“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” - Robert Altman (1971)

Robert Altman’s eclectic fifty-year career had a number of ups and downs, but over its course he created enough cinematic masterpieces to establish himself as one of the greatest of all film auteurs.  Critic Adrian Danks has remarked in this regard that [1]:
“It is possible to argue that Altman is the most significant and emblematic director of post-classical American cinema.”
Coming up through the more restrictive confines of network television production, rather than independent film production, Altman was something of a late bloomer – it took him awhile to unfetter his always independent approach to film expression from the demands of his studio producers.  But finally in his mid-40s, with the success of his Palme d'Or-winning anti-war black comedy MASH (1970), Altman emerged with the independence to follow his own course.  He soon started producing masterworks, which include McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974), and Nashville (1975).  The greatest of these, in my view, was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman’s melancholic tale about what happens when an ambitious man meets up with a similarly ambitious woman in a remote Pacific Northwest mining town at the turn of the 20th century. 

Film critic Roger Ebert had similar thoughts along these lines [2]:
“It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. 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 (1971).”
And the film was recently ranked in a survey of critics conducted by the BBC as the 16th greatest American film ever made [3]. 

Much has been made, over the years, of some of Altman’s eccentric modes of cinematic expression, many of which were introduced in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  These occur with respect to both the visual presentation and the spoken dialogue.

In connection with the visual plane of the film, the innovations were partly attributable to and conducted by outstanding cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who emerged as a major cinematographer with this film.  (Zsigmond would also do the cinematography for Altman’s subsequent The Long Good-bye (1973), as well as for a number of atmospheric films directed by Brian De Palma).  Here in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman and Zsigmond introduced novelties directly to the image-gathering process, itself, as explained by commentator Nathaniel Rich [4]:
“As with MASH, Altman placed fog filters over the cameras to smudge the colors. But on McCabe, he went even further, partially exposing the negatives to destroy the clarity of the film, creating the impression that one is viewing it through a pane of stained glass. ‘I wanted it to have that antique, historical look . . . I really set out to make it look like those old photographs do.’“
And as Altman also pointed out, by doing this to the negative, it also prevented the studio from later overruling him during the editing stage, since that would have required re-shooting everything [5].

This smoky, stained-glass imagery had more than just a clouding effect: combined with the film’s disparate multi-character compositions, it cast an artistic pall over the cinematic tapestry of the film that Adrian Danks likened to the atmospheric works of 16th century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel [1].

Altman’s innovations in connection with spoken dialogue, which were initiated here in this film, are even more well-known and have come to represent something of a stamp with respect to his filmmaking.  Using 8-track sound recording, he emphatically overlapped multiple conversations going on in a scene so that it was hard for the viewer to discern what was being said by the personages of presumed narrative focalization [5].  Indeed this made it sometimes difficult for the viewer to determine what actually was the intended narrative focalization for a scene, at least at its outset.  And this is what Altman wanted – he felt it was more true to life.

However, these supposed true-to-life soundtrack effects do not take into account the human capability known as the “cocktail party effect” [6], which is a capacity primarily associated with binaural hearing. Thanks to their accommodation of two slightly different sound signals coming separately to their two ears, people with binaural hearing (most everybody) can selectively single out individual conversations at a mixed gathering such as a cocktail party – this is the “cocktail party effect”.  But when watching a movie, this would only work with carefully crafted stereo sound, which is not usually available in the distributed movie, so the cocktail party effect capacity is not available to film viewers.  What we all could do at a cocktail party is something we cannot do in the movie theater.  Filmmakers are generally aware of this situation, and that is one of the reasons why they make efforts to ensure that important spoken dialogue in a crowded scene is carefully articulated and highlighted.  But Altman headed in a different direction.  He actually wanted his viewers to struggle to hear what was being said so that they would immerse themselves more fully in the psychological milieu of the film.

