Friday, June 24, 2011
He was just some Joseph lookin' for a manger
By Edward Copeland
When Robert Altman made a Western, you could be certain it wouldn't be a conventional one. At the same time, when McCabe & Mrs. Miller opened 40 years ago today, it did use genre basics to launch its tale before it ventured on its own idiosyncratic path. The camera opens on the vivid yellow, green and brown foliage that covers the mountains — the lush vision shown in the wide Panavision ratio of 2:35:1 without which you shouldn't see this film — then it pans right as the trees begin to vanish and we see the stranger on horseback appear on the dirt path, pulling another horse behind him. As the camera continues to chart the progress of the man wrapped in a fur coat, yellow credits begin to scroll on screen from right to left in direct opposition to the movement of the man and the camera. Accompanying both on the soundtrack is Leonard Cohen singing "The Stranger Song." The lyrics seem haunting and wholly appropriate, even though they weren't written specifically for this film. "Like he was giving up the holy game of poker." As the stranger finally gets closer to the Pacific Northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church, he loses his coat for his standard black suit and places his black bowler atop his head. We see that it's our film's star, Warren Beatty.
The minute the man stores his horses and steps into Sheehan's Saloon and Tavern, run by Patrick Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois, one of many members of Altman's already growing repertory company present in the film), the film's magnificent interior look, engineered by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, entrances you. The sharp-dressed stranger attracts the attention of everyone present — Sheehan even offers him a bottle of liquor on the house. He hasn't been there too long when he asks if there's a back door and exits through it, puzzling Sheehan and the rest who think he's gone already. However, he's just fetched a blanket from the pack on his horse and returns, clearing off a table and carefully placing the covering over it like a tablecloth so he can engage the locals in a game of cards. He reminds Sheehan of his offer, but Sheehan worries that he's not going to make up for it. "How about we go fifty-fifty then?" the stranger suggests. Sheehan asks if he means he'd share his profits. "You want to share the losses?" Sheehan points out that he is the one supplying the place for the game. "Yeah, but I think I supply the customers," the new arrival says. "Nobody's bought nothing yet," Sheehan complains. The stranger tells him he'll buy a $2 bottle for the rest of the table, stand on his own profits and Sheehan can make a profit off the whiskey. Sheehan agrees. He proposes five-card stud and since he doesn't know any of them and they don't know him, puts the price at a nickel a game. As Sheehan prepares the drinks at the bar, another patron asks if he realizes who the stranger is. Sheehan does not. The patron says that it's the gunfighter John McCabe who killed Bill Roundtree. When Sheehan returns to the table, he pours him a drink and says, "It's on the house, Mr. McCabe." He thanks him. "You didn't say your name was McCabe when you came in," Sheehan says. "I didn't say it now either. You did," McCabe replies. Sheehan asks if he's a gunfighter. With cigar in his mouth, McCabe answers, "Businessman." As the film will develop, we'll learn that John McCabe isn't much of either, but he isn't one who's about to let a good legend go to waste if it serves his purpose in the short run, even if it will cost him in the end. Most of the time, I've always found Beatty to be a very limited actor — more star than actor. However, revisiting McCabe for the first time in a long time, this may well be the best performance he's ever given.
