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Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is at once a quietly romantic and unflinchingly bleak love story.  Set in the practically-titled Presbyterian Church, a mining town nestled amidst the snowy mountains of the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century, the film opens on the arrival of one John Mccabe (Warren Beatty).  McCabe is many things: an affable gambler, a rumored killer, and a man looking to start the town’s first prostitution business.  Soon afterward there is another newcomer, the brazenly pragmatic and sharp-witted Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a British prostitute with her own cultivated team of female sex-workers.  With some forceful persuasion by Mrs. Miller, McCabe enters into a business partnership with the slight-boned madame, and they proceed to build up the classiest bordello within miles.  At some point during this booming enterprise, the two fall into a strange, unspoken love.  He is only permitted to sleep with her if money changes hands, and she is only sweet to him if she has her opium fix.  It’s a match made in Presbyterian Church.

This unlikely amorous tension cannot last for long, though.  McCabe is approached by two business wolves in sheep’s clothing who want to buy out his and Mrs. Miller’s establishment.  Being fool-headed, he barters with the dignified gangsters one too many times (a brilliant cut to a townsman’s funeral follows this sequence).  Hired thugs are sent to eliminate McCabe and free up the bordello’s ownership.  With one foot in the grave, McCabe waits in the cold town for the patient contract killers to make their move…

We first glimpse Mrs. Miller beyond a closing door.  Given her occupation and life situation, this is a terribly intelligent way of visually introducing her as a character.  With a frizzy bird nest of hair and pretty features masked by a shrewd, hardened expression, Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller is a study in making the most of a bleak life.  Her views on survival reveal a feminism that revolves around realist practicality.  As she explains to a recently widowed mail-order bride who begins living and working in the brothel, marriage and prostitution are not that different, and prostitution is ultimately the more liberating option.  “You do this to pay for your bed and board,” Mrs. Miller elucidates in a Cockney accent, “only you get to keep a little extra for yourself, and you don’t need to ask nobody for nothing… which is marvelous to my mind!”  To Mrs. Miller, sleeping with a man for money is a way of having independence from him.

Money proves to play another critical role in Mrs. Miller’s sex life: it sets her at a distance from intimacy.  Part of what makes her and McCabe’s romance so deliciously subtle and unfulfilled is that she is constantly setting barriers between them.  She proposes that they be business partners.  It is casually revealed that the two are having a sexual affair, but that she requires the sex be bought and paid for.  She secretly smokes her opium pipe before he arrives at night (which, somewhat heartbreakingly, works as both an emotional barrier and a needed uninhibitor for her).  Leonard Cohen sings sadly on the non-period soundtrack, “I’m just a station on your way, I know I’m not your lover.”  The soundtrack, purposefully evocative of the 1970’s, adds a deep wistfulness and elegant disjointedness to McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  It tells us that something will be and always has been irrevocably lost.

McCabe is an equally interesting character in his own right.  “That man?  That man never killed anybody,” one of the hired killers tells a couple of townsmen, an assured tone in his voice at the seemingly laughable rumor that McCabe had once murdered a man.  And we as viewers are only too happy to agree with this assessment of the bumbling, doggedly likeable half-rate businessman with his ridiculously oversized fur coat and boyishly charming face.  Surely McCabe could have neither the wherewithal nor the malice to kill a man.  However—and this is one of the great enigmas of the film—the final snow-blanketed showdown reveals that McCabe indeed has the capacity to kill.  Like the “poetry” he swears he has in him, he proves to also have a darker intensity hidden behind his nervous smile, a reluctant yet acute understanding of the need for survival amidst all his awkward fumbling.  With McCabe it is always an issue of convincing communication.  He cannot summon the romantic words to woo Mrs. Miller as he would so desperately like (though, on a certain level, she does hear these words nonetheless), and by the same turn he cannot conjure up the formidable personality of a killer or even of a confident entrepreneur.

The snow-covered landscape in McCabe & Mrs. Miller works on many levels.  Aside from its haunting, always-winter-never-Christmas beauty, the snow gives the town an appropriately blank-slate feel.  The town is in the mountains of the American West, at a time when civilization is still inchoate.  One can simply arrive, as McCabe and Mrs. Miller do, build up a prosperous business and begin a new life.  Yet abundant snow also has the look and feel of unforgiving erasure.  It’s not accidental that McCabe, along with the thugs he shoots, dies sunken in snow, nor that an unfortunate young cowboy’s body is last seen half-submerged in icy water.  People disappear inside the town of Presbyterian Church—they die and are swallowed up by the wintry land or they keep living and are simply forgotten—with seemingly little consequence.  As the town folk rejoice over the saving of the church in the last sequence of the film, it seems that McCabe—bleeding out in a snow bank not far away—has already been partly forgotten.  A black couple wanders away from the post-fire celebration, unnoticed.  Mrs. Miller lies reclined in an opium den, surrounded by “Chinks” and engaging in some mental erasure of her own.  Whose god has been saved by salvaging that church, and will He or anyone remember this place and its people, buried in snow?

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