A great many westerns can be roughly divided into Democrat or Republican variants of the genre – Fred Zinnemann’s liberal High Noon, and Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks’s riposte to that film, being obvious examples. But there are some which manage to transcend such considerations.
Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller – one of the three best films he ever made – is surely an example. It’s like no other western I’ve seen. For one thing, Altman’s heroes are hardly the stuff of western legend. One (Warren Beatty) is a rather seedy pimp-cum-entrepreneur, who rides into the shell of a small frontier town determined, somehow or other, to get rich. The other is a tough cockney (Julie Christie), who convinces him that, if he wants to start something like a brothel, he ought to have a competent manager of women. Which is her.
These two are very human characters, nothing like as confident as they would have us believe. The actors playing them, as often happens in Altman pictures, seem to subsume their star personalities in a way most well-known faces in westerns signally fail to do. And surrounding them is a town growing up before our eyes as a wet autumn progresses into a cold winter.
It’s the kind of movie that eavesdrops not just on its cast but also on the grocery stores, the saloons, the brothels, and the weather too. One critic has said that the camera is so unobtrusive that you feel everybody continues their conversations long after the filming has ended. This, of course, is Altman’s great strength. But he has seldom employed it with more discipline, though to say the film is beautifully staged somehow betrays it.
What the pair of potential misfits want is to get out of this canvas-tented dump and go back to San Francisco, where the real money, and the real con artists are. But then, just as it looks as if they’ll eventually make it, the enforcers come to town. They are prepared to kill people who won’t sell out to the mining company, and their first victim, who is murdered on the suspension bridge that leads across the river to the general store, is a nice kid who meant no harm to anyone. It’s a superb sequence, and it tells you everything.
Later, as the church burns during an eerie snowstorm and the townspeople try to save it, McCabe finally gets his comeuppance, with his lover back in Chinatown, puffing opium. He sits dead in a snowbank almost as if reflecting how money and greed have finally undone him. That’s what the film’s about – the fact that almost everyone’s on the make but the bigger fish eat the smaller ones.
America, Altman once told me, puffing at a cigarette that certainly wasn’t tobacco, has been like that from the beginning, and it will remain that way for the foreseeable future. The west was built by crooks, not by the patriotic pioneers let loose upon it. Yet this is not a cynical film, though it certainly is ironic. It manages to be romantic and deadly at the same time.
I wrote at the beginning that this beautiful, oddly affecting film is one of the three best Altman movies. The others are Nashville, which is not so much about the state of the union at the time, as some say, but a near-perfect summation of a certain strata of American society in decline, and the relatively unknown Tanner ’88, a long television satire, shot during the presidential campaign of that year, which tells us more about the absurdities of American politics than we would comfortably wish to know. At his best, Altman is a treasure we should cherish, warts and all.