An Essay on McCabe and Mrs. Miller

by smARTfilms curator Tova Gannana

“This story, everyone knows it, I don’t have to deal with it. The hero was a blustering kind of second banana, a gambler who was a loser. There was the whore with the heart of gold, and the heavies were the giant, the half-breed and the kid. So everybody knows the movie, those characters and the plot, which means they’re comfortable with it and gives them an anchor. And I can really deal with the background.” -Robert Altman


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“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” is a film told through windows as a metaphor for the thin breakable barrier between people, between what we say and what cannot be spoken. “I’m always attracted to reflections and images through glass, anything that destroys the actual image and puts different layers of reality on it,” Altman said. Set in 1902 this is the story of the bones beneath the towns out west. The Eastern Seaboard had religion, the slave trade, tobacco and cotton. The West had railroads, mining and prostitution. Warren Beatty plays McCabe and with Beatty came his then girlfriend Julie Christie who plays Mrs. Miller. The only one to call her Constance is McCabe a card shark, who wants to be the local businessman, who traffics women. He calls her Constance while undressing in her room speaking over his shoulder as she lies beneath the covers. They are lovers and yet he pays. He places the $5 in a box on her dresser. Mrs. Miller is a prostitute. Her heart of gold has turned to patina. Her soul sold to opium. McCabe doesn’t know he is loving a ghost. McCabe says in regards to Mrs. Miller “I never knew anyone in my whole life that spent so much time behind locked doors.” Except himself, McCabe who is unable to tell Mrs. Miller “I got poetry in me”.


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The first lines of the film are sung by Leonard Cohen “I told you when I came I was a stranger.” Robert Altman didn’t want the score for his film to be typical of a Western. Years before he had worn out Cohen’s first album by listening to it over and over. “Those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs as if they were written for them.” Cohen sings clearly while much of the film is an incoherent chatter like picking up static on the radio, so you have to listen more closely. The effect is unsettling.


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This looks like a Western but it sure doesn’t feel like what we’ve seen before. McCabe arrives on horseback in a bear coat, beneath he is dressed in a black suit. He mumbles to himself while Cohen sings “Just some Joseph looking for a manger.” The number three is significant in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. McCabe buys three prostitutes to bring from Bear Claw to the new town he is helping to build. One has no teeth, one has a skin condition and one is so young and frightened by the life she has already seen, she says to McCabe “I have to go the potty and I don’t think I can hold it”. The close up of McCabe's face is like an inner close-up of him questioning his own humanity. This is the background of the film. In McCabe we don’t have John Wayne we have Jonah. His only sustenance is raw eggs in whiskey, him belching throughout the film. Unconsciously rejecting a collective vision of “our town”. The main streets of America risen from wooden sidewalks. McCabe botches his three chances to sell his zinc deposits to the mining company because he never intended to sell to the highest bidder. He was “Just some Joseph looking for a manger”. Three strangers come for McCabe. They have rifles and don’t make deals. For McCabe the way out is not through the belly of a whale. Cohen sings “And why are you so quiet now standing in the doorway.” He must kill and so he is killed. There is unity at the end of the film between the prostitutes and the miners. Through a broken window with buckets of water they put out the church fire. We know that the town will again be divided, that the outside elements will break in and break them apart. McCabe is in the snow bleeding and alone. He in the end is faceless like the prostitutes Mrs. Miller brings for his enterprise, walking into a new town behind a wagon in the rain.

—Tova Gannana, curator


Join us on November 7th at 7:30 PM for McCabe & Mrs. Miller.


Tickets: $10 Member, $12 Non-Member

Dinner seating in Bistro begins at 5:30 PM. Reservations recommended - 206-451-4011.
Auditorium opens at 7:00 PM
Movies at 7:30 PM