After the startling success of MASH, a war movie without a war, Robert Altman set out to make what he called “a western that wasn’t a western.” In MASH (1970), the filmmaker had gleefully disposed of genre conventions—the battle scenes, the grim heroism, the appeals to patriotic pride—and he intended to do the same with his adaptation of McCabe, Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel about an itinerant gambler who tries to defend a small town from the predations of a powerful mining company. The best way to demolish the old clichés, Altman decided, was to use as source material a novel that embraced them without irony. “I picked the story because it’s the conventional thing,” he said in a 1971 interview. “[It’s] the most ordinary, common western that’s ever been told. It’s every event, every character, every western you’ve ever seen.” Altman may have been overstating the case—McCabe is just as odd and bumbling in the novel, which a New York Times reviewer called “a distinctly unusual bit of western realism.” Even so, the defiance Altman brought to his “antiwestern” was radical enough to derange his Hollywood studio bosses. To them, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) was not merely antiwestern; it was antirational, anti-audience, antifilm.
Some level of sedition was to be expected, even hoped for. MASH had shocked the industry by grossing ten times its $3.5 million budget and receiving five Oscar nominations, including for best director for Altman (it won for best screenplay). In an era when the major studios had lost confidence in their ability to anticipate their audiences’ desires, Altman represented the closest thing to a sure bet. Warner Bros. wanted to hire him, and Warren Beatty, the world’s biggest movie star, wanted to work with him. Altman, an incessant gambler, knew a good hand when he saw one, and took advantage.
Under his guidance, a series of collaborators, including Beatty and Julie Christie, rewrote the script to accentuate McCabe’s fecklessness, deepen Christie’s role (Constance Miller), and develop the various secondary characters who populate the town of Presbyterian Church. The secondary characters and story lines are so rich, in fact, that it is difficult in the first half of the film to locate a central narrative. Mrs. Miller does not appear until the one-quarter mark, thirty minutes in, and an hour goes by before McCabe foolishly rejects the mining company’s offer to buy out his stake. (Naughton’s novel, by contrast, is structured tightly around McCabe’s final showdown with the company’s hired killers.) McCabe and Mrs. Miller are absent from many of the film’s most indelible moments: the violent breakdown of the young prostitute Alma (Carey Lee McKenzie); the tragic end of the aw-shucks Cowboy (Keith Carradine); the shift from horror to relief on the face of Ida Coyle (Shelley Duvall) after she watches her husband get beaten to death. When McCabe does appear, he gives the impression of being embarrassed by his own presence. He mumbles, he hides behind nervous laughter, he gets lost inside his ridiculous fur coat. By tradition, the western hero is a purposeful man, determined to defend his honor. But Beatty’s McCabe, anticipating Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973),is powerless to control his fate and powerless to shirk it. He is desperate to escape—to be anywhere except for wherever he finds himself, no matter where that might be.
None of these inversions should have come as a surprise to anyone who had seen MASH or, for that matter, the forgotten oddball treasure that followed it, Brewster McCloud (1970). Beatty himself, only a few years removed from Bonnie and Clyde, was drawn to McCabe by the very idea of playing against type again; he liked that McCabe and Clyde Barrow “shared a sort of foolishness.” Neither he nor Warner Bros., however, anticipated that Altman’s ardent iconoclasm would extend to the technical aspects of the production. It was one thing to monkey with the dramatic formula; it was another to sabotage the film stock. As with MASH, Altman placed fog filters over the cameras to smudge the colors. But on McCabe, he went even further, partially exposing the negatives to destroy the clarity of the film, creating the impression that one is viewing it through a pane of stained glass. “I wanted it to have that antique, historical look,” he told David Thompson in one of the interviews collected in Altman on Altman. “I really set out to make it look like those old photographs do.” Those old photographs, needless to say, are black and white, but Altman wanted color, “since no one sees in black and white.” No one has grainy vision either, however, except in cases of severe astigmatism. But Altman was adamant. To ensure that the studio couldn’t overrule him, he flashed the negatives, instead of achieving the same effect during the printing process. When Warner executives panicked after seeing the dailies, he told them not to worry. “The film is going to get to Hollywood, it’s going to be great,” he said. “You’ll love it.” They didn’t. But by then, it was too late.
Altman shot in West Vancouver, Canada, hundreds of miles from the nearest desert. Since most settlers of the West were first-generation immigrants from northern Europe, he disposed of the fiction of cowboy hats and southern accents. He began filming before the sets were completed, so that the construction of the town and the construction of the film would occur in tandem. The crew and even some of the actors slept in the unfinished buildings. The shoot fell behind schedule when local craftsmen employed by Altman, inspired by his devotion to verisimilitude, exchanged their power tools for period-appropriate hammers and screwdrivers. But Altman’s use of sound caused him the greatest headaches. In one of his earliest experiments with a technique that would come to define his style, Altman recorded multiple actors with personal microphones, creating, in the many ensemble scenes, a cacophony out of which stray phrases surface like soda bubbles. Altman’s innovation was to assign each microphone to a different track, allowing him to select which voices to make audible and which to dull to a mumble. “You don’t need to hear everything people are saying to know the world they’re living in,” he said, identifying a strategy common in literature and radio drama but largely untested in cinema.
