McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
The largely unremarkable plot of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, based on a not too renowned book by author Edmund Naughton, was given the royal treatment by Robert Altman who took his show on the road up to Vancouver to set up and shoot (as they went along) a late 1800s frontier mining town inhabited with male miners and female whores. The story has all your typical western elements, except that our protagonist isn't the expert, invulnerable gunman, but rather a self-centered wheeler-dealer who mumbles to himself and drinks raw eggs in his whiskey.
With classic western elements combined with elements borrowed from the classic tragedy, Altman has himself set up for what he wanted to do; create an atmospheric, naturalistic document from the old west in which legends and stereotypes were dismissed and nature, pragmatism and Altman's vision of stern western-realism was introduced. There are no shortcuts (no pun intended) or romanticised solutions in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but there still is quite a bit of hope and respect. Unfortunately, Altman cannot complement his atmosphere with much tension.
The film is populated with Altman regulars plus two of the biggest stars of the era: real-life couple Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. They dive into their roles with conviction. Beatty gives one of his very best performances here. Guided by Altman's confident direction, this is one of the few times in his career where Beatty allows himself to be truly directed. The result is a distinguishing, deglamorized and deep performance. At the same time, Beatty is probably at his best looking here, his untidiness giving edge to his beautiful features. Christie, on the other hand, really doesn't get much to work with. She starts off stylized and ends underdeveloped – much in the same way as the relationship between the two title characters.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is wonderfully shot on location, with beautiful cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. It has poetic realism and qualities resembling that of a painting. Despite all this, we're left wanting. Altman's secluded and basically unnarrative direction leaves the film lacking in emotion. When the film ends, it is sad only on an intellectual level. Altman's final shot of McCabe sitting in the snow is as beautiful and symbolic as it is void of sentiment. Listen for the beautiful Leonard Cohen songs laid on the soundtrack – they almost make up for the bad sound production.