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December 2009

McCabe And Mrs Miller

cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, and John Schuck

director: Robert Altman

120 minutes (15) 1971
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by J.C. Hartley

McCabe And Mrs Miller
SPOILER ALERT!
Robert Altman's mainstream revisionist western McCabe And Mrs Miller came after the success of M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, a little seen melancholic oddity.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives in the fledgling town of Presbyterian Church ostensibly to play 'the great game of poker'. He is 'recognised' by notorious fantasist bar-owner Paddy Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois) as gunfighter 'Pudgey' McCabe who shot Bill Roundtree with a Derringer pistol in a poker game. McCabe gradually takes over the bar, and rises to prominence in the growing town by shipping in three whores and becoming a brothel owner. As McCabe's brothel takes shape, Mrs Miller (Julie Christie) a professional English Madam arrives and bullies him into a partnership.

Mrs Miller insists upon McCabe laying out money for bathing facilities, furniture, fittings and most importantly windows. She rails against his lack of vision, urging him that to make money you have to invest. Mrs Miller continues to work as a $5 whore and we observe McCabe's jealousy as he becomes increasingly attracted to her.

As the town continues to grow, and McCabe indulges a growing appetite for alcohol, he is approached by representatives of the Harrison Shaugnessy mining concern, who make him an offer to completely buy him out. Drunk and insolent, McCabe turns them down; also rejecting a subsequent offer, insisting that he is playing a clever game, despite the warnings from Mrs Miller. Rather than holding out for more money, one feels that McCabe has no desire to relinquish his status within the community. The local priest stalks the streets, round-shouldered and resentful, passing-by on the other side when witnessing scenes of distress, marginalised by McCabe's authority.

Inevitably, Harrison Shaugnessy sends the hired killers that Mrs Miller has warned McCabe about. One of them, the Kid (Manfred Schulz in his only film role), engineers a gunfight with a hapless cowboy (Keith Carradine). McCabe attempts to negotiate with their leader Dog Butler (English actor Hugh Millais), who is telling the embarrassed townsfolk how the mining company uses Chinese labourers to carry dynamite into the mine shafts, as it is cheaper to lose a 'chink' in this way then pursue conventional blasting techniques. Butler is evasive, and when McCabe is gone opines that the latter has never killed anyone, despite the myth of Pudgey McCabe.

McCabe and Mrs Miller spend a night together with the latter leaving early to visit the Chinese opium-den in the town. In a stark reworking of the finale of High Noon, McCabe and the three assassins stalk each other around the settlement, now heavily blanketed in snow. McCabe seeks refuge in the church, cluttered and without fittings inside despite being erected prior to McCabe's brothel, but is ordered out at gunpoint by the minister. Seeking McCabe, Butler blasts the minister with his elephant-gun. McCabe gets the drop on the Kid but is seriously wounded; he also manages to kill the other hired assassin while the church bursts into flames after Butler's gunplay. While the prospectors, townsfolk, and whores, battle to save the church, Butler shoots McCabe, who allows him to get close before shooting him between the eyes with a Derringer pistol, the same gun that he claimed shot Bill Roundtree. McCabe dies in a snowdrift while the townsfolk celebrate saving the church, and Mrs Miller dissolves into her opium-induced trance.

Subverting western conventions, and making play with capitalist theory, Altman's film is nevertheless character-driven, with arresting performances not only by the stars but all the minor roles. An entrancingly beautiful Shelley Duvall appears as a widow forced into prostitution when her husband dies in a drunken brawl. Despite the location filming, the town, created for the film, feels cramped and claustrophobic, hemmed in by the surrounding mountainous country - a metaphor for McCabe's narrowness of ambition. The townsfolk are like a community of innocents; witness their shy appreciation of McCabe's arrival over the opening credits. They have simple needs, work and drink and sex, hence McCabe's ability to dominate them, but they will prosper when McCabe and his killers have passed on. Ultimately, of course, they will come to be dominated by bigger fish, as represented by the single-minded ruthlessness of the Harrison Shaugnessy mining company.

The DVD of the film contains a making-of documentary that seems to come from the era of John Ford rather than out of the swinging 1970s. The score by Leonard Cohen is wholly appropriate.



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