For Reel

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
March 16, 2016, 9:19 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Robert Altman
4 Stars
McCabe & Mrs. MillerThe oft-repeated sentiment that McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a revisionist western seems an inadequate way of describing the tone of Robert Altman’s achievement. While McCabe (Warren Beatty) could be placed as the last of the frontiersmen–his death signaling a transition from the old west to a world overburdened by corporate interest–the film’s form doesn’t reflect the deconstruction of the genre with the directness that directors like Sam Peckinpah or Monte Hellman had previously demonstrated. Altman has too much on his mind to reduce McCabe & Mrs. Miller to a genre revision, and furthermore the classic downfall structure is perhaps the least interesting thing the picture is doing. In the first half hour of the film, Altman slowly invades a small mining town and lingers around the people within it. Characters speak over each other, Leonard Cohen’s music both drowns out dialogue and creates a ethereal daze, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography doesn’t single out characters, rather it roams the community. There is little sense of an obvious classic narrative construction–if to call the picture an anti-western is a reduction, it is perhaps more appropriate to talk about the way in which it abandons classic filmmaking conventions. Zsigmond’s cinematography predicts the gauzy, paintings-come-to-life aesthetic of John Alcott’s work in Barry Lyndon, but his roaming camera is a huge contrast to the rigorously structured mise en scene of that film. Regardless, it achieves the same elegiac quality, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, if not Altman’s finest achievement, a rigorous exercise in tone.

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