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After M*A*S*H, Robert Altman Made the Saddest Western Ever


After M*A*S*H, Robert Altman Made the Saddest Western Ever


Summary

  • Despite initial panning, McCabe & Mrs. Miller stands as one of Altman’s top works, praised for its moody melancholy and anti-western approach.
  • Iconic performances by Julie Christie & Warren Beatty emphasize the movie’s themes of unrequited love and economic commodification.
  • The film’s haunting Leonard Cohen score and bleak cinematography add to its enduring sadness, making it a must-see for cinephiles.



One of the most iconoclastic filmmakers of the 1970s, Robert Altman marched to the beat of his own artistic drum. Following the massive success of the hit 1970 Vietnam War comedy M*A*SH*, the maverick director completely changed directions and delivered one of the saddest revisionist Westerns in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The movie stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as the title characters, wayward souls who find loving solace in each other’s company on the unforgiving Western frontier in the early 1900s.


In addition to being selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry in 2010, McCabe & Mrs. Miller earned an Oscar nomination for Julie Christie’s leading performance. Although the film was largely panned during its initial run, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has been favorably reappraised in the past 50 years to become one of the most celebrated American anti-westerns ever made. Yet, even those defending the film in recent decades realize that the moody melancholy helps preserve McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a timeless high point in Altman’s decorated career.

McCabe and Mrs Miller poster

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

5/5

Release Date
June 24, 1971

Director
Robert Altman

Runtime
2h 1m

Writers
Brian McKay , Robert Altman


What Is McCabe & Mrs. Miller About?

McCabe wears a fur coat in McCabe and Mrs Miller
Warner Bros.


Based on the 1959 novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a revisionist Western movie that bucks conventional genre tropes. As such, famed American filmmaker Robert Altman described it as an “anti-western.” The story concerns wayward gambler John McCabe (Beatty), who rises to prominence in a small village in Washington state by convincing the locals he is a notorious gunslinger named Pudgy McCabe. But McCabe is no gunfighter. He is a conman who bluffs his way to success.

After seizing control of the village, McCabe establishes a local brothel and meets a British woman named Constance Miller (Christie). Mrs. Miller convinces McCabe to operate the brothel, so he can focus his attention on running the gambling circuit. The two find financial success as their dual business takes off, and they become romantically involved. Despite their romantic feelings for each other, Mrs. Miller continues to charge McCabe for sex, a dreary prospect that confuses true love for economic commodification.


With a bright future ahead, everything changes for the worse when agents from the Bearpaw Mining Company arrive in town and pressure McCabe to sell his business. The owner of the mining company is notorious for killing those who refuse to sell to him, putting McCabe in an existential bind. Despite making a generous offer to purchase McCabe’s business for $5,500, McCabe refuses and awaits a violent revenge campaign. Once a gambler, always a gambler, and McCabe bluffs by overplaying his cards, leading to an incredibly downbeat and depressing conclusion in the all-time sad movie Western.

What Makes McCabe & Mrs. Miller so Sad?

McCabe and Miller stand in a lodge in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Warner Bros.


The memorable melancholy of McCabe & Mrs. Miller strikes hard in the final act. Three hired guns arrive in town to kill McCabe, forcing him to relent in fear and agree to sell his company. However, one of the gunmen refuses to accept McCabe’s word, citing his fraudulent history as a phony gunslinger. When things look dire, McCabe finds hope when a lawyer encourages him to stand up to the Bearpaw Mining Company. With newfound confidence, McCabe holds his ground and welcomes a fiery gunfight.

Betting on himself with blinding disillusion, McCabe is soon turned on by the same villagers who once revered him. Hiding in a chapel, a pastor steals McCabe’s shotgun and chases him with it through the snow. The pastor is killed by one of the gunners hired to kill McCabe, and a shattered lantern starts a fire in the chapel. As the townsfolk put out the blaze, McCabe kills two of the gunmen but is badly wounded by the third.

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The movie ends with a jaw-dropping bloodbath, with McCabe shooting the third and final gunman to death as he falls into the snow. The film ends with McCabe dying alone in the cold while his lover, Mrs. Miller, is completely unaware of his fate as she lies inebriated in an opium hall. There are no loving farewells or heartfelt send-offs. There is no realization of the American dream. Despite all they’ve built together and the love they’ve forged for one another, McCabe and Miller do not live happily ever after. Worse yet, one dies, and the other is forced to deal with the sobering realization of losing a loved one upon emerging from a drug-induced haze.

Other Contributing Factors

McCabe is buried in snow in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Warner Bros.


Beyond the soul-crushing conclusion marked by violent death and unrequited romance, several aspects of the film accentuate the sadness. For instance, the musical score in the western is composed of Leonard Cohen songs, a renowned poet whose haunting lyrics and moody melodies perfectly mirror the tone and tenor of the story. The songs are mournful and wistfully aching, beautifully encapsulating McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s doomed fate. More than just reflecting the characters’ plight, the moving music becomes a character in its own right as the movie unfolds.

Another aspect of the film that embodies the overarching sadness is the drab and dour visual depiction of the American West. Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond earned a BAFTA nod for Best Cinematography for his work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, utilizing harsh grays and muted brown earth tones to magnify the unforgiving landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike most bright, shiny Westerns that take place under the sun, Altman and Zsigmond lean into the depressing aspect of the story by creating a wet, soggy, frigid, and unhappy environment.


Is McCabe & Mrs. Miller Worth Revisiting?

Miller lies in a haze in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Warner Bros.

Despite the sad, downbeat ending, McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains one of the most beloved American Westerns. As such, it’s a must-see for movie buffs everywhere. The most valuable art is often misunderstood before becoming appreciated over time. Although the film received poor reviews upon its initial run in the 1970s, McCabe & Mrs. Miller now holds a superb 93 Metascore and an 85% Certified Fresh Rotten Tomatoes Score. In 2008, the film was listed as the 8th best American Western ever made in AFI’s 10 Top 10 List.


In addition to the critical reappraisal of the film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a reminder of Robert Altman’s versatile filmmaking talents. Instead of capitalizing on the success of M*A*SH* by making a sequel or another comedy, Altman reversed course and continued to go against the establishment with a genre-defying anti-western, ushering in a wave of 1970s American movies unafraid to depict the harsh realities of a country in flux. McCabe & Mrs. Miller may be the saddest western ever made, but the malaise and melancholy are substantial reasons why the movie remains memorable and worth revisiting in 2024.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play & YouTube.

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