When gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives in the small town of Presbyterian Church, he quickly establishes the town’s first brothel. Despite some initial problems, once Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives and begins to run the brothel for McCabe it becomes a success, attracting the interest of a local mining company, whose offer McCabe refuses. When the company bring in hired killers to dispose of McCabe, the puritanical townsfolk who have been angered by McCabe’s business and attitudes turn their backs on him.
As promised, we end this year’s series of posts on underrated films the way we began it: with an unconventional western – in this case, the timing is apt as I‘ve just released a new album on Spun Out Of Control, which is itself the soundtrack to an unconventional western story.
After a condescending and rather mean-spirited reply to my post about Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in January, I should clarify that although (as I stated in that previous post) Westerns are generally one of my least favorite film genres, it certainly shouldn’t be assumed (as the snide comment writer did) that I clearly haven’t seen that many or that I don’t understand the genre. I grew up with a step-father who loved John Wayne and John Ford movies and who insisted that The Searchers was the greatest Western ever made. I personally fell in love with Leone and Eastwood’s Westerns as a teenager whilst at University, so it’s certainly not the case that I haven’t seen enough Westerns to comment on the genre.
As with all of these posts, any opinions stated here are my own, though I do try to fact-check as much as possible with Wikipedia and other sources in order not to make any truly ridiculous statements. Ultimately, feel free to disagree with my opinions as much as you like – they are only ever my own personal take on the films that I’ve written about – but please don’t question whether I have the right or experience to discuss specific types of films or genres.
Interestingly, despite my step-father’s love of Westerns, the initial prompt to watch this film as a teenager wasn’t from him at all, but from my Mother – who had no interest in Westerns whatsoever but loved the work of Robert Altman. In fact, despite my Mother’s attempts to do so, I don’t think my Step-father ever watched this film, which my Mum constantly referred to as a “far more realistic attempt to show how The West probably was.”
Claims of veracity aside, it’s certainly the case that Altman’s vision of the West has a very different visual look than many of the classic Westerns or even those of Leone’s with their arid, dusty landscapes. Here the weather is relentlessly cold and wet, becoming snowy in the final third of the film (the production actually used real snow, the weather changed and as the film had been shot in sequential order, there was no need to worry about continuity issues.) The cold and wet of the film’s Vancouver location was further enhanced but cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s decision to “flash” or “pre-fog” the film (basically the technique of allowing the unexposed film stock to be shown controlled amounts of light before it was used, essentially making the black areas of the frame go dark grey and muting all the colors slightly). Zsigmond was far from the first cameraman to use this technique, but it’s hard to think of another example of this technique fitting so well with the content of the film. The end result is a film that looks a lot like the early experiments in color photography, the skin tones are often pale, any highlights in the frame are diffused and “blown out” through slight over exposure. Much like Barry Lyndon or Days Of Heaven later on, this immediately pulls the viewer into the film’s time and place within the space of a few frames.
Something else that I was unaware of until I came to write this post was that Altman had his set decorators and carpenters dress in period costume and build the set during the filming so that the audience see the town develop as the film continues. It’s a brilliant directorial conceit and one that its difficult to imagine any director other than Altman conceiving. It also serves to make the town and the location every bit as much as a character as any of the actors. It would also see a further refinement of Altman’s growing use of overlapping dialogue, which he and and editor Lou Lombardo (who had previously worked with Sam Peckinpah on a very different but equally influential Western: The Wild Bunch) would continue to refine on subsequent films along with sound recordist Jim Webb, introducing the idea of multi-track location sound recording which is now standard practice on movie sets. Whilst Altman had previously tried the same effect on M.A.S.H., it was on McCabe where it first really began to flourish, helped no doubt by finally having an editor who understood what he was trying to accomplish.
