Here at Ruthless, we have and will never stop singing the praises of Robert Altman. He was and he remains America’s greatest director. By this, I do not mean to say that he is the best director that was ever born or worked in America (or, for that matter, that some arty, Euro-trash director might be better than any of ours). I think it can be objectively stated that he is the best we’ve ever had at making films about this silly country of ours—films that expose the worst insanities and hypocrisies that afflict us while also finding those hidden, forgotten reasons there may yet still be hope for us after all. Altman never fully understood the American character—his films were only attempts to—but nobody else came closer or tried harder to do so. His masterpiece in this regard is probably the sprawling, triumphant mess that is Nashville, but his most truly perfect film, the one that blends most seamlessly his brilliance with great filmmaking, is surely McCabe and Mrs. Miller. In addition to a scathing critique of American history and American life, this is a film of astonishing craft, astonishing beauty, and, above all, astonishing sadness.
There is a vague formula to Altman’s craft. His best films work within genres that come laden with convention and cliché, because he is at his best when he has such things to fight against—a detective noir, a gangster film, and even a musical. The one genre that is, by definition, uniquely American is the Western, and this is Altman’s Western. Before Altman got to it, this was a genre that belonged to John Ford, and to fully understand this film, one must understand Ford and those symbols he used to create the frontier mythology—a mythology composed of the very bullshit beliefs and ethos that have clogged our brains and guided our policies, foreign and domestic, for going on two centuries. Ford portrayed the frontier as a sort of idealized wonderland, a place where all that is best about America and democracy was established—where battles were fought and won by a minority of good men, triumphing over a majority of the bad. In contrast, Altman’s push west is more like a stampede of capitalism and greed, where slow-moving ideals (and idealists) are crushed under-hoof.
In many ways, McCabe seems to follow all the conventions we have come to expect of a Western, at least in plot. Obvious parallels can be made to the classics High Noon and Shane. A mysterious outsider shows up in a frontier town in search of frontier profit. In the process, he falls in love with a woman who just might be the drive he needs to settle down. As in Shane, one of the Western’s favorite villains, Big Business, attempts to force him off his claim, just as it forced Shane’s homesteaders from theirs. The usual methods failing, Big Business brings in some heavies to force the issue with violence. As in High Noon, the hero makes a stand despite the fact that no one, even the woman he loves, will stand with him. So glossed over, the plot points seem to insist a standard, formulaic Western, but this is just the opposite.
Our “hero” this time around is John McCabe, played by Warren Beatty in perhaps the only performance deserving of his mammoth reputation. McCabe is a frontiersman, a smooth talker, an entrepreneur, and, according to some in hushed whispers, a gunfighter. But he doesn’t dress or play the part as we have come to expect. He has no white hat, bright shirt, or silver plated six-shooter. He is scruffy, bearded, gruff of voice, and encloses himself in an enormous fur coat. He lacks the paradoxical aristocracy, the manners and blatant heroism, of Shane and Marshall Kane and all of those other Western heroes we have come to know. Every bit of idealism and toughness he claims to personify is balanced with an unapologetic quest for profit and instances of outright cowardice. It should also be noted that he’s a pimp. He has come to bring sex, not civilization, to this town. The stake he must defend is not a farm or a gold mine, but a whorehouse. He is what classic Western villains are made of, but in Altman’s revision of the frontier, he is as good a man and as likely a hero as we are going to find, and indeed there has never been a more immediately likeable or ultimately loveable protagonist.
Since the days of John Ford, viewers of Westerns had been trained to expect fantastical, sweeping landscapes, golden prairies and deserts and high rock columns whose warmth and welcomeness is interrupted only by the occasional sighting of an Indian scout or smoke signal. Ford made contrasts of the wide expanses of open, inviting terrain with the closeness and chaos of his towns and interiors, which tended to make his frontier heroes claustrophobic. In the opening scene, McCabe is shown riding through a wilderness that is rough, cold, and totally uninviting. He is forced to follow a muddy, rocky, winding path that is as restrictive and uncomfortable as the worst of Ford’s interiors. There is hardly more freedom of movement in this wilderness than there is in a chain gang. It’s not a complete contrast, however. Altman’s interiors are just as suffocating, his untamed towns just as dangerous and still ruled by greed, brutality, and chaos. It is simply a little warmer inside.
As Gary Cooper’s principled marshal is replaced with McCabe the pimp, Grace Kelly’s devout Quaker wife is replaced with Mrs. Miller, a sharp-tongued prostitute. She’s played by Julie Christie, as classic a beauty as Grace Kelly ever was, but Altman uses her beauty in a very different way. She’s not, of course, the first whore ever to serve as a redemptive love interest in a Western, but don’t expect the usual clichés here either. She has a heart of gold, but it’s quite literal—spotted, in one scene, on her bedside table, stuffed full of the money McCabe and all the other men in town have paid for the proverbial poke at her. It’s the money that she uses to fund her opium habit. Mrs. Miller becomes the object of McCabe’s obsession—something he wants to call love—failing to see that she is already lost to disillusion and drug addiction, and that her motivations are purely mercenary. He mistakes the ecstasy of her opium haze for affection. His doomed struggle is actually all for her, futile from conception. Instead of redeeming him, his love for her dooms him. There is no redemptive woman here. Altman gazes at the women here as he does in most of his films, in his usual fascinated and adoring way—in one scene, as they splash around in the nude like nymphs in a shared bath. But he does not elevate them above any of this. They are as lost in the stark fray as the men.
