by Allan Fish
(USA 1971 120m) DVD1/2
Like he was giving up the holy game of poker
p David Foster, Mitchell Brower d Robert Altman w Robert Altman, Brian McKay novel “McCabe” by Edmund Norton ph Vilmos Zsigmond ed Lou Lombardo m Leonard Cohen art Leon Ericksen, Philip Thomas, Albert J.Locatelli cos Ilse Richter
Warren Beatty (John McCabe), Julie Christie (Constance Miller), René Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, Keith Carradine, William Devane, Michael Murphy,
It was the age of antiheroes, twice over; on one hand it was the end of the frontier expansion of the late 19th century, a film set in the 1900s when the furthest outposts of the Northern Canadian borders were being explored. It was also 1971, the age of Alex and his droogs, of Popeye Doyle and Harry Callahan bending the rules, of John Klute no longer having to, and of Jack Carter never having to adhere to them in the first place. John McCabe fit uneasily with this bunch, yet he belonged there.
Rules are a difficult thing. People have a habit of breaking them for the sake of breaking them, no matter how sensible or ridiculous. In the western world, the rules were those of John Ford and Howard Hawks, and though some people had tried to subvert them, it wasn’t until the age of Boetticher and Mann, and later Peckinpah and Leone, that filmmakers turned the legends on their heads. Altman, as is his wont, went one step further, by blowing them completely asunder, or else ignoring them completely.
So we have John McCabe, arriving at the Pacific North-western town of Presbyterian Church to start a gambling and whoring establishment and escape from people who want him dead. He forms a partnership with a cockney opium addict who volunteers to run the brothel side of the business, but eventually his enemies come a-calling and he can only stand alone and kill or be killed.
Parts may seem conventional, and yet it’s anything but. McCabe is a braggart, trying to seem stylish in his bowler hat, trapper-length fur coat and chomping on a cheap cigar, and yet he’s out of his depth. Others have his measure, not least Constance Miller, a cockney tart who probably grew up in the Whitechapel of Jack the Ripper and consequently knew all about the bogeyman and the cruel world. She turned to opium to keep the nightmares away, while McCabe just wanted money. Despite the stars’ off-screen relationship, there’s no romance here, much as though McCabe would have loved one. She’s completely, resolutely uninterested in him, and makes no bones of disgusting him by eating stew and fried eggs mixed together and reminding one of how Christie used to annoy Omar Sharif by eating fried egg butties on the set of Doctor Zhivago.
The Vancouver location was not only savagely beautiful, but had no mythical western baggage. Then there are the visuals; it may have been shot on the widescreen to take full stock of the stunning landscapes, but Zsigmond shot the film through flash exposure and in shallow focus, thus giving the film a sort of hazy look that resulted in characters coming and going from scenes as if through a saturated, gloomy mist. It’s then all undercut by the lamentations of the inimitable Leonard Cohen, which are as intrinsic to this film as Bob Dylan’s ballads to Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett. The performances don’t conform to convention, and the two leads, in their very different ways, are quite superb. Beatty would never be as good thereafter, and Christie was a revelation freed from radiant English gentility. Yet it’s only in the final scene, perhaps, that we come to fully understand the film, after McCabe accepts his demise in the snow and Christie lies down in an opium-induced sleep. Pauline Kael called the film “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie, Robert Altman’s fleeting, diaphanous vision of what frontier life might have been.” Yet might it have been just that; a pipe dream? Suddenly the misty haze seems inspired, and any doubters silenced within a split second realisation. One day it may even be seen as Altman’s masterpiece, but at the very least it led to the even greater ruminations of Heaven’s Gate and TV’s later Deadwood, with Keith Carradine graduating from hick in search of pussy to myth in search of revision as the ill-fated Wild Bill Hickok.