Now, Altman never worshipped at the altar of plot, even when his name appeared as co-writer on a screenplay as it did here. He spoke at length on the subject in the DVD commentary which I wrote about yesterday if you didn't read it. Altman's credited co-writer on the screenplay is Brian McKay, a writer for whom McCabe & Mrs. Miller appears as his sole feature film credit on IMDb and no television writing credits appear after a 1982 episode of Cagney & Lacey. The movie was based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton. However, these facts are merely incidental — just as McCabe & Mrs. Miller isn't exactly a Western as most have come to know the term, it's not strictly a character study either. First and foremost, it's a Robert Altman film, one of those times when the late director got a hold of financing, cameras, actors, a crew and the things he needed for what intrigued him at that moment and did his cinematic dance, part strictly thought out, much improvised and lots that came about by happy accident. That style didn't always work throughout his long career that still ended too soon, but when it did, as in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, movie magic resulted. As Pauline Kael wrote in her July 3, 1971, review of the film in The New Yorker, "Though Altman's method is a step toward a new kind of movie naturalism, the technique may seem mannered to those who are put off by the violation of custom — as if he simply didn't want to be straightforward about his storytelling.…He can't be straightforward in the old way, because he's improvising meanings and connections, trying to find his movie in the course of making it…"
Writing this 40th anniversary tribute, it isn't easy deciding where to go with it. Even the briefest plot synopsis would seem to be pointless and a disservice to Altman, yet there are bits of dialogue here and there worth repeating that need context. Heaping individual praise on the various artists involved in the work might get repetitive after awhile. I did just cite a long Kael quote, but this should be what I think not what someone else did or does. For me, watching McCabe & Mrs. Miller again not only was it better than the last time I saw it (each viewing raises it in my estimation), but it also was the first time I watched it post-Deadwood. Back in 2006, The House Next Door, before it became part of Slant Magazine and existed as its own blog, it held a Robert Altman blog-a-thon in honor of the director finally receiving an honorary Oscar. My friend and House founder and editor emeritus Matt Zoller Seitz interviewed Deadwood creator, executive producer and head writer David Milch about the influence of McCabe & Mrs. Miller on his HBO series. I felt like an idiot at the time because the parallels were so obvious I couldn't believe I hadn't picked up on it before. Besides the obvious similarities of communities being formed around dirty little camps, where people seek escape in various vices such as gambling, prostitution, liquor or other substances to bring on highs (opium in McCabe, laudanum in Deadwood), Milch had this to say about the film's title characters and how they explain the film.
by the impulse to impress Mrs. Miller, who is herself moved to sort of organize her life upon the embrace
of illusion. These characters pile one illusion upon another illusion and they end up building something bigger than themselves. 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' presents the agreement upon illusion as the liberation of an energy that is greater than one person can generate."
That's actually as good a segue as any to start talking about Mrs. Miller as played by the incomparable Julie Christie. Beatty and Christie were a real-life couple prior to the making of the film and while Beatty's McCabe was a drunk who let others' mistaken perception of him build a small powerbase in the zinc mining town, Christie's Constance Miller was an admitted Cockney whore with limitless ambition to succeed and an unfortunate opium habit. From the moment she arrives in Presbyterian Church, when McCabe only has three iffy prostitutes working out of tents, she hits him up with the idea of how things should be. "I'm a whore and I know about whorehouses," she tells him. "I'm talking about a proper whorehouse with class girls and clean linens and proper hygiene." McCabe isn't keen on taking on partners — he's already turned down one from Sheehan — and certainly not entering a partnership with a woman. The feisty Miller eventually walks out on him, saying that she "don't have a lot of time to spend talking to a man who don't see a good proposition when it's put to him." In a typical film, there would eventually be a romance between these two and while they do unite in business and in bed, the carnal coupling comes when she's high and he's paid. When she isn't stoned though, Mrs. Miller displays far more savvy when it comes to business and other matters than McCabe does. When her whores arrive, in a memorably muddy, rain-drenched sequence, the quality — and the prices go up considerably from the trio of "Bearpaw whores" McCabe had been using out of tents, who then got transferred to other jobs such as cooks and laundresses. Mrs. Miller knows what she's doing, even though McCabe complains about his cost outlays for a bathhouse, transportation, towels, linens, enema bags. "I've paid for things those chippies of yours don't even know how to use," he says to her, to Mrs. Miller's frustration. "You think small because you are afraid to think big," she tells McCabe. She also takes care of the new widow Ida (Shelley Duvall), who arrived as a mail-order bride for miner Bart Coyle (Bert Remsen) who dies in a fight when a man mistakes Ida as one of the whores. With Bart dead, Ida is forced to work for Mrs. Miller. Ida explains that when she had sex with Bart, it was out of duty and she doesn't know if she can do perform as a prostitute. Mrs. Miller spells it out for Ida. "It wasn't your duty. You did it for your room and board. Now, you'll do it for your room and board and get to keep some for yourself after."
