Tony Mastroianni Review Collection
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Cleveland Press July 23, 1971
Naturalism, the greatest asset of a movie called "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," is also the picture's undoing.
Director Robert Altman has given his movie the feel of a time and a place and has created a mood of sadness, futility and grubbiness.
Whether audiences will settle for sadness, futility and grubbiness is another matter. Audiences aside, "McCabe" is a movie from which other directors will be stealing for years to come.
That makes it a picture for the movie buff, but hardly for anyone wandering in looking for casual entertainment.
THE TIME is around 1900, the setting a western mining town called Presbyterian Church. As towns go, it isn't much. As movie sets go, it's a knockout. It was completely built from scratch on land cleared in western Canada.
It was built not only with an eye for realism but for pictorial composition as well.
On a miserably cold, wet night John Q. McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides into town. He's a gambler, smalltime but professional.
He carries a gun, and prowess beyond his ability is attributed to him. Thus are legends born.
HE TAKES his winnings and sets up a rival establishment but goes one better by heading out and buying three bedraggled prostitutes whom he sets up in business in tents.
Enter Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a frizzle-haired, cockney-talking woman who looks scornfully at this latest business effort and tells McCabe that she's an expert, being a practitioner of the enterprise herself and offers to go into business with him-he is to build a substantial bordello and a bath house and she'll bring in the girls from Seattle and run the show.
They become the local tycoons and she is his business partner and mistress on a cash basis.
SMALL THRIVING businesses are gobbled up by big thriving businesses. It s the American way. The mining syndicate that owns everything else offers to buy out the partners stock and bedroom for a sum McCabe thinks hardly adequate.
He refuses and the company sends in a trio of armed hoods to take over.
This slim little story is developed almost languorously over two hours. It's a little like a lengthy novel especially the kind that take a good while to get into. And sometimes it is funny, but sadly funny.
AFTER A TIME it gets tedious. Some of Altman's tricks don't help./ There is overlapping dialog, sound effects that muffle words, words that are mumbled and Miss Christie's cockney accent.
The emphasis is on the ribald and raunchy. This is mining dialog and while I'm not familiar with mining camps the vocabulary can't be too different from that around an army camp. But Altman not only dwells on that aspect of it, he stops to give it undue emphasis.
Photographically there has been little to equal this picture. Colors are not only muted, they are keyed to the story and the mood.
A DIRTY yellow pervades the opening scenes of the lantern-lit stuffy interiors and you can almost feel and smell the closeness.
Outdoors it is cold, and the over all tint is a bluish white -- harsh, unrelenting, bitter and bone chilling.
THE WOMAN is tougher, a realist, aggressive, knowing that McCabe can't win and retreating finally into an opium dream.
Miss Christie is good in this one, when you can understand her. Beatty's tendency to mumble works in this particular role and Altman has controlled the actor's pauses. Whether it is art or accident the two carry off the parts well.
Almost, but not quite, they make you care about a couple of people you have no reason to care about. There's hardly a decent, likable person in the entire movie and McCabe and Mrs. Miller are the least of these.