McCabe and Mrs. Miller: A Timeless Tale of Love, Power, and the Fragile Dance of Dreams

The Rewind Film Review Zone Apr 20, 2023

Various genres of film, like the Western, are widely known to have different sub genres or sub categories within them. For example, the sub genre Revisionist Western, is one you may not have ever heard of. But it represents part of the Anti-Western or Post-Western sub genre of film which subverts what would be expected from the standard format or film genre, Western.

Of all the anti Westerns I’ve seen over the years (think of The Outlaw Josey Wales or Unforgiven) this 1971 masterpiece from Robert Altman has rocketed to the top of the list.

Robert Altman’s film rumbles forth from its murky, scarcely muttered and half-heard opening, and Mrs.Miller bumping into view accompanied by the music of Leonard Cohen – which in my opinion has never found a better home. The town of Presbyterian Church is wet and trampled with mud in all seasons other than winter, when it is blanketed by an unending flurry of snow. Altman and his crew effectively built the town themselves, on location in West Vancouver, and not before or since has a picture been so expressive of a time and place and yet so utterly unfastened; conjuring an atmosphere of dark closeted warmth, and still maintaining a cold, cruel, inescapable distance between characters who seem to have drifted together on some strange whim.

The film is about a Charismatic gambler John McCabe, played by warren beatty, who arrives in a mining community and decides to open a brothel. The local residents are impressed by his confident demeanour and fast talk, but crafty prostitute Constance Miller, played by julie christie, sees through McCabe's words and realises he isn't as sharp as he seems. For a share in his profits, Mrs. Miller agrees to help plan and run McCabe's establishment, but soon a powerful company threatens to destroy what they have built up.

Beatty compellingly portrays the switch from overbearing man of action to helplessly sensitive, while Christie is at once stern and unstructured, and seductive in swift glances. There is poetry in this: it is the most unfathomable and most unshakeable of Westerns.

It's like no other western I've seen. For one thing, Altman's heroes are hardly the stuff of western legend. With Beatty playing a rather seedy pimp-cum-entrepreneur and Christie the tough cockney prostitute. It's the kind of movie that eavesdrops not just on its cast but also on the grocery stores, the saloons, the brothels, and the weather too. One critic has said that the camera is so unobtrusive that you feel everybody continues their conversations long after the filming has ended.

With poor initial reviews, the film did not perform well at the box office in New York, but it was more successful in other parts of the country. Warner Bros., encouraged by Beatty, rereleased the film at the Coronet Theatre in New York in August 1971 along with a new advertising campaign, and its box-office performance improved upon that of the original release.

It is not often that a director makes a near perfect film. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great, but only one of them is near perfect, and that one is "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" . This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will never come .

With its fascinating flawed characters, evocative cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, innovative overlapping dialogue, and haunting use of Leonard Cohen songs, McCabe & Mrs. Miller brilliantly deglamorized and revitalised the most American of genres.

We score McCabe and Mrs Miller an 8.9/10, let us know what you thought of the film in the comments.


Richard Wells

I am the founder of The Rewind Zone, created in 2022. My passion for film knows no bounds! It is my goal through this medium to bring the wonders of film from a bygone era back into your lives.