McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) Directed by Robert Altman. Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, Shelley Duvall. (121 min.)

Robert Altman reinvented himself many times. Screenwriter, industrial filmmaker, exploitation director, tv journeyman, 70s iconoclast, elder statesman. He was unknown until he was 45, made a series of modern film classics and then was written off as a has-been at 55, after the critical failure of Popeye. After The Player (1992) he moved back to the top rank of American auteurs.

Altman directed numerous episodes of Bonanza, a 1960s tv show about a motherless ranching family. It was one of the few television shows that did not fire Altman for his use of overlapping dialogue, non-linear narrative and general nonconformist attitudes. One episode, titled “Bank Run,” in which the Cartwright brothers fought an annexation of their ranch by hostile business interests, was a clear precursor to McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

The movie script was based on the 1959 novel McCabe, by Edmund Naughton, and was adapted conventionally by Brian McKay. “It was one of the worst Western stories you ever heard,” Alman said, “It had all the cliches. This guy was a gambler, and she was a whore with a heart of gold.” So Altman decided to use very little of it. He wanted “to take a very standard Western story with a classic line and do it real, or what I felt was real, and destroy all the myths of heroism.” So, in this bleak tale, McCabe, a mysterious stranger, forges an uneasy alliance with a madam, Mrs. Miller, and fights a corporate takeover of the frontier town of Presbyterian Church.

Warner Brothers preferred George C. Scott to play McCabe; remember this was the year after he won (and refused) the Oscar for Patton. John Voight and Stacey Keach were considered and Altman wanted Elliott Gould, who had been so successful in M*A*S*H. But Warren Beatty was looking for a script he could do with Julie Christie, his current companion, and his participation green-lighted the production.

Altman wanted a new take on cliché situations, so he set his raw Western town of Presbyterian Church in the damp and chilly Northwest instead of the dusty desert. Altman’s crew carved a real town out of the wilderness near Vancouver, B.C. The cast lived there for 4 winter months, improvised, rewrote their dialogue, chose their own wardrobe and then Altman shot the film in sequence. The weather’s progression from a soaking rain to a blanketing snow evokes the passage of time, as well as the onset of a spiritual winter.

There was plenty of conflict on the set between director and star. Warren Beatty was a control freak who wanted the picture centered around his performance, when Altman thought the main character was the town of Presbyterian Church (and he considered himself as director the star of his films). Beatty wanted meticulous explanations for everything, which the director was loathe to provide. He was appalled when he realized that Altman wanted the cast to improvise the film, and felt compelled to rewrite the script so there was at the least some filmable dialogue every day. A couple of takes was fine with Altman, who’d cut his teeth in tv production, but Beatty was striving for his kind of perfectionism. After Altman filmed 8 or 9 takes of a simple scene where McCabe reaches for a whiskey bottle, and Beatty wanted still more, Altman took the path of least resistance, and left the star with the cameraman to film 40 takes, letting him print the ones he wanted.

Robert Altman directing Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Altman wanted a faded look for the film, “to compliment the period, the set and the look of the people.” Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond attempted to create the cinematic aura of an old photograph. Altman made a double exposure of the set and his yellow velour sweatshirt, and told Zsigmond that was what he wanted the film to look like. Set colors were carefully chosen, and a shipment of rusty ore was dumped on the set to color the whole town. Filters further diffused the colors and the raw film stock was briefly exposed to light to fade it. Leonard’s Cohen’s songs were not written specifically for the film, intentionally creating dissonance, since what is heard on the soundtrack sometimes belies what is seen on the screen.

Presbyterian Church is not John Ford’s frontier. The conquest of this wilderness will not bring rebirth and freedom. Civilization brings chaos and destruction. In a reverse of the usual character types, McCabe is a rather dim hero, and Mrs. Miller is strident and determined, a parody of the Western heroine who brings refinement to the frontier. Altman revealed the hollowness of the Western mythos and contributed, not just to the decline of the Western but to its temporary demise. As Altman progressed, he was “stripping away a lot of plotty things” to reduce the film’s haunting character studies to the bare bones. Roger Ebert says, “Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”

(Photograph from Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store)