The other similarity between McCabe and Deadwood really follows more along the lines with the main storyline of Milch's third season, when rich business tycoon George Hearst invades the town and starts pushing his weight around to get a hold of the rich gold mining interests and control of the town itself. John McCabe and the rest of the inhabitants don't own the zinc mines where most of Presbyterian Church's citizens work, but the mines' owner, the company Harrison Shaughnessy, are anxious to control the small piece of civilization that McCabe has developed. Though when he first arrived, he called himself a businessman, he's not much of one and when two agents for the company (Michael Murphy, Anthony Holland) arrive attempting to buy his holding, the inebriated McCabe sees it as a game, refusing their offer and giving much higher ones when he's not drunkenly sharing jokes about frogs and eagles and offering them whores on the house. He tells them he'll meet them for breakfast in the morning and talk some more. The younger of the agent, Sears (Murphy) thinks he's just negotiating and is more than willing to stay and talk but the older agent Hollander (Holland) doesn't have his patience, telling Sears that after 17 years doing this, he's too old to be hunting snipe and he's leaving and Sears agrees and exits with him. That night when McCabe tells Mrs. Miller who was there and that he turned them down, but he'll see them in the morning, she's horrified. She warns McCabe that Harrison Shaughnessy would just as soon put a bullet in his back. He laughs her off then, but when he comes down the next morning and realizes they left, he understands that he might have made a fatal error. McCabe visits a lawyer (William Devane) in a nearby town who promises him that they can stop them in court and he'll work in free. They are there to protect the small businessman, the lawyer says, even floating the idea of an eventual dinner with William Jennings Bryan.
Mrs. Miller is right and the lawyer won't have any time to get McCabe to court because the company sends three bounty hunters to take care of him: a short-tempered kid (Manfred Schulz), a half-breed (Jace Vander Veen) and their leader Butler (Hugh Millais), who arrives in town wearing a large goat-fur coat, shotgun astride him that makes him slightly resemble the look that Marlon Brando's bounty hunter would have in Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks five years later. Prior to their appearance, McCabe's paranoia makes him suspicious of everyone and everything, such as when a young cowboy (Keith Carradine) rides into town, but he's just looking to get laid. "I heard you had the tastiest whorehouse in these parts. It's been so long since I had a piece of ass," he tells McCabe who gladly shows him to Mrs. Miller's place. Once the cowboy has finished days later having his way with most of the girls, he ends up in one of the film's most memorable sequences as he's trying to cross that rope bridge while the young bounty hunter target practices with a jug on the ice. He asks him to stop so he doesn't get shot, but the kid tricks the dimwitted cowboy, who admits he's a bad shot, into showing him his gun and kills him, leaving his body to float away in the icy creek. Combined with Remsen's death earlier, it displays the idea of sudden, unjustified violence.
When the very nervous McCabe first sits down to meet with Butler, he still thinks there's a chance for him to negotiate. Butler asks what his price was and McCabe tells him, but explains it was just a position and starts lowering what he'd accept down to almost what they offered. Butler notes they weren't that far apart, were they? Then he adds, "I don't make deals." McCabe explains that he was under the impression that he worked for Harrison Shaughnessy and Butler says he has at times, but that's not why he's there. "I came to hunt bear," Butler declares, before changing the conversation around to Bill Roundtree saying that he was the best friend of a friend of his and he'd heard he killed him. McCabe stammers and denies it, saying something about being at a card game where he was killed, but that he didn't do it. Eventually, he gets out of there. Butler pulls Sheehan over and asks him where he got the idea that he killed Roundtree and Sheehan tells him that someone else told him. Butler looks toward the door that McCabe just exited through and says, "That man never killed anyone in his life." McCabe goes back to Mrs. Miller who tells him she fears that, "They'll do something awful to you." McCabe, in a rare moment of courage, tells her, "Comes a time in every man's life when he has to put his hand in the fire and see what he's made of." Indeed, McCabe will see.
