Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Six

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#6 — McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
It’s routine to praise directors for their abilities to construct entire worlds, especially in the modern era of filmmaking which increasingly depends upon the startling efforts of creators who are freakishly adept at rendering imagery utilizing computer software. Too often, that celebrated world-building largely stops at the backgrounds, leaving the development of the characters moving through it as a secondary concern, leading to only the most superficial of conflicts playing out in front of the expensive walls of ones and zeroes. That’s because the filmmakers may be interested in worlds, but they’re not concerned with societies, and the correlating examination of how souls carrying their own personal sets of joys and troubles collide with each other. We are deep into the epoch of playset directors, many of whom must have once marveled over the intricacies of their miniature plastic Death Stars and Millenium Falcons, never putting all that much thought as to what the plastic figures that populated them might be feeling at any given moment.

Robert Altman was, of course, from an entirely different generation, but he also had a unique sensibility among his peers. While most films are built on plot and therefore incident, Altman’s movies–his best movies, anyway–were settled on a foundation of bustling humanity. No film exemplifies Altman’s startling skill at making masterpieces from such an approach than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film recognizable as a western from its milieu, but otherwise as far removed from the sturdy epics of John Ford and Howard Hawks as any cinematic offering could be. It isn’t about good guys and bad guys, but instead that vast terrain of ambiguity that exists between those two absolutes. It is about the necessarily corrupting influence of American capitalism in a community, settling its story on a time in the earliest years of the twentieth century to demonstrated that the pollution in the nation’s fiscal stream was there at the mouth.

John McCabe is played by Warren Beatty, in arguably the best performance of his career, largely because the role is perfectly suited to both his personal reputation of stealthy control and his unique muttering patter, the latter of which suggests a man anxiously attempting to turn his impulses into thoughts. McCabe comes to a blustery frontier mining town named for the church at its center (though definitely not at its heart) and begins exerting his influence over the citizenry, largely in pursuit of the almighty dollar. He establishes a brothel, the management of which he eventually turns over to another newcomer, Constance Miller, played by Julie Christie. The film traces their mutual ascent and then descent, and the title characters are undoubtedly the main drivers of the narrative. However, Altman’s concerns are simultaneously greater and more intricate, burrowing into the tenderized interpersonal mechanics of the entire town, not through an overburdening of subplot, but by simple, intense observation. Altman’s famed overlapping dialogue is in full evidence, paradoxically providing immense revelation by they way he allows things to be obscured. Other filmmakers spell things out with painstaking exposition, but Altman chooses to let life simply happen, which proves to be far more enlightening.

In addition to all the familiar Altman trademarks that make McCabe & Mrs. Miller extraordinary, this is surely the most beautiful film the director ever presided over. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is a nonstop source of wonder, evoking a time when only candlelight offered illumination, and the descending blues of dusk could be the most imposing sight of all. These choices simply make the light of day, when it arrives, all the harsher, a fitting, metaphoric visual for the muted cacophony of a wounded, suspect nation taking its first furtive steps to becoming its truest self.

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