Comfortable and Furious

McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Another look at an essential Altman film

Firstly, this is the best analysis of McCabe I recall reading. I’ve not seen again since it’s release in 1971 when Altman was the hot director coming off the success of M*A*S*H (which was three quarters of a good film, there is simply no excuse for the football game at the end) [Editor’s Note: Ignore this, the football game was wonderful] and his follow-up was a must see (long lines outside the Westwood theater where it opened). It enjoyed a massive publicity campaign. Warner Bros. publicity department did right by it, and it did not hurt that Beatty and Christie were an item at the time (they were together again in Shampoo, and in the delightful Heaven Can Wait).

Over the decades the story has faded from memory but the images remain. In the exteriors the characters stand out against the stark white snowy background, and blend against the murk of the dreary interiors. I recall Mrs Miller’s bedroom being the one cheerly spot in the entire town. The film would have not been the same without the addition of Leonard Cohen’s songs:

“Traveling lady, stay awhile
Until the night is over
I’m just a station on your way
I know I am not your lover”

I think McCabe’s character is drawn partially from Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones, as the stranger mistaken for the notorious gunman new to town, and the mythical “Frontier Marshall” Wyatt Earp, who was first and foremost a gambler and pimp. Earp was never Marshall of anything. He was certainly no Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine (I hasten to point out the church in that film was a bare bones skeleton, far from completion. Civilization had yet to arrive to Tombstone, it was yet in wild times). The creep of civilization in McCabe is harkened by the arrival of a steam powdered tractor.

John Ford consciously dealt in the West as a mythological place. The is made clear at the end of Fort Apache. The pathetic annihilation of Col. Thursby with his command is reinvented by the eastern press as heroic, like the persistent myth of Custer’s Last Stand.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance takes even the western myth a further step. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ford printed the legend.

Unlike the mythological personages of the ancient past, we have access to what they looked like. There are numerous photographs of Wild Bill, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Quanah Parker , Custer and Calamity Jane. Myth makers build on those images. However, history seldom intrudes on Hollywood Myth.

Ford shared his West with the real Cowboy actor’s of Gower Gulch, the silent films of William S. Hart. Sam Peckinpah combined the real and mythological west in his excellent Ride the High Country. Budd Boetticher made a series of low budget quality westerns with Randolph Scott.

Altman kept the audience in doubt as to McCabe’s skill as a gunman until almost the final shot. With a quick deft movement of his hand, all doubt is removed. McCabe is the real deal.

I met Altman on two occasions. I was invited to a screening of his film Health at a Lorimar studio screening room. There was a serve yourself bar and I served myself with scotch. Altman was there and we shared the bottle of Cutty Sark and talked for a while. Nice guy, friendly and seemed truly interested in my opinion.

The second time was at a screening of Fool For Love, a adaptation of Sam Shepard’s play that I did not understand. It was shot in New Mexico and he chose to edit in Paris. A friend was one of the editors my sister was traveling in Europe at the time and stopped in Paris to see the editor, a mutual friend, Steve Dunn. Altman invited her to dinner.

“What did he talk about?” I asked.
“How much he hated television.”






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