In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the 1971 western directed by Robert Altman, bullshit seems like the stuff empires are built on, but as we quickly come to find out, it can also turn to quicksand.
Bullshit can be a powerful thing, especially when fueled by the persuasive force of a good rumor. It has the power to make mountains out of the meek, and can bestow otherwise insignificant company men with an imposing shadow. Bullshit can even give prostitutes from distant lands an aura of respectability. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the 1971 western directed by Robert Altman, bullshit seems like the stuff empires are built on, but as we quickly come to find out, it can also turn to quicksand.
Based on the now out-of-print 1959 novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton, McCabe & Mrs. Miller offers up an alternate view of the Old West that eschews much of the traditional scenery we associate with the period. There are no dusty desert towns lined with rolling tumbleweeds in this film. Instead, Altman’s vision of the Old West is one that’s meaner and muddier, although offset brilliantly by the soft-focus cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who also collaborated with Altman on the 1973 film, The Long Goodbye.
The film was shot on 35mm anamorphic in Vancouver, using flashing to control contrast. Interior shots seem lit by kerosene lamp and give Presbyterian Church—a rough-hewn town carved out of the bowels of an unforgiving wilderness—a drab, grainy aesthetic. At times, the exterior shots feel so slick with grime it’s like the audience can almost feel the dirt and splinters.
With its scratchy and foggy look, notoriously compromised sound mix, emphasis on shooting in sequence, and on-set construction as the film was shot, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has an air of rugged legitimacy, which Diane M. Borden and Eric Essman argue is Altman’s attempt to demythologize “both the landscape and the hero within it.”
These cinematic gestures towards authenticity also bleed into the script, which is somewhat improvisatory, although certain lines in the script can be traced back to Naughton’s novel. Yet, Altman’s aesthetic pursuit of period accuracy is all the more audacious when juxtaposed with the landscape it breathes life into: a world crowded with liars, gamblers and cheats. These are men and women who are hungry and are willing to say or do whatever it takes to feel satiated. Truth seems to have little sway over the matter.
Warren Beatty’s McCabe isn’t cast in the mold of The Man with No Name -- instead, he’s a man with a few names to spare. Creeping quietly into Presbyterian Church on the back of a rainstorm, McCabe immediately sends a jolt of energy through the menfolk, whose spirits seem as soggy as the soles of their shoes. He might once have been known as “Pudgy McCabe," the gunslinger who shot the famous Bill Roundtree over a card game gone wrong. Now all he wants to do is open up a saloon and brothel. Simple, right?
To the townspeople, he’s a man offering up plenty of distractions, but in more ways than McCabe himself could have predicted. The excitement around the saloon is palpable as the rumor gains steam. It’s not the veracity of the rumor that counts. Instead, what’s important here is the impact it has on Presbyterian Church.
What could be so remarkable about this place, a small mining town on the frontier of the Pacific Northwest, that anyone would want to seek it out, let alone someone like McCabe? In “Mining Westerns: Seeking Sustainable Development in McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann note:
The opening of McCabe and Mrs. Miller illustrates both the hopeless battle between humans and a fateful natural world and the drive toward community building … [McCabe] rides past lines of tree stumps and massive piles of lumber, signs of environmental exploitation. But he also rides past the skeleton of a church, complete with steeple, a sign of community.
Presbyterian Church is just the bones of a town when McCabe finds it, which could be the result of mining or a lack of free market enterprising, or both.
Films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and Pale Rider (1985) depict the ecological exploitation of small communities as a result of mining companies and explore the clash between corporate greed and bucolic ideals. In some ways, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is thematically similar, once the Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company begins a campaign to monopolize land holdings within the town, in a sense taming what remains of the frontier inside Presbyterian Church and bringing it under the umbrella of Big Business.
While McCabe & Mrs. Miller subverts the notion that the little guy will triumph over the fat cats in the end, understanding the conventions of the “mining Western” can help shed light on characterization throughout the film.
