McCabe and Mrs. Miller is probably my favorite Robert Altman film, although I don’t think it’s his best (an accolade I would reserve for Nashville). I nonetheless will always remember a comment about the film made by Bob Stein when I worked at the Criterion Collection. When I suggested we try to get the rights to release it, Bob kind of grimaced and said “Ah, another filmmaker who likes McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” While he never expanded on that comment (and Criterion never released the film), over time, I’ve begun to understand, if not endorse, that dismissal.
It is most definitely a product of its time, both in the sense of giving an iconoclastic director the opportunity to film an unusual story on a big budget, and in the very valuing of personal expression. Each time I watch it, the film impresses me most for the way it brings the past to life. Very few American films so ably place the viewer imaginatively in the past. (It is easy to forget that Westerns are period films.) This effect is partly achieved by Altman allowing his actors to develop their characters and improvise much of their dialog, giving their delivery a naturalness and spontaneity not usually true of films set in the past. The actors transform “characters” into fully rounded, living human beings, thus providing the viewer with a sense of witnessing events as they occur. Similarly, Vilmos Zsigmond’s diffused, grainy cinematography makes the damp and cold nearly tangibly tactile, while designer Leon Ericksen’s half-built, chaotic sets remind us that like anything under construction, the frontier was messy. Together, director, cinematographer and designer produce a vision of the American West that simply had not been seen before, and not much since.
This core of feeling ties McCabe and Mrs. Miller together. It all simply seems right, as if events are unfolding in front of us, coursing with the unpredictable ebb and flow of life. If one of the consequences is that the “love story” between McCabe (Warren Beatty) and Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) is never terribly satisfying emotionally, her insistence on keeping things strictly business is nonetheless far more believable than a contrived romance. Occasional lapses, like William Devane’s portrayal of the ambitious Progressive lawyer who promises to help McCabe, stick out all the more because the heavy-handed, facile irony is too pointed, too written.
Which points to the film’s limitations. Without a political framework as unifying as the mood and texture, the anti-big business themes running through McCabe feel like so much doodling. Altman’s work was distinctive, original, innovative, iconoclastic yes, but not nearly as intelligent or insightful as he apparently believed. At his worst, he could look like a smug smart aleck. Fortunately, in the case of McCabe and Mrs. Miller his soft, improvisatory, embracing style produces a floating dream world of a movie that more than compensates for his pretensions. It is great film making, even if it is not a great film.