The villains, curiously, change little in Altman’s stark reframing of the American West. The agents on the financial side of the merciless corporation, here a mining company (whereas in Shane, its source of income is cattle), are a bit more polite but no less despicable. The decision to have McCabe killed is treated with as much emotion as a business assessment. The killers they hire are as ruthless and murderous as Jack Palance ever was, though they don’t play the role in quite the same way. Their leader, Butler, is kindly spoken and aristocratic in a way the hero is not, and the most ruthless of the killers looks like a baby-faced choir boy from a Charles Dickens novel. They come, however, straight from Shane’s example. There is one scene that is to this day one of the most appalling, maddening, and frightening in all of film. This scene, in which the baby-faced gunman “duels” Keith Carradine’s unnamed cowboy character on a bridge, is almost an exact recreation of the scene in Shane in which Jack Palance guns down Elisha Cook. In Shane, however, the killer convinces his victim to draw with a litany of insults. Here, the killer coaxes his victim’s gun out its holster by smiling and asking nicely if he may see it. In both films, this is the scene where the tone of the film becomes darkest, when an escalation of violence becomes inevitable. It is perhaps Altman’s most chilling statement that the real world shares all of the evil present in the classic Westerns—it is only the good that is harder to find, and the part that makes the myth.
The most prominent of the symbols the film takes from Ford’s mythology is the church at the center of the town, and after which the town, Presbyterian Church, is named. In Ford’s films, the church symbolizes civilization and community, and is analogous for the establishment of the best of American democracy. A town without a church is outlaw territory, and after Fonda cleans up Tombstone in My Darling Clementine, the first act of the violently baptized is to finally erect theirs. In McCabe, the church is already there when the hero arrives, but nobody is shown to enter it at any point. The minister spends the whole film trying to bring townspeople into the church, and yet when McCabe himself tries to enter, seeking refuge during a gunfight, he is sent away by the minister at the point of a shotgun. There is plenty of room in the church for everyone, but no room at all for just one desperate soul. Yet there is still one key scene featuring this symbol. When a lantern is dropped and the church is set on fire, the whole of the townspeople band together to save this empty, unused, and rotting structure. And when, against the odds, they succeed, they unite again in a celebratory cheer. The community this church represents is little more than a tenuous alliance—still analogous for today’s America, but the one which Altman saw that Ford could not. Altman’s community can unite only to serve a common interest, prevent a shared emergency. The one man standing up for himself, and maybe for some obscure ideal, is doomed to be abandoned.
It is these naïve, classic Western beliefs that doom McCabe. Reaching desperately for alternatives to abandoning his stake or being killed by the company’s hired guns, he visits a frontier lawyer—in a key performance by William Devane—and he is informed that he has none. The lawyer even scolds McCabe, and reminds him that he has been provided with a glorious opportunity, a chance to make a stand for the same fairy-tale idealism American heroes have always stood for. He’s told that he has to protect his stake with a gun in each hand, even with all odds against his prevailing. The lawyer essentially feeds him the clumsy pathos of the classic Western. He’s told that he has to become Gary Cooper in High Noon or Alan Ladd in Shane and for the same reason—the spirit of America, freedom, democracy, whichever of the usual buzzwords one could think to plug in, demands it. In a typical Western, this would a matter-of-course. In the real world, only a truly naïve individual could believe the lawyer’s bravado. McCabe, sadly, falls for it.
Altman is not typically remembered for his action sequences, and this may be the only one he ever filmed, but McCabe’s final showdown against the three killers is one of the most tense and exhilarating sequences in film. It is essentially a stark reimagining of the final showdown in High Noon, a roaming half-chase, half-battle from one end of town to the next, one good man against several bad, though with some important differences. McCabe’s gunfight is a slow and anxious game of cat and mouse, McCabe moving from hiding place to hiding place knowing he could never win a gunfight fought in the open. Long, slow periods of terrifying hide-and-seek are punctuated with moments of shocking brutality, on the level one could only expect from a post-Vietnam American film—one bystander even having an entire arm blown off by the villain’s buffalo rifle. Any true Western hero would frown upon McCabe’s tactics. He overcomes two of the killers by shooting them from hiding and in the back. He outwits a third by playing dead. He cheats, at least according to a classic Western rulebook, but he dispatches his three killers all on his own, in fact without the help Marshal Kane got from his wife; McCabe’s good woman took the train out and is in the midst of opium dream at the time of the gunfight, and in the end, nobody, not even her, is there to come to his aid.
This is the final and perhaps saddest truth of Altman’s frontier. McCabe wins, technically, and nobody is around to see it. The whole action goes completely unnoticed by the town, which is too busy putting out the burning church. McCabe follows the ideal of the Western hero to set an example America can follow, and America does not even see him set it. McCabe takes the same bullet to the side that Shane takes in his. Shane gets to ride away to future battles despite his. McCabe does not. Mortally wounded, he dies alone in the snow, and any evidence of his victory is buried with him. The movie closes with the snow slowly covering his body, and Mrs. Miller, miles away, mentally drifting to other worlds in opium dream. A crowd cheers nearby, but they cheer only for themselves, for their victory over a fire which might have claimed that hollow icon of Ford’s community, while the man who tried to become its champion dies alone, forgotten.
This ending is, of course, inevitable. In a dozen viewings, it has not once failed to bring at least a wet mist to my eyes. And yet each time, I find myself somehow hopeful—wishing, almost believing, that on this viewing it might end differently. Sometimes after a viewing, I will have dreams, like Mrs. Miller’s dreams, in which it does end differently, but these are only sadder still. I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Altman for that sadness, and for giving me that hope that never fades, even for us hopeless.