Wednesday, July 15, 2009



Wild West Women As Sisters Of Mercy,
Or Just Dirty Hookahs?

Rod N. K. Davver

MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is the most depressing oily ‘70s movie I’ve seen since GIMME SHELTER. It’s also the most beautiful all-around movie in its time, along with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I’m very ambivalent about this flick; I love the way it’s done and hate what it says, maybe because deep down I agree with it, and I feel very cleverly manipulated by the people responsible.

Take Robert Altman, for instance, maker of M.A.S.H. and BREWSTER MCCLOUD, neither a happy film, but each a funny film. Altman knows enough to start MCCABE off as a funny film, knows that the more he builds his protagonist up the more we will feel for him when he’s shot the hell down.

Take his protagonist, for instance. He’s a card-dealing, derby-wearing, cigar-chomping, egg-sucking (make that egg-drinking) sonovabitch of an ill-reputed gunfighter named McCabe, played perfectly by Warren Beatty. Now, we all remember Beatty from BONNIE AND CLYDE, some of us recall him in something awful called KALEIDOSCOPE, and too few of us have seen him in Arthur Penn’s MICKEY ONE. It isn’t easy to accept him as such a character, particularly if you’ve read the 1959 novel from which this flick came. Tough. Beatty pulls it off from the moment he gets off his horse and walks into the Presbyterian Church saloon.

Now, about Presbyterian Church. It’s supposed to be a zinc-mining town, and it looks it. The set is one of the most realistic I’ve seen. Cripes, THE MOLLY MAGUIRES was shot in Eckley, PA and Playboy could still get away with saying the sets looked fake. Ah, but Presbyterian Church is an old West mining town right down from its Chinatown shanties to its dogs to its miners (not a Hollywood type in the lot). It looks awful, this town/set, so awful that from the very first mention you know that McCabe ain’t gonna have no trouble setting up his whorehouse.

He doesn’t, either. He recruits three girls: Pinto Kate, 2-for-1 Lil, and Almighty Alma for $200 and sets up a right successful self-service enterprise. Does alright, too, even if Almighty Alma has trouble holding it in before she gets to the potty (not to mention she’s prone to attack her customers). And then Mrs. Miller comes along…

Mrs. Miller is Julie Christie. Or Julie Christie is Mrs. Miller. Anyway, they’re one and the same. Christie’s really good. Like she was so good in DARLING ya hated her; she was so good in ZHIVAGO I loved her; she was so bad in FAHRENHEIT 451 that everybody hated her; and she’s so good as Mrs. Miller that McCabe loves her.

Mrs. Miller is a whore. She admits it right when McCabe is making ogle eyes at her, it doesn’t faze her. She wants to team up with him, strictly business that is, with more girls and better hygiene. She even wants to set up a bathhouse for the miners to use before they visit the girls. She explains all this whilst wolfing down the ugliest meal outside of a horror movie. McCabe listens to her, goes along with her, doesn’t even complain that she takes every man in town as a customer…he listens and dooms himself.

Because Big Business sets in, along with the frontier Mafia. And all the humanity of the first hour is destroyed coolly and deliberately in the last.

Humanity -- there are some priceless bits in here. Like McCabe riding his 3 whores into town while the church cross is being re-erected and while Leonard Cohen sings “Sisters of Mercy.” Like a girl saying she won’t do it with no Chinks. Like the miners pondering over the possible ways Chinese girls are built (The more things change…). Like the soundtrack playing “Silent Night” while the cameras move to McCabe’s round non-virgins. Like Mrs. Miller admitting she loves McCabe more than her opium (or maybe never realizing). Like 1 miner saying he don’t mind taking baths, he just don’t like people telling him WHEN. Like customer and whore peeping into the action going on in the next bedroom. Like the classic line that’s ejaculated when it’s 1st discovered that the church is on fire. Humanity -- from a whore’s birthday party to the town minister silently watching a man get beat to death, then go slouching back to his church, never saying a word. Altman nails so many things it’s uncanny, and it’s all filmed in a stunning supply of yellows and blues. Maybe that’s Altman’s view of humans: they’re always blue, but they’re even more yellow.

No one is honest in this movie. No one. It’s like Bava’s TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE out west. Each person herein is out for himself in some way. Even love is selfish. McCabe wouldn’t get his ass whupped if he wouldn’t try to impress Mrs. Miller (who always makes him pay for her love). Like he says of himself, he’s got poetry in him, and it sure ain’t his fault the only woman he ever cared for is a whore, now is it?

That’s another thing. In this baby Altman doesn’t like women a whole lot. Sure Mrs. Miller’s eyes light up with childish glee, but only after she’s smoked up. Sure she kindly tells McCabe to eat his dinner before it gets cold, but only after she’s chewed his wrinkled ass off. And yeah she comforts McCabe at her breast, but only after he’s failed at having sex with her. Sure she worries about him, but only after he’s got hired killers after him because he held out for more money to impress her. Sure she loves him…yeah, sure.

The end is real, that’s all I can say, complete with like 20 minutes of search & kill gunfight in a soft horrible snowfall, complete with strangely funny stumbling motions as a man runs for his life, complete with a burning church and an empty town and a bullet in the gut, complete with the meanest 7-foot tall bastard of a villain within memory, complete with pain, money, and pain.

Money and pain…the movie in two words. There’s all types of pain, and damned if almost every one of them isn’t caused by money. Altman’s 1 eagle who wouldn’t shit us, and he leaves us bitter, frustrated, helpless, all in the midst of splendid photography and gentle music.

Money and pain…whores and udder women. Watch out for them travelin’ ladies, fella. You’ll fight every man for them and they’ll leave you in the snow every time.

Butt then, if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass so much.

[Originally published in Temple of Schlock #18, June 1989]


Sir Jorge Orduna said...

I liked this movie, and your review is quite good too.

Booksteve said...

A well done review that actually makes me want to resample this (although comparing it to TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE) didn't help--I hated that, too.

Susan Moorhead said...

Good review - this movie is maddening because you fall for it through the lushness of the imagery and music (Cohen singing Sisters of Music just transports) but then the reality of their situations...what we hope for vs. what we get philosophy, a bitter brew.

J said...

Interesting review. I haven't watched McCabe and Miss Miller in years, but it was one of my favorite Beatty flicks, at least in terms of cinematography--sort of dreamy, sexy, and druggy but not lacking political content.