'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' Review: If Frogs Had Wings They Wouldn't Bump Their Asses So Much
Filmed in 1971, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is ranked number 8 in the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre. As an avid fan of westerns, and a lover of all films old school, I was surprised I'd never seen it. Perhaps the title never held much appeal to me as I grew more and more in love with cinema. Perhaps it's inclusion of Warren Beatty as the lead and my general lack of experience with the actor kept it from making its presence known. Whatever the case may be, I am sorely sorry to have missed it, and very excited to have watched it for this week's written review.
The film follows Warren Beatty as McCabe, a gambler that rolls in to a small lumber town and sets up shop to rake in the dough from the backwoods rubes. The first ten minutes of the film solely cover his arrival in town and the establishment of his first card game, and the plot unfolds from there. McCabe rides to the nearest city and buys some women, with the intent of opening a whore house. Unfortunately, he has no idea what he's doing, and so he muddles through until Mrs. Miller arrives to help him run a higher scale place with more efficiency and and hygiene. Their partnership works well, not including a few kinks as they learn how to work together, until a large scale mining operation shows up to buy up all the land. The operation sends a gunman to drive McCabe out of town, and we come to find out that McCabe is not the typical western protagonist. He isn't smart, he isn't suave, and he isn't very good with a gun, causing him to take steps not often used by the usual wild west heroes.
The best part of the film is the fact that the fifty-something extras in the movie were brought in, told to hang around the town for a few weeks, and make characters they would want to be during the wild west, and just walk around town acting like those people. Everyone has their own story, and even if you don't get the details, you can see small snippets of real life in the background and in the wider shots. Men huddled against the cold, or a conversation in which two men discuss facial hair are just some of the activities that go on behind the main story line.
Visually the movie is also an interesting example of cinematic experimentation. With Vilmos Zsigmond, a Hungarian refugee turned guerrilla filmmaker, as the cinematographer, McCabe and Mrs. Miller breaks many of the conventional rules of Hollywood film. They exposed the film stock to light before shooting on it, which gives the movie an intense visual style that feels like old time photography instead of clean and crisp cinema. Since the town is under construction in the movie, the scenes are shot nearly in sequence to coincide with the construction of the sets. The lumber workers gathering the materials for the set were given period tools and clothing so that they could do their work as the film went on, making the town in to an actual lumber mill. When it started to snow on set, with only a few scenes left to shoot, the crew decided it was simply a lucky break, and continued shooting, despite the fact that could have proven extremely costly had the snow let up before the final scenes were finished. This decision makes the entire film feel far more real than it would have been if it were a classical Hollywood piece.
With an unorthodox main character, production style, and visuals, McCabe and Mrs. Miller manages to be a standout western that any fan of the genre should watch. I wouldn't put it on my top ten list, I expect the American Film institute may be slightly biased against more comedic movies, it certainly manages to earn a solid place in my memory. I would warn against it's rather melancholic ending, which may not be for those film viewers more accustomed to the happy resolutions provided in modern cinema.
Final Say: Watch It