by James Clark
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is so unmistakably about dimming lights that we have to take special care not to miss its profoundly difficult discoveries and associated cinematic audacity. Brought to life in the rural-worshipping hippie era, it would seem to be some kind of paean to helpless victims ambushed in their modest pursuit of happiness by ruthlessly greedy commercial concerns. A hired killer, newly arrived in a recently founded Washington State mining town, in 1901, to dispose of an obstacle to maximum profits—being even possessed of a black moustache by which to emphasize his villainy—introduces a few of the settlement’s stakeholders to the technique of using Chinese migrant workers to go to their deaths for the cause of efficiency. “Do you know what the fine is for killing a Chinaman? $50, maximum…”
Such a gambit would lend itself to a conventional melodrama, the ethos of hippiedom being, alas, not significantly more innovative than that of their grandparents. To find our way to Altman’s best shot (and, for such a spotty career as his, this film definitely displays the A-game), it is, I think, best to start with a barely noticeable moment, namely, a bouncy pony running through a snowdrift on one of the village’s trails while a snowstorm is in progress. This blip of infectious fizz occurs simultaneously with the hit man and his gang stalking the protagonist/obstacle amongst the clapboard structures and along a series of rickety rope and wooden footbridges lacing amidst the muck, ice and snow. Though not actually frisky, the outnumbered nonconformist stages a surprisingly bracing counter-attack, killing all three of his savage adversaries, but in the course of which succumbing to bullet wounds and, lurching through deep snow banks, collapsing in a spray of snowflakes much like those the pony kicked up. As the subsequent and final scene plays out, we see the protagonist, McCabe, becoming increasingly covered by snow, until his configuration could be that of a snow-covered, dead pony.
It is the kinetics, not the morals, of the players which Altman lifts to the fore (the confluence of man and beast on that battlefield being a taste of cinematic Impressionism mining some priceless illuminative treasure). Accordingly, the film touches us, first and foremost, in the play of sight and sound brimming over from whatever the frontiersmen and frontierswomen are looking for. For instance, McCabe first arrives on horseback, with a supply mount in tow, at that centre which could be called a dead end, during a virulent autumn downpour, his arrestingly heavy red-fox fur coat testifying to the level of bone-chilling assault this mountain precinct involves. The wind moans, twisting scruffy pines along the ridge looming over the trail into what one would hesitate to call civilization. A leaden sky does nothing for a roadway that resembles a scrapheap and, dismounting and entering a bar room and hotel, McCabe touches off a zone even murkier than that. In dim candle light (right after a slurred remarking on the first impression of his destination, “I told you…”[it was a hell-hole]—dovetailing with Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack, singing a line from “The Stranger Song,” [about a card sharp or dealer] “I told you when I came I was a stranger…”), there is casualty-ward muttering and a hang-dog “’Evenin’” from a tense little fellow who scurries away after McCabe comes his way. Fetching from the pack, still on the pack horse, a tablecloth for cards, he comes to a table where the light is noticeably less muddy. Setting up for poker (a pair of inmates staging a little Kafkaesque fight for a seat), he finds himself in the stale and thin air of haggling with the rat-like proprietor (he was saying a little Hail Mary at an alcove just inside the door) about what percentage of the cash-flow the house should take. Whereas the protagonist is well-groomed and emits a degree of enthusiasm for the evening’s unpredictability, the rest of the town, as we see it, appears to be stricken and addled by the harsh materiality all around. The heavy shadows and murmured, overlapping and inane speech bring us into a close-relative of hell, its pits of the damned. That McCabe is somewhat more chipper than the long-term residents fails to free him from emitting his own malodorous vapor trail of advantage within a discursive field that proceeds no farther than the doleful greeting at the foyer, “That rain just don’t know how to stop…” The chronic irritant of a force of gravity into which human consciousness has been trapped is soon apparent in McCabe’s feeble attempts at wit, for example (to the hotelier, who presses him for details of his past), “You got a turd in your pocket, or something?” and his complementing the launch of a casino (he loses in his first encounter with the nervous amateurs), at that one borrowed table, with a prostitution concern, consisting of three barely sentient women whom he refers to as “chippies” (a lexical construct sharing the same leaven as the hit man’s “Chinaman,” and that of his own questioning the hotel man, “You got many Chinks here?” [eliciting the reply, “Just turn over a rock…I don’t tolerate opium users here”]).