While Altman dresses down the traditional western in order to tell a simpler story in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s curious that the rumor about McCabe’s identity becomes a recurring theme -- so much so that it gives him a mythical origin. Mythmaking takes on a newfound layer of influence: it’s vital to the community not merely because it makes for good gossip, but because it helps to legitimize the space itself and inform the evolution of its culture.
McCabe makes for an attractive package, bundling up both myth and the promise of sustainable development in one. His business ventures offer a way for the town to diversify its economy beyond mining and potentially inoculate itself from the threat of Big Business. The rumor about his identity feeds into the town’s need to feel important, which helps bring it together. Collectively, these are things which work to strengthen the community.
The rumor about McCabe is quickly shrugged off by an outsider, Butler (Hugh Millais), who has been sent by Harrison Shaughnessy after McCabe refuses to sell his holdings in town. Butler doesn’t buy in; as a bounty hunter, he’s quick to read McCabe’s weaknesses, without ever guessing at his potential strengths. If we consider the rumors surrounding McCabe through the lens of the community, it makes even more sense that Butler wouldn’t believe it. Why would he need to? Butler’s an agent representing corporate interests. He doesn’t set store by the myth of McCabe because he exists outside of the community, where the rumor has less significance.
Although McCabe never actually confirms whether he is or isn’t the Pudgy McCabe of legend, you should be able to draw your own conclusions by the end of the film. Still, he’s always trading on the fantasy of it. His non-denial denial acts as its own form of affirmation to the townspeople and it goes a long way toward bending them to his will.
Fidgety and evasive, McCabe claims to be nothing more than a simple businessman. However, it’s his reputation as a potential outlaw and his willingness to bullshit about it that propels him to high esteem around the town.
By his own admission, McCabe isn’t an educated man. He mostly mumbles in folksy euphemisms and has got more poetry in him than sense. He sees things as he wants them to be and not as they are. This is a quality that helps lead him to short-term windfalls but proves to also be his undoing. Lucky for him, Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), is anything but poetic. Her shrewdness helps him actualize his plans, while his influx of capital allows her to lay the groundwork for a more independent future.
Mrs. Miller glimpses McCabe for the first time in the nearby town of Bearpaw, where he’s seen haggling over the price of three ladies to start up his brothel. A prostitute with a Cockney accent, she’s hesitant to reveal much more about herself other than that she knows the whoring business inside and out. Narrowing in on McCabe’s vulnerability almost immediately, Mrs. Miller eventually follows him back up to Presbyterian Church via a steam-powered wagon. Once there, she convinces him that he needs a partner if he wants to run the whorehouse properly.
She’s all snark and pretense as they hash out their arrangement over dinner, chiding McCabe for the way he does business and his attempts to pass himself off as a proper gentleman, even though he's wearing cheap cologne. She almost gets away with it too, until her bad table manners give her away. McCabe might not be the classiest guy around, but as she scrapes at her dinner plate and talks with her mouth half-full of food, it’s clear she’s not much of a lady either.
The chemistry between Beatty and Christie is undeniable, and a product of their off-screen relationship, which helps imbue each scene with emotional tension. It’s apparent from the outset that McCabe and Mrs. Miller complement one another immensely, both professionally and to a lesser extent emotionally, although only McCabe has the guts to admit the latter.
They’re both in the business of selling a fantasy. Mrs. Miller’s vision of the whorehouse is one where patrons pay not only for the company of desirable women, but for the privilege of private space. To the marks of Presbyterian Church, Bearpaw, and the other small enclaves that litter the territory, it’s the fantasy of the brothel as a fancy and luxurious place, where men need to bathe before entering and the whores don’t go by colorful sobriquets like 2-for-1 Lil or Almighty Alma. The new girls that Mrs. Miller brings to the gooseberry ranch are from Seattle, which means they’re refined.
Equally, these two are selling fantasy versions of themselves, which have been invigorated by the reputations they’ve created through rumor and bullshit. McCabe wants to be seen as a genteel kind of businessman, but the town kotows to him because they believe he’s a cold-blooded killer. When he’s confronted by Butler, that reputation folds, as most bad card hands usually do, which exposes McCabe as a two-bit gambler who has ventured in way over his head.
