Tuesday, 29 April 2014

McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) 70's Marathon 10#

Directed by Robert Altman
Western, Drama
120 Minutes

It has been enjoyable exploring the films of Robert Altman along this 70’s marathon, and his style does show. The use of zoom lenses, the way dialogue is recorded, the music choices, the characters- these are among the traits of Altman’s style. The best fantastic set design and costumes absorbs us into the 19th century setting almost invisibly. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie also give memorable performances, which makes McCabe and Mrs Miller somewhat of an overshadowed film of the 70’s.

The character of John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is introduced to us as a traveller, who comes to the small town of Presbyterian Church (named after the mostly unused Chapel in the town) almost like out of nowhere. The accompanying song is only fitting as the lyric “he was just some Joseph looking for a manger” plays over his entry. The song definitely tells us something about the character, and the music from Leonard Cohen throughout was well orchestrated and fitting.

Altman also shows his enthusiasm for the American film genres and history. In Thieves Like Us (1974) the setting is 1930’s Mississippi with a bank-robbing gangster feel. Here, we see his view of the Western. He creates a very different atmosphere however. Some critics describe his films as ‘anti-genre’ in the sense he satirises genres. In this film, we do not have a typical Western where we have theatrical stand-offs, extreme close-ups and tense stares, but a story of yearning. McCabe at first we see as an outsider who has come prospectively to a new land, and we soon discover the emptiness he feels in his life. He says to Mrs Miller in an intimate scene “I guess I ain’t never been this close to nobody before”. The way Beatty says this line struck an emotional chord with me, and suddenly his character became relatable and poignant. Miller then comforts him almost like a child, which to me was kind of touching. One thing I wish was that Miller appeared more in the film. Her presence often seems brief- she did not have enough moments.

The sense of location is the best thing about the film, and unlike other Westerns, we get a grittier look of 19th Century America. The mountains in the background, the darkly lit saloons, and the houses made of logs, it felt different. The first scene when McCabe walks into the bar, the atmosphere is claustrophobic, and you really get the feel of being in a crowded tight-spaced bar. The later part of the film it begins to snow, which during production was not intended. The film was almost going to be delayed but Altman decided to film in the snow, which I believe added to the entire ending. As one of Altman’s best films, the great on-screen relationship and performance from both Beatty and Christie make this quite an enriching film, telling the tale of a lonesome and longing man.




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