Indeed, it is the evocative psychological mood of the film that makes this an outstanding work, and there were a number of other contributing factors that figured into achieving this.  One of the most significant factors was the moody background music provided by Leonard Cohen singing his own compositions – “The Stranger Song”, “Sisters of Mercy”, and “Winter Lady”.  Cohen’s droning, doleful voice casts a wistful spell over the entire film and evokes a fatalistic feeling of unfulfilled longing.  Actually, Altman had finished the shooting of the film before he approached Cohen to provide his music [5].  But he had for sometime been a fan of Cohen and may well have had his music in mind while he was planning and shooting the film.  In any case, Cohen’s songs fit so perfectly that the film seems almost like a visual instantiation of Cohen’s nostalgic thoughts. 

Another contributing factor is Altman’s signature mise-en-scene, which offers his unique take on narrative composition and focalization.  In this connection, though John McCabe is the main target of focalization in the film, there are many other dramatic happenings on the periphery that are also focalized, thereby widening the viewer’s awareness of the social context (which to a certain extent mirrors our real-life, on-the-fly experiences).  And moreover, although there are many wide-screen pans and zoom shots, the presumed perspectives and focalizations for many of these shots is often unclear, sometimes suggesting an outer-eye, but still personal, narrative perspective that oversees the multifarious dramas going on in front of its wondered gaze.  We seem to be watching a mournful Bruegelian tapestry that has come to life before us.

Despite all the many and various narrative goings on in the film, there are three main foci of our attention and compassion as we watch the film.
  • John McCabe (played by Warren Beatty in perhaps his best performance) is an ambitious young entrepreneur (he calls himself a “businessman”) who seeks to make his fortune by poker gambling and by opening up his own brothel in the new mining time that he comes to.  McCabe is uneducated, and he relies on his bravado and his ability to bluff his opponents in order to succeed.
  • Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) is a tough Cockney lady from San Francisco with  more streets smarts than McCabe.  She, too, is seeking to make her fortune.  Although  she tells McCabe that you have to spend money to make money, she is more protective of her inner persona and less willing to take risks on the personal level than he is.
  • The People of Presbyterian Church, a remote mining town in Washington state.  These people are mostly poor uneducated miners, including some Chinese coolies.   We see them as more or less friendly and innocent, but they are relatively isolated from each other and lacking in protective social institutions, which makes them vulnerable to the harsh circumstances of their environment.
The Story of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller passes through four approximate stages.  And throughout all of them, the sky is perpetually dark and overcast with rain or snow falling.

1.  A Stranger Arrives
“It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
Who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
You find he did not leave you very much not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
That is so high and wild
He'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.”
            – Leonard Cohen, “The Stranger”
To the droning strains of Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack, a well-dressed stranger, John McCabe (Warren Beatty), arrives slowly on horseback in the new and still under construction mining town of Presbyterian Church, Washington.  McCabe is a cardsharp by profession, and he quickly stops at the only local saloon in town to set up a gambling table where he can play poker with the local clientele. 

McCabe is a self-made man who is constantly muttering to himself to live  up his ambitions. He has a little money, and his larger plan is to have his own saloon built that will feature gambling and his own whorehouse.  He goes to the nearest established town, Bearpaw, to purchase three chippies that he can bring back to work as his whores.  Soon his business is up and running, and the miners now have more diversions that can help line McCabe’s pockets.

2.  A Madam Joins McCabe
“And why are you so quiet now
Standing there in the doorway?
You chose your journey long before
You came upon this highway

Traveling lady stay awhile
Until the night is over
I'm just a station on your way
I know I'm not your lover”
            – Leonard Cohen, “Winter Lady”
After some time, a primitive steam locomotive arrives in Presbyterian Church bringing some passengers, among whom is a tough-minded madam, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), who wants to partner up with McCabe in the brothel business.  She quickly convinces McCabe, who is snowed by both her beauty and her aggressive shrewdness, that she knows how to manage a whorehouse better than he does.  So with McCabe paying the expenses, she imports five better looking hookers from San Francisco, and they start operating a higher-class whorehouse that soon starts making even better money.