Before leaving this initial moment, we should bear in mind how richly an ebb and flow of sensuous energy upstages the Lilliputian features of the historical data. Having brought some glamour and (dubious) humor into a state of near suffocation, McCabe and his impromptu Round Table give way to seemingly jaunty footsteps on the bridge to the hotel—bathed in golden sunset and given sprightliness by the dicey underpinnings, not to mention a ukulele motif by a kibitzer at the gambling table. The steps soon become apparent as belonging to the minister of the church at this town called Presbyterian Church. The woman at the hotel desk attempts some mild merriment by noting, “Evening Reverend… Church [construction, revealed by McCabe’s entry into the place] coming along fine, isn’’t it?” In response, the holy man only seems to look even more like a condemned man. That sparks have been shown to fly in the range of such a dullard represents a far more compelling shuffling of the deck here than the juvenilia at the card table. Upping the ante a bit is the sonic touch of several of Cohen’s sermons cum hippie hits (were he given to song the minister might have sounded like that), worming their way into flawed sensibilities. “…he was just some Joseph looking for a manger…” appears to toll for several of the assembled company. That the scatological poker pro (“How do you square the circle? Draw a 4×4 box around a mule’s ass”) and the tight-assed killjoy could be bouncing on the same bridge touches upon the heart of this movie—so seductively pulling us toward Western-genre clichés while gambling (in a gamble that didn’t pay off in box office revenues) in hopes that amateurs in the theater would be as surprisingly acute about the progress of the game as the squalid invalids at McCabe’s table. All the easily read signs point to closing time (a Cohen theme that, even were it available to Altman, would not be welcome). But the real traverse, as I think we shall see, is about something just beginning.
En route to the snowy and far more carefully planned and executed town at higher elevation, where he buys 3 half-breed chippies for $200, the sky shows slight fields of blue and the forest is lush. And, re-entering Presbyterian Church, the doubled-up riders find (however obliquely) that the sunset is a golden glory and textural goldmine; and that a cross is being installed within that glow, by way of a steeplejack working delicately upward in silhouette, on the completed steeple. The girls who were apprehensive and surly back in the snow now begin to thaw out. One calls out, C’mon Wilma. Hang on!” Cohen has now turned to “Sisters of Mercy”—“Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control/It begins with your family, but soon it comes round to your soul…” And McCabe’s soul being instantaneously pressed into fussing about a work crew (led by a John Lennon lookalike) having flubbed the completion of the brothel keeps us up to speed with the real crisis and its spanning many eras.
Coming to pass during that dingy start at the hotel (on being shown the facilities, McCabe’s response is to exclaim, “Shit!”), it dawns upon the fidgety hotelier that our ornate protagonist with an opaque past had killed someone after a rule infraction at a gambling table, and that he has “a big rep” as “Pudgy” McCabe, “the gunfighter.” Though the Dealer (something of a wise-cracking Teddy Bear—later, one of the miffed buy-out guys will call him a “smartass…impossible”) insists on, “Businessman….businessman…” the rodent-like entrepreneur will scurry about the dingy rooms, squealing, “…got a big rep!” Though eschewing such a glamorous persona, which sends a frisson through a sodden populace, McCabe’s approach to “business” is far from Boston. And though quite a bit later than Tocqueville’s observations upon the startlingly vigorous and dangerous ambitions of New World soldiers of fortune plunging into the American wilderness to rack up huge material and emotional advantages, our protagonist plays out for us an impressionistic close-up of the strange poetry haunting that author’s Democracy in America.
