Saturday, October 27, 2007

No. 3 - McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Robert Altman arguably had the most impressive output of any Hollywood director in the 1970's. He certainly directed more films than anyone else -- about a dozen or so between 1970 and 1979. Not all of his films were great, but even the least of them tried something new. And when Altman was at the top of his game, few filmmakers could match him.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller from 1971 is Altman at his very best. It is a Western set in the Pacific Northwest near the turn of the 20th century. McCabe, a small-time cardsharp (Warren Beatty) comes to a small mining town, and sets up shop -- a saloon with games of chance, and a house of prostitution. He takes on a hooker with a heart of brass named Mrs. Miller (the splendid, Oscar-nominated Julie Christie), and business booms. A large corporation wants to buy McCabe out, but he refuses to sell. So some hired killers soon arrive to do away with McCabe, in a memorable gunfight in a heavy blizzard.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller gives the viewer a palpable sense of escaping into the past. The mining town seems like a small niche carved out in an immense and forbidding wilderness. The streets are constantly muddy, wood frames are always going up. It is barely inhabitable. A cold wind always seems to be blowing through town. Altman's cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, beautifully captures the setting. We get a great feeling for nature -- the skies, the clouds, the trees, most significantly the weather. Never has rain and snow been used so effectively in a film. In the final gunfight, McCabe attempts to outgun his rivals while tramping through thigh-deep snowdrifts.

The film finishes in an opium den, with an extreme close up of Julie Christie. It's a daring way to end the film, but appropriate. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, above all, is a trip in the truest sense of the word.

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