time.