“Go West, young man.” — Horace Greeley.
We find ourselves today in Presbyterian Church, the town in Robert Altman’s brilliant Western classic, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Presbyterian Church is a town made up of horny, thirsty men, a town in the mountains of nowhere, tossed together like a made-up salad of lumber, tents and dirty snow that has become concrete.
There are no handsome gunslingers here like Wyatt Earp. These guys are dirty and mostly ugly. If the bar scene in “Star Wars” was a Western, this would be it. Altman is all about authenticity.
All the men here know each other, they know one another’s secrets, past lives and probably their futures. Everyone who has come to P.C. is half alive, and most won’t leave alive. It’s kind of a happy town. It’s not like Dodge or Deadwood. No one here is shooting up the town. They’re too weary from looking at snow and each other. This is Altman country, and they’re all waiting for Godot.
Like in all good Westerns, a stranger (a young hirsute Warren Beatty) rides into town. He wears a bowler derby and a big coat of bear skin. His dress beneath is frayed but dapper. He is McCabe, a man who might have shot someone somewhere. He is a gambler, and he immediately sets up a red cloth and deck of cards.
Before long, McCabe smells profit and starts up his own saloon and brothel. He has three girls to start with, the kind you would leave at the bar.
But success is in the wind. A wheezing four-wheel steam engine brings happiness in the shape of Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie). Julie is a cockney girl from the worst part of London. She has street creds in the brothel biz and has brought her own stable of long-legged working girls, the creme de la whipped creme from San Francisco.
Mrs. Miller soon discovers that McCabe doesn’t know his times tables and is losing money. She makes him an offer, and we know by looking at her in the raw that it’s an offer he ain’t gonna refuse.
Mrs. Miller’s girls, Russian, Chinese and potpourri, plus her expertise and insistence on cleanliness is next to godliness, promises success. Naturally, success, like leftover steak, attracts bugs and rodents.
Two come up the mountain, city boys representing a mining conglomerate. The head man (Michael Murphy, smooth and flawless as ever) makes a drunken, boasting McCabe an offer. They negotiate, he turns him down.
When Mrs. Miller learns of this, she knows the drill. Like Vito Corleone, these guys don’t make a second offer. They will send a final message in a trio of gunmen, cold-eyed and in a bad mood.
This is where the sidewalk ends for McCabe’s and Miller’s plans. When the death stalking begins in a wild storm, McCabe will be in the streets trying to avoid the inevitable. He sees it coming when one of the killers taunts a young innocent stranger (an incredibly baby-faced Keith Carradine, all gangly and wide-eyed) into a tight spot and is shot down.
With the Angel of Death flapping her wings, Mrs. Miller, attended by her flock of night birds, will be cozying up with an opium pipe, hoping for a happy ending.
But again, this is Altman country, where realism is king, where everyone talks at once, blood is drawn, bullets fly, and happy endings come only in Christmas cards from Disney.
Beatty, young and full of beans, cuts himself out a great chewy part, and he clearly knows it. He works the makeup and the wardrobe and the brilliant cards dealt to him by the master Altman.
There is little I could say about Julie Christie that hasn’t been said in grander terms. Her “Lara” in “Zhivago” and “Bathsheba” in “Madding Crowd” are behind her. She has become a legend whom Al Pacino once called, “The most poetic of all actresses.”
Some consider this the best of Altman’s best, and I won’t argue with that. All these years later, the film wears “classic” ribbons all over it. The cinematography of the fabulous Vilmos Zsigmond is breathtaking and captivating, and the spare script by Altman and Brian McKay taken from Edmund Naughton’s novel tells us all we need to know. Altman was here.
J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.