As for Mrs. Miller, she wants to be seen as a worldly, sophisticated madam, but her coarse table manners and secret addiction to opium reveal more about her true nature than she ever deigns to offer anyone, including McCabe. While she claims the partnership with McCabe is only temporary, until she can build up a nest egg and afford to open up a boarding house of her own, it’s more likely she’s there, on the edge of nowhere, because she’s bottomed out everywhere else. It’s more ambiguous with McCabe as to why he's really in Presbyterian Church. As Graebner notes, “[the] signals we get from McCabe are mixed … he enjoys being the big man in town, and his ‘reputation’ and ‘principles’ bind him to the community.” Nevertheless, he also continues to be motivated by self-interest and his own bottom line.
Both are out for a sure bet. Mrs. Miller isn’t angling for respect or legitimacy, but for financial security and the autonomy it will provide for her, which for a woman on the frontier, would be a pretty powerful motivator. A woman in Constance’s position would certainly know how difficult this is to obtain, and how hard it would be to recapture if lost in this world, where allegiances are inconstant and life can be easily snuffed out over a stray glance.
The final act of McCabe & Mrs. Miller deals with the invasion of the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company and its subsequent “rough wooing” of the townspeople, including McCabe and other prominent residents like saloon-keeper Patrick Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois). Although Presbyterian Church’s vulnerability to the company is always apparent, it’s the same exposure that makes the town equally susceptible to entrepreneurial bullshiters like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, both of whom are drawn to it not because of the community itself, but in order to exploit and capitalize on its potential opportunities.
However, the respect that comes with being a hero is something McCabe craves badly, because at his core, he’s a pretty insecure guy. Ego is his Achilles heel, and when massaged -- as his ego is by lawyer Clement Samuels (William Devane), whom he appeals to for help in fighting the company through legal channels -- he’s liable to do just about anything to keep it riding high.
Samuels is quick to label McCabe as a man of the people and a representation of small businessmen everywhere trying to fight the good fight. He tells McCabe:
When a man goes into the wilderness and with his bare hands, gives birth to a small enterprise, nourishes it and tends it while it grows, I’m here to tell you that no dirty sons of bitches are going to take it from him … You take that there company, Harrison Shaughnessy. They have stockholders. Do you think they want their stockholders and the public thinking their management isn’t imbued with fair play and justice, the very values that make this country what it is today? Busting up these trusts and monopolies is at the very root of the problem of creating a just society.
Damn it, McCabe, I’m here to tell you that this free enterprise system of ours works, and working within it, we can protect the small businessman and the big businessman, as well. Until people stop dying for freedom, it ain’t gonna be free. I can see it now, on the front page of The Washington Post, right next to a picture of William Jennings Bryan: “McCabe strikes a blow for the little guy.” You’re gonna become a famous man, McCabe.
It’s a rousing speech, but all boilerplate. Nothing about it is reflective of the McCabe we’ve come to know: the seedy co-owner of a popular whorehouse and saloon in a remote mining town. The speech doesn’t expose the reality of what he’s up against with Harrison Shaughnessy either. This is a company accustomed, as only Mrs. Miller seems to fully understand, to using might over mediation when it doesn’t get its way.
To that end, although McCabe wants to be regarded as a hero, he doesn’t fit into the “mining Western” trope of a little guy or man of the people fated to square-off against the nefarious corporation in order to preserve community ideals. McCabe’s snowbound battle at the end of the film with three bounty hunters sent by Harrison Shaughnessy is motivated entirely by self-preservation, not by a desire to defend the community or protect it from Big Business intrusion.
McCabe -- specifically, the rumor about his true identity -- may be essential for the community, but it doesn’t turn him into a hero. As he battles the bounty hunters out in the snow, the town doesn’t even notice, instead rallying around the church in a desperate bid to save it from being consumed by flames.
Shayna Murphy is a Boston-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @philfishpaw.