Although the iconoclastic zeitgeist of the 1960s and early 1970s is sadly absent these days – as well as, of course, the specific sociocultural backdrop against which Altman developed his cinematographic in- and subversions – I find his films still highly entertaining, well-made (on their own terms) and occasionally very funny, McCabe & Mrs. Miller being no exception. I feel a peculiar relation to its male protagonist and, to a certain extent, empathize (if not identify) with him as a hap- and clueless everyman: “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger” (Leonard Cohen).
McCabe (Warren Beatty) is the epitome of the eternal fool (in esoteric terms) or the perfect stranger (in existentialist terms); he rides into Presbyterian Church out of nowhere, we can’t even be sure of his name. Somebody claims it’s John “Pudgy” McCabe, and nobody has any objections, the man now named McCabe included, who supposedly shot a fellow called Bill Roundtree and has a “big rep,” as restaurateur infernal Sheehan (René Auberjonois) repeatedly states. Pudgy? Beatty? After five seconds to realize his purpose here on the planet (Brother J. C. Crawford), McCabe decided on poker and prostitution. He feeds on double whiskeys with raw eggs. Whenever he tries to be smart or witty – “the Frontier wit,” as Constance Miller (Julie Christie) puts it mockingly – he’s in fact stupid and embarrassing. His aphorisms are terrible, his jokes not funny but ludicrous.
“If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass so much.”
“You know how to square a circle? You shove a four-by-four up a mule’s ass.”
In the decisive moment of attempted self-empowerment, McCabe completely misjudges the situation. His conceit and hubris ultimately bring forth his death.
“Comes a time in every man’s life, Constance, when he just, uh, got to stick his hand in the fire and, uh, and, uh, see what he’s made of.”
“Well, these boys, they got my tit in the wringer here.”
Indeed. McCabe dies alone, covered by snow. Nobody helped him in his desperate, heroically unheroic fight against the corporate killers (these “son of bitches” in McCabe’s words and lousy grammar). Not the hamlet’s inhabitants, not his working girls, not smooth talking lawyer Samuels (William Devane), not the good reverend (Corey Fischer). Nor Mrs. Miller.
Before turning to the big screen, Altman had done a lot of television work in the Western genre – Bonanza, Bronco, Lawman, Maverick, Sugarfoot – and McCabe & Mrs. Miller as well as Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) are well-calculated demythologizing genre-revisions. McCabe & Mrs. Miller retells one of the most classic Western tales – a stranger’s arrival in a new town where he is confronted with an evil situation he has to rectify – but turns it on its head and ironically inverts its moral message while retaining its basic plot structure and characters. Christopher Frayling writes in his essay “Per un pugno di dollari / A Fistful of Dollars” (in Giorgio Bertellini [ed.], The Cinema of Italy, London: Wallflower, 2004, p. 171) that “in the 1970s, it became critically fashionable to treat A Fistful of Dollars as an object lesson in applied semiotics: a deliberate deconstruction of the ‘codes’ of the Hollywood western and a form of ‘critical cinema’ (which it was not).” Altman’s films were. His subversive cinema pertains to the idea of deconstruction as a form of ideological critique, a tool to lay bare oppressing mechanisms of dominance with regard to their social and fictional peculiarities, their manifestations in real life and art. F**k yeah.
Out of curiosity, I’ve checked my (English-language) Spaghetti Western literature for references to McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Laurence Staig and Tony Williams’s early publication on the subject, Italian Western: The Opera of Violence (London: Lorrimer, 1975), doesn’t mention the film; neither does Howard Hughes’s Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns (London, New York: I.B.Tauris, 2012 ).
In his seminal book Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (London, New York: I.B.Tauris, 2006 ), Christopher Frayling discusses the film in the appendix “The Impact of Spaghettis on the American Western” and draws parallels between “effects” used in Altman’s Western and Leone’s C’era una volta il West. For him, both films possess “epic qualities” that “locate [them] within the same frame of reference” (p. 283). In other publications on Italian Westerns – Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), “Per un pugno di dollari / A Fistful of Dollars,” in Giorgio Bertellini (ed.), The Cinema of Italy (London: Wallflower, 2004, pp. 163–171), and Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008 ) – Frayling makes no mention of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Alex Cox, for whom Corbucci’s Il grande silenzio “is the purest distillation of the corrupt, capitalist West yet committed to film,” sees the same qualities in Altman’s movie: “Only McCabe & Mrs. Miller portrayed the gangster West this well. […] both [films] are as ironic as they are pessimistic” (10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western, Harpenden: Kamera Books, 2012 , p. 188).
For Austin Fisher, McCabe & Mrs. Miller belongs “to the spate of countercultural Hollywood Westerns which followed in the wake of The Wild Bunch” and “similarly depicted corporate America as a brutal machine” (Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema, London, New York: I.B.Tauris, 2014 , p. 167). He devotes a paragraph to Altman’s Western and then contextualizes it with Corbucci’s Il grande silenzio and the films of Sam Peckinpah, Michael Cimino, Arthur Penn and Sergio Sollima, upon whose works the “hand of Western Marxism weighs […] heavily […] in their intended deconstructions of American history, culture and adventurism. […] [Herbert] Marcuse’s notions of ‘repressive desublimation’ and ‘democratic unfreedom’ pertain to the pretence of propriety constructed to conceal the ‘system’s’ coercive base, most visible in McCabe and Mrs Miller” (p. 186).
Kevin Grant, finally, describes Leonard Cohen’s songs in McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a “poetic, haunting commentary” (Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns, Godalming: FAB Press, 2011, p. 342).