On the commentary, Altman talks about how stupid it would be for people to in the Old West to face off in the middle of the street in gunfights and that's certainly not how the climax happens in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Instead, we get a hunt in the form of a chase — and not a high speed chase — a slow chase that takes up the last 20 minutes of the film and, eventually, gets counterbalanced by the coming together of the rest of the community — all races: the majority white Europeans, the black barber, the Chinese — to work together to save the burning church which gave the town its name. Also, this isn't the barren, sunny setting of most Western climaxes: It's the height of winter, with deep banks of snow and more of the white stuff falling from the sky. The blaze starts because of the pursuit of McCabe, who first thinks to climb up to the church's steeple to try to spot the killers' location. Unfortunately, he leaves his shotgun at the foot of the ladder so when he climbs back down, he finds that it has been taken by the wreck of a church's reverend (Corey Fischer) who holds the weapon on him and berates him for bringing it into a house of the lord. McCabe tries to explain that men out there plan to kill him and he needs the gun, but the minister won't give it up so McCabe makes a hasty exit. However, Butler must have seen him enter the church but not exit it. He arrives at the front door, kicks it open and fires, blasting the reverend and knocking over a lantern he'd lit, igniting the fire while McCabe, hiding in back of the building makes haste to another building to find another weapon. He literally crawls his way into McCabe's House of Fortune, because remember he has three men in pursuit of him, not just Butler.
The closing act of the movie, while it is a kill-or-be-killed sequence should be something that you'd describe as suspenseful, but McCabe & Mrs. Miller is nothing if not about mood. Certainly, we have developed a certain affection for John McCabe, but Altman doesn't direct it as your usual edge-of-your-seat action climax — it's just another form of the daily fight for survival in the frequently harsh conditions where they live. As I mentioned in my piece yesterday, Altman said that he thinks it's always better when you see a movie a second time and can relax and stop worrying about what happens, which really defeats any fear about spoiling twists or endings. As clumsily as it happens and unlikely as it would seem, McCabe fares fairly well against his would-be assassins — managing to dispatch both the kid and the half-breed with relative ease and some smart planning as he moves in his circuitous route through practically every building in the town, most of which he built. This life-and-death struggle goes on while almost the entire town stays oblivious, banding together to save the church, though it no longer has a minister and from the brief look we had at its innards, no one had been using it anyway.
Now, McCabe starts making his way through the deep snowbanks, hoping to flee through the woods. It's not exactly the fastest way to run, but he figures it's as good as way to escape as any. However, Butler wasn't exactly lying about hunting bear, because he's still tracking McCabe. When he spots his man taking a break behind some wooden obstacle, Butler aims his rifle and fires and McCabe collapses in the snow. As Butler goes in closer to inspect his kill though, he learns that drunken gamblers can play possum too and just at the right moment, McCabe raises his gun and puts one in Butler's forehead.
The man living off a fake legend has managed to beat the men out to kill him, but he didn't make it out unscathed, he's got a bad belly wound. McCabe still tries to make it back to the town he built up and now calls home. He makes it to the outside of one of his buildings, but he finally collapses in a snow drift and as the white stuff keeps falling from the sky, McCabe gets practically buried. The community is too busy celebrating their victory over the fire to notice McCabe, so he dies there alone. Altman depicts McCabe's frozen death in a slow series of ever closer shots on his snow-covered head.
One citizen of Presbyterian Church wasn't helping with the fire. Constance Miller, out of her own supply and worried about McCabe's fate, and taken her own refuge in the Chinese opium den. Similarly, Altman focuses on her in a series of closer and closer shots as she gazes at the bowl of the opium pipe until it seems to merge with her eyeball and become the universe itself.
While McCabe & Mrs. Miller may take place in 1901 in a Pacific Northwest zinc mining town, there is something universal about it as there is the greatest Altman works, whether they are set in Nashville, the Korean War, Los Angeles or even Hollywood.