McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)


Just wanted to enjoy this one, but I ended up doing that a lot. Second time with Altman after California Split (which is good). On a real unintentional 70s kick at the moment for some reason.

Its scuzzy and dirt-stained: the ragged clothes match the leering faces; the apish stupidity of the men is pathetic but magnetic, like a town full of Cohens secondaries, or Garret Dillahunts from Jesse James who’ve decided to just get pissed and enjoy themselves anyway.

The weird multi-tracking dialogue works better here, especially in the bar / bordello scenes, where you’re rewarded the more you listen in (having got over it in the first sequence); the guy worrying about his facial hair is hilarious (so much posturing – flipside is the wicked-dumb shootout on the rope bridge, the landlord staring mute at the pointless floating corpse – M&MM at its most acerbic…) A treasure-house of detail in a different whole. There is a wonderful Barry Lyndonish glow to the interiors (the opium den like Once Upon A Time In America too) and an earth-spattered godforsaken authenticity to the woods and tracks.

…’anti-western’ strain culminates in the lone rider at the funeral: amid the fear of returning hired hands; McCabe staggering anxiously down the hill with his hand wavering towards his gun, Mrs Miller fleeing behind; the mean-looking rider silhouetted central against the trees. “What do you want?” quavering … “I heard you had the fanciest whorehouse in the whole territory up here! It’s been so long since I had a piece of ass.”

(Shot sequentially) Beattie’s charm slowly dissipates like smoke from a saloon, cooling into pathetic timorousness and mulishness which hardens into foxy frontier resolve – coming full circle, he fills his own boots, colours in his own sketch. The hole in the middle of Christie’s Mrs Miller (her opium-induced doe eyes at undressing M are bittersweet irony), plugged with tenacity (and fried eggs) expands to suck in M and MM herself with him.

The scene with the bounty hunter and McCabe’s abject bargaining is hilarious and traumatically embarrassing. Sits Tarantino down on the very first step.

Leonard Cohen’s score is great mood music; I didn’t pay much attention to it. Was thinking more about Nico.

At the end it somehow turns into The Revenant, and while it loses some tension in the snow, the final shots put a real squeeze on your heart. M&MM doesn’t stop changing; every scene takes you by surprise and takes you somewhere else. Daft, disgusting, dry as a bone. Really a perfect little genre film, with some great performances, Cohens-esque+ writing and a beautiful grim set. Read that it was built by carpenters trying to dodge the draft in Canada, having snowball fights between takes – it rubs off on you.

Now I want to enjoy it again.

19 July:

Revelling in the soft-focus natural light. The comic timing throughout is perfect and still surprising; love the way all the confrontations are so messy and unpredictable (repetition of McC’s bizarre jokes shows them up as attempts to discombobulate).

More positive on the ending, too: the weird utopianism somehow reclaims that expansionist dream (see also reclamation of MM’s economic pragmatism: “It weren’t your duty Ida. You did it for your bed and board”) while maintaining the ridiculous absurdity of the bumbling attempt to save the church. We’ve already become invested in McC as a character; the juxtaposition between pursuit and disaster helps us see him through the town, his project.



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