3.  Managing Relationships
“Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been traveling so long
. . .
When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon
Don't turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon
And you won't make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right
We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.”
                – Leonard Cohen, “Sisters of Mercy”
Business is good for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but there are other things on McCabe’s mind, too.  McCabe is clearly falling in love with the woman and wants to have a meaningful relationship with her.  He can be heard later muttering to himself that he knows he is unsophisticated, but he plaintively swears, “I got poetry in me”.  But the experienced and hard-nosed Mrs. Miller is unimpressed with McCabe’s swagger and sees him as just a tinhorn.  She is only willing to sleep with him if he pays her upscale hooker’s fee for the privilege. 
Mrs. Miller later explains her cynical attitude about love to Ida (Shelley Duvall), a young, recent widow who is forced by her new poverty to join Mrs. Miller’s brothel.  Ida expresses doubts about her ability to have sex with strange men, which contrasts with her having had sex with her husband, because it was her duty.  Mrs. Miller self-centeredly counters Ida’s argument with the following:
"It weren't your duty, either. You did it pay for your bed and board.  And you'll do this to pay for your bed and board, too. And you get to keep a little extra for yourself."
Further evidence of Mrs. Miller’s self-absorption is shown when she is sometimes seen alone in her room, secretly smoking on an opium pipe.

Meanwhile another complication arises.  Two men from the big Harrison Shaughnessy mining company, Sears and Holland, arrive in town and immediately make an offer to buy up all of McCabe’s holdings.  Trying to impress Mrs. Miller with his manliness and instinctively resorting to his usual bluffing tactics, McCabe turns down their first two offers. When Mrs. Miller hears about this, she is alarmed for McCabe’s safety, and she warns him that Harrison Shaughnessy are ruthless and will stop at nothing to get their way.  But McCabe, still mindful of his presumed need to show his manliness before Mrs. Miller, resignedly counters with
“I guess if a man’s fool enough to get in business with a woman, she ain’t going to think much of him.”
Before long Sears and Holland have departed without making a deal, and they are replaced by three hired armed men who menacingly have come to Presbyterian Church presumably to finish off McCabe.  McCabe quickly makes a trip to Bearpaw to see what can be done, but finds the hands-off  lawyer he talks to there to be officious and unhelpful.  McCabe is now resigned to the fact that he will have to face his apparent assailants alone.  He spends one more night with the woman he loves, during which he opens his heart, and they come closer to the amorous union that McCabe has been so desperately seeking.

4.  Playing Out the Game
“And then leaning on your window sill
He'll say one day you caused his will
To weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
An old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.”
            – Leonard Cohen, “The Stranger”
The three newly arrived thugs – Butler, Breed, and Kid – are hanging out in town and apparently waiting for their opportunity to do away with McCabe.  Their leader, Butler (Hugh Millais), is memorably menacing.  Tall and courteously forbidding, Butler seems implacable, almost like an inexorable abstract force of nature.  In keeping with this tenor of lethality, there is an extended and extraordinarily chilling scene in which Kid faces off with and guns down an innocent, good-natured cowboy (Keith Carradine) on a suspension bridge, just for the sake of target practice. 

The final, intense 23 minutes of the film show a hostile universe closing in on McCabe, and they take place during a heavy snowstorm. This was an unplanned event for Altman’s production team, but it works here to the film’s advantage.  Most of the earlier outdoor scenes in the film are shot in rainy weather, but the severe weather in this sequence serves to accentuate and underscore the vulnerability of all our protagonists.

The hired killers now spread out in the town and are ready to finish off McCabe once and for all.  McCabe flees to the church, and he barely escapes the prowling Butler by slipping out a side door just before Butler bursts in and mistakenly guns down the church parson.  Butler’s murderous act also accidentaly starts a fire in the church, but Butler continues searching for his prey.

There are now two parallel, desperate narrative threads: (1) McCabe trying to escape his murderous assailants and (2) the townspeople, who have no available fire department, frantically trying to organize themselves to put out the church fire.  In the face of the daunting circumstances, both attempts are gripping but look hopeless.

As these final events play out, McCabe makes a number of valiant moves and almost succeeds.  In the end the church fire does get put out by the townspeople.  But we see McCabe left mortally wounded in the frozen snow.  And Mrs. Millers is finally shown lying down in a local Chinatown  opium den and lost in an opium-fueled dream.  We are left on a note of unfulfilled romantic longing.  It seems that the cards were stacked against them.  On this score Roger Ebert remarked [2],
"This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come -- not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem--an elegy for the dead.”