Drawn to the businessman rep accruing to the Dealer’s unsurprisingly crude but financially promising successes at Presbyterian Church, and arriving—in marked contrast to his horse-power—by way of a noisily imposing steam engine pulling her effects and a skeleton crew of associates, there comes on the scene, Mrs. Miller, a madam from Seattle (but, as her Cockney accent attests, a pilgrim, of sorts, having come a long way to the big things to be found in America). Only from the camera angle capturing this newcomer do we realize that the shining sea and its take on infinity are just beyond the grotty compound of the village. “I could eat a bloody horse!” she tells McCabe on having dinner with him at that first encounter. And, to embellish the extent of her appetite, she crisply runs through what she could bring to the table in a 50-50 partnership with a figure she’s already sized up as bold as brass but all thumbs in getting things done. (Later, after sifting through his brassiness, she will level with him, “You think small because you’re afraid to think big!”) The elements of her expertise, apropos of “a proper sportin’ house,” which she chooses to emphasize, are intriguing, both from the point of view of the carnal implications of such canny catering to physical appetite and from the perspective of the priority of finessing emotional instability in a very limited front-line staff. “Four out of five of them turn to religion because that’s what they were born with.” (At this point he’s almost dead drunk and belching copiously.) Into the prevailing gale, she also speaks to her competence in health and safety matters posing grave dangers for the success of their kind of business. Going forward, her blend of lead-pipe realism and scorching skepticism (including the resort to a loaded opium pipe and its link to another branch of realism) entails a tuning resource for the shock waves McCabe’s chippy-resembling emotional instability fulsomely and painfully evokes. (The partnership struck and taking on steady momentum, the sound-track troubadour offers, from his “Winter Lady” “…I’m just a station on your way, I know I’m not your lover…”)
Arriving (almost with a Rodgers and Hammerstein touch) in a in a prim little surrey with a fringe on top, while a deadly brawl rages in public, the two conglomerate agents proceed as previously noted, after having their offer to buy out the booming and brightly lit sportin’ house contemptuously refused. McCabe, rightfully termed by one of them a smartass, a status perhaps in part due to a gross attempt to regain self-respect after having been rendered almost redundant by Mrs. Miller’s circumspective and human relations skills, finds the momentary pleasures of toying with supposed softie fat cats souring into desperate fear. Incredulous that the cat and mouse negotiations could have been shut down by the softies, he checks the hotel to be sure the impossible has occurred and then undergoes a humiliating outfacing by the hit man—agreeing to accept the last offer and hearing from out of the latter’s psychopathic hunger, “I don’t make deals…” One last spate of becoming shrunken by clutching at straws concerns checking in with an idealistic lawyer who feeds him the barely swallowable line that the “trusts and monopolies” would never risk exposure in the press as murderers (the subtext implying that he’s not significantly more invulnerable than those Chinamen). “You’re gonna be a hero! You’re gonna stare them down and make them quake in their boots!”