McCabe would also be one of the few times Altman would use a major Hollywood star in one of his films, until much later in his career (another notable exception would be Paul Newman in Quintet). Whilst Beatty hadn’t been Altman’s first choice (he’d wanted to use Elliot Gould again), Beatty was eager to work with Altman at first. However, tensions supposedly arose between the two of them during filming when Beatty demanded more takes of certain scenes, which led to one instance of Altman leaving Beatty and the crew to continue filming more takes as he saw no point in doing more himself. Whatever the problems were, the results certainly seem worth it. I’d certainly put his performance here up there amongst his greatest screen roles along with Bonnie And Clyde and The Parallax View. What’s particularly interesting about Beatty’s work here is that he departs slightly from his typical cocky screen persona and allows Altman to show that behind McCabe’s bluster and chutzpah there’s a weaseling and, at times, desperate man underneath. McCabe is the prototype for what would become the archetypal Altman male protagonist, seen again portrayed by other actors in films such as The Long Goodbye, Quintet and The Player. Initially, self-absorbed and ineffectual they end up surprising themselves and the audience by the violence lurking within them. McCabe is written off as a pathetic coward by both the town and the bounty hunters and yet, whilst he’s certainly not brave, he’s not stupid either and ends up besting all of the killers through his cunning; with Altman eschewing the traditional western showdown with the town watching, for one that plays out whilst the townspeople are largely unaware and pre-occupied with saving their burning church.
The irony of the puritanical townsfolk and their actions essentially being the arbiters of the semi destruction of their own precious church was not lost on me and it’s clear that (as a lifelong Democrat and atheist) Altman’s sympathies lie with McCabe and not the conservative and two-faced inhabitants of Presbyterian Church. As with his two previous films, M.A.S.H. and Brewster Mccloud, Altman populates the town with actors who would form the unofficial Altman reperatory company over his first few successful films, with actors such as René Auberjonois (who sadly passed away just before this post was published) John Schuck, Michael Murphy and Shelley Duvall cropping up again and again. As with his crew behind the camera, Altman liked surrounding himself with actors comfortable with his free form and often improvisational way of working. Here, as with M.A.S.H., they help bring the supporting roles to life in a way that wouldn’t happen under other directors, but that Altman through his working methods allows to flourish and devotes considerable screen time to, making the film feel far more like an ensemble piece despite the presence of the two leads.
At the time of the filming, Julie Christie was in a high profile relationship with co-star Warren Beatty and Altman uses the clear off and onscreen chemistry between his two leads to great effect. Previous to this film, Christie’s most successful roles had been as free-spirited, sometimes wayward young women; often acting as temptresses, driving the male protagonists to stupidity. Mrs Miller marks the turning point in her screen performances where the younger “femme fatale” or coquettish roles segued into those of beautiful, but often troubled mature women, which (occasional blips like her role in Shampoo aside) she would continue to play in her second decade as actress. Constance Miller is a woman who has seen many things in her life, and despite her relative youth (Christie was barely 30 when the film was made) she seems old and experienced. Altman had initially planned to cast Patricia Quinn (after seeing her stunning performance in Alice’s Restaurant – which I looked at back at the beginning of this blog). Whilst I have no doubt that Quinn would have been excellent, choosing a glamorous, youthful British film star to play the worldly wise prostitute is far more interesting, casting-wise. Of course, for the period Christie’s youth works rather well, as no doubt in those days a woman in her 30s (especially in her profession) would have been considered “old”.
Altman, once again sidestepped convention with his use of music. As he would continue to do throughout his career – from M.A.S.H.’s use of folk music combined with Korean music, to some of John Williams (yes, the guy who composed Star Wars and Jaws) most experimental scoring work on both Images and The Long Goodbye, to occasionally doing without a score altogether – Altman’s choices of music and composers were never predictable. Here he chooses 3 songs by the then relatively young and unknown, Leonard Cohen. On paper it shouldn’t work at all – contemporary folk songs used in a film set in the early 1900s – and yet Cohen’s doleful, plaintive voice and the somber sparse nature of the songs compliment the mood of the film perfectly, so much so that, once you’ve seen the film, it’s impossible to hear “Sisters Of Mercy”, for example, and not immediately conjure up images from the movie.
The film has clearly left its cinematic mark on the anti Western genre and it’s hard not to see its influence on later films such as the following year’s Jeremiah Johnson, the previously reviewed Dead Man and others. For me, it remains a film that somehow manages to transcend its time and pull the viewer back to another older period in a way that few films (Westerns or otherwise), really manage. If you’ve never seen it, now’s the time to take a trip back into the past and visit the town of Presbyterian Church and it’s inhabitants.
This is the final post of 2019 from “You need to see this…” I’ll be back in the new year with more underrated film posts, but until then I wish all my readers a happy and enjoyable festive season and an a happy new year.