But McCabe & Mrs. Miller is more than just a sad romantic story; its themes cover a larger scope about life itself [7].  If we consider the film’s three main protagonists, we can see that each of them had a different and ultimately inadequate approach towards facing life’s vicissitudes.  
  • The People of Presbyterian Church were generally friendly, but they lived in an American society based on individual striving and trade.  There was little in the way of supporting norms and institutions that would help them live together.  Even love was a commodity to be bought and sold in the brothel.
  • Mrs. Miller’s approach was one of total self-absorption and solipsistic withdrawal. Although she seemed at the end tentatively responsive to McCabe’s awkward approaches, she ultimately lapsed back into her opium-fueled haze.
  • John McCabe was the one who was actively seeking authentic personal engagement.  But he was trained to be a loner who bluffed his way to success.  And he lived in a world where there was little social support for the kind of engagement that he now instinctively sought.
So Altman’s film touches on some larger themes than just romantic love.  We could say that along general lines our Western world has offered two rough and contrasting schemes for organizing society – socialism and libertarian capitalism.  Socialism neglects the individual and elevates the primacy of the social class.  Libertarian capitalism, which is a dominant theme in America and is in focus in this film, emphasizes the individual and presumes society will automatically self-organize in a mutually beneficent way for all.  But we see in this film that American institutional structures in the mining town shown were hopelessly lacking for the support of what McCabe sought.  For example:
  • The church was basically unattended, and its reverend minister was reclusive and selfishly withdrawn.
  • Libertarian economics had not provided self-adjusting counterforces to curb the overweening ruthlessness of the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company.
  • The legal system and law enforcement authorities were absent or inadequate to maintain order in that society.  And the lawyer McCabe consulted seemed to think that the “invisible hand” of libertarian economics was enough to maintain a lawful society.
So there is an implicit suggestion in this film that more supportive social structures that lie somewhere in between individual-ignoring socialism and individual-centered free-market capitalism are needed.

Similarly, on the philosophical plane we seem to have two general perspectives according to which we organize the world – (1) objective materialism that is grounded on the physical sciences and (2) phenomenology and existentialism that are focused on the subjective experiences of the individual.  Neither of these perspectives offers a pathway to the fulfillment in connection with authentic engagement with the beloved other person that McCabe was seeking. 

I would suggest that there is another general perspective that can bridge the gap between the neglect of the individual (objectivism) and the exclusive focus on the individual (subjectivism), and this is what is sometimes referred to in philosophical circles as “Personalism” [8].  Personalism incorporates basic notions from existentialism and phenomenology, but it extends its compass to focus on authentic engagement with the people around us.  According to this way of thinking, our very being comprises the interactive engagements (and the narratives we construct according to which we understand those engagements) with the people with whom we have authentic interactions.  This was the missing perspective that could have provided some support for McCabe, Mrs. Miller, and the people of Presbyterian Church.  As it was, they all suffered from isolation.  And the relentless yearning and instinctive desire to give his love that was churning inside McCabe couldn’t be quenched.

But these thoughts concerning the underlying problems tormenting McCabe are only implicit in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  It is ultimately the sadness of this romantic isolation that Altman so movingly evokes in this wistful film that makes it a true work of art.  McCabe arrived as a stranger to love and left as a stranger.

  1. Adrian Danks, “Just Some Jesus Looking for a Manger: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Senses of Cinema, (September 2000).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “MCCABE AND MRS MILLER”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (14 November 1999).   
  3. “The 100 Greatest American Films”, BBC Culture, (20 July 2015).   
  4. Nathaniel Rich, McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Showdowns”, The Criterion Collection, (13 October 2016).  
  5. Edward Copeland, “We need Bob — now more than ever”, Edward Copeland's Tangents, (23 June 2011).  
  6. “Cocktail party effect”, Wikipedia, (31 May 2018).   
  7. Roger Ebert, “MCCABE AND MRS MILLER”, RogerEbert.com, (30 July 1971).   
  8. Thomas D. Williams and Jan Olof Bengtsson, "Personalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), (Summer 2018 Edition).    


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

This is certainly a great film... one of my all time favorites... must congratulate you on another great article!

The Film Sufi said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Murtaza.