This method, like the unfinished set and the unglamorous costume designs, the flashed negatives, and the heavy use of the zoom lens, was another way of evoking realistic effects with artificial means. He would refine his sound orchestration in later films—Nashville (1975) represents the apotheosis of this method—but in McCabe, the novelty of his approach and its striking deviance from normal studio standards bewildered his star. “If you have dialogue and people can’t hear it, it makes people crazy,” Beatty says in Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman: An Oral Biography. “It wasn’t that you couldn’t hear every word. I thought you couldn’t hear any word.” He’s right—at certain points in the story, particularly early on, the footsteps are louder than the dialogue, and there are stretches when you can’t make out any single word. It is imperfect and messy, just like the frontier, just like the film itself, just like life. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman did not so much reproduce a lost past as create a new world, with its own logic and texture. This is the source of the film’s honesty, which is to say its beauty.
But what was the source of Altman’s thunderous defiance? He claimed he was interested in the “demystification of an era” and spoke grandly of wanting to capture his own vision of the world, but one wonders whether he was also exorcising some measure of professional frustration. When Altman made McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he was forty-five years old, a twenty-year veteran of television dramas. Though later in life he would not readily admit it (“I don’t like westerns. I don’t like the obvious lack of truth in them”), cowboy dramas were a hallmark of his early career. He directed fifteen episodes of U.S. Marshal; eight of Bonanza, which he helped to make one of the highest-rated shows on television; and he had shorter stints on The Sheriff of Cochise, Sugarfoot, Bronco, and Lawman. (His other specialty was the war drama, most notably Combat!, an anti-MASH.) Though employers like David Dortort, Bonanza’s creator and producer, later credited Altman with having brought to his TV work “something deep down in his own psyche,” he was limited by the rigid prescriptions of the medium. His efforts to revise scripts and defy the censors tended to be greeted with disdain. Despite the high quality of his work, he developed a reputation as difficult, unreliable, insurrectionary, even crazy. When a major studio finally hired Altman to direct a feature, the astronaut drama Countdown (1968), he was fired before it could be completed. His bosses objected to his idea for an unresolved ending and, in a preview of things to come, his insistence on overlapping dialogue. He was offered MASH only after fifteen other directors turned it down.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a box-office failure, but it confirmed Altman’s standing as a director with a singular vision and the brashness necessary to achieve greatness in a collaborative medium. With his next eight films, he created a body of work unsurpassed in American film history for its unrestrained whimsy, technical innovation, and audacious anatomization of national culture. As his ensemble casts grew in size and complexity, he became more precise in his methods. He turned the zoom lens, long considered by cineastes a crude crutch, into an integral feature of his style, a visual counterpart to his orchestrated soundtracks, using it to emphasize details that might otherwise have been lost in the background. He encouraged improvisation to a daring extent and used extreme wide shots to create panoramas with the quality of baroque landscapes. Though his subject matter varied greatly—psychological thrillers (Images, 3 Women), offbeat crime stories (Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye), a large family comedy (A Wedding)—Altman kept returning to downtrodden characters who are terrified of failure but sorely unprepared for prosperity. One thinks especially of Keith Carradine’s hapless bank robber in Thieves Like Us (1974), unable to quit robbing banks even after getting away with murder and falling in love; Elliott Gould’s gambling addict in California Split (1974), cursed to win beyond his wildest dreams; and Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort), soaring triumphantly through the Astrodome before suffering the fate of Icarus. Like “Pudgy” McCabe, these characters and many others, major and minor, are fantasists unwilling to accept the cruel brutishness of reality. How could Altman not have seen himself in them?
McCabe’s haunting showdown, improvised during an unexpected snowstorm, is the film’s masterstroke, but the most revealing insight into Altman’s thinking comes just before this. McCabe visits the office of Clem Samuels, a small-town lawyer who doesn’t seem to have ever left the safety of his dusty office. If his fatuous tone is not a clear enough indicator of his buffoonery, his clownish mustache and muttonchops leave no room for doubt: of all the film’s villains, he is the most loathsome. In a final desperate gambit, McCabe begs the lawyer to help protect him from the mining company and its hired goons. Samuels urges him not to worry. “Damn it, McCabe, I’m here to tell you that this free-enterprise system of ours works,” he says. “And working within it, we can protect the small businessman and the big businessman as well.”
“I just didn’t want to get killed,” says McCabe.
For once, McCabe’s instinct is right. Only he’s already doomed. This system of ours does not work for everyone. The small man can fight and rage and dream, but in the long run he doesn’t stand much of a chance. McCabe can’t understand this deeply American truth, but Robert Altman did. He lived it.