While the negotiations were still afloat, McCabe had bragged to Mrs. Miller—who quickly saw the point of selling and moving on, “where the people are civilized”—“I feel sorry for them… I know what I’m doin’!” Her far more resolved contrarian discernment maintains, “They’d as soon put a bullet in your back as look at you.” His palpably pathetic parroting to her some of the effete cant of the puerile lawyer, takes us along his skein of nearly bankrupt sensual traction. But two scenes within this slide to deadly violence alert us to hitherto unimaginable recuperative powers hidden behind a facade of brash and shallow self-destructiveness. Though the narrative path comprises a classic Western showdown, the cinematic current has no more to do with psychology than with the lawyer’s ethics and history. (“I see you having lunch with William Jennings Bryan!”) The night before the guns come out, he’s with her. Their partnership had been distant, given the differences of their hearts and skills. But, though obviously not the marrying kind (her title more a question than an statement), they were linked by that sense of adventurous profit, which, as Tocqueville saw so well, includes a torrent of disinterested love. He’s frightened but (after an episode constituting the first turnaround) his vision and voice are uncharacteristically resonant. “You’re the best lookin’ woman I’ve ever seen and I ain’t done nothin’ but try to put a smile on your face.” “You don’t need to say nothing,” she tells him, and she caresses and soothes him in her bed like a big old dog. But the most decisive moment closely follows his disgracing himself in attempting to ingratiate himself with Butler, the loyal and deadly servant of the surrey-driving oligarchs. Slipping away, and pointing out that he doesn’t have a gun—one of Butler’s sidekicks had murdered a young kid by asking to see his gun, thus providing the alibi, “He drew first”—we then see him alone in his room gearing up for the road ahead (which was to include the tremulous trip to the hotel, the lawyer and Mrs. Miller’s bedroom). His voice is anxious and often slurred; but it is meant to be heard. In fact, this presentation could be called a cadenza, bolting out at us from the more structured pulsations that have carried us thus far. (A cadenza implying something of a virtuoso.) “He made me feel like a fool! Bitches! … Never did fit in this goddamn town… Some guys just keep lookin’ at you… Keep lookin’. Lookin’… Long as gets a body up to stand. I keep tryin’ to take it in a lotta different ways… Just one time you could be sweet without no money [beyond advantage]… I think I could… Well, I’ll tell you somethin’. I got poetry in me! I ain’t goin’ put it down on paper. I’m no educated man. I got sense enough not to try it… Can’t never say nothin’ here! If just one time let me run the show… You’re freezin’ my soul, that’s what you’re doin’. Freezin’ my soul… Well, shit! Enjoy yourself girls!”
No longer playing to a constituency that actually means nothing to him, McCabe, in a black raincoat, starts the fateful day by treading quickly, through a snow cover being augmented by cascading snowflakes, to that church and its steeple in order to scope out his adversaries’ whereabouts. From the bell tower he observes them generously splitting up into three solo circuits, giving him the benefit of one-to-one rather than three-to-one. Butler, after seeing him quaking and backing away, had declared, “That man never killed anyone.” That would prompt the inference that any one of them could easily kill this pushover. But a brief sample can be misleading. And though the reverend confiscates his rifle, left at the foot of the stairway to the tower—“This is a house of God. Get out!”—making it four notable soloists to regard as shit, he had addressed the fourth with remarkable composure, “Could I have it, please?” Being a warrior at one and the same time managing (as in a dazzling cadenza) to synthesize disinterested love and ruthless indifference, McCabe high-tails it over to “The House of Fortune” (as re-named by the exponent of “big rep”), hunkers behind its bar and chugs down his whiskey and raw egg, stalks along the frontage of a couple of shops, enters one and soon welcomes there the entrance of the rabid, baby-faced snot, who coaxed a gentle soul to take out his pistol, by shooting him in the head with his handgun. The punk does get off two shots before floating in a vat like the shit he is. And from that point our surprising guide here has to weather a bullet in the thigh and a bullet in his gut. As if collateral damage, the church catches fire and the remainder of the fire-fight becomes couched in frenzied fire-fighting efforts by all the townsfolk, including those church-loving whores. Soon the other young support staff of Butler’s comes by the windows, McCabe sets up a shot, propping his gun on a ledge, he fires and then goes out to find the target well and truly dead, face-down in a snow bank. Limping along in deep snow with disconcerting difficulty, he is spotted by Butler, shot in the back, lies still in the snow and puts a bullet between those eyes (until now smug; but suddenly shocked) which, not long before, had made him feel like a fool. The pony has run by, and McCabe becomes one with that snowy bundle of joy. Mrs. Miller is also, at that juncture, about joy, positioned as she is in an opium den in the Chinese district. We are brought very close to her eyes, ready for future business. (The church fire is extinguished, but we can see that neither it nor Presbyterian Church (the village) figures in her future.) We’re taken right into one of her eyes, blissfully spreading out like a galaxy, into endless space, endless frontiers, endless adventure.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller not only contravenes the concerns of the genre of Western films; but it represents a fulfilment of sorts of Tocqueville’s wildest dreams about the momentous and sobering and delightful charge stirring within life on the American frontier.