McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The synopsis at Rotten Tomatoes: A haunting, poetic anti-Western based on the 1959 novel by Edmund Naughton, Robert Altman’s MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is a deeply moving motion picture concerning love and the pursuit of wealth in early America.

Roger Ebert gave it four stars, and lists it among his "great films".

On the other hand, critic-at-large Andrew Hicks says:

I like Robert Altman and all, but McCabe and Mrs. Miller was just plain boring. There goes another ounce of respect any conventional film buff might have for me, but no one can agree that every movie other reviewers give four stars across the board is a bonafide classic. This revisionist Western is one of those highly regarded movies I just didn't didn't see the value in -- sure, it had the balls to break most conventions of the genre, but it's not that interesting.
Like most murky, slow-moving films, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is probably supposed to have a lot of Meaning and Character Insight. The meaning and insight I got could have been packaged in a shorter movie with a little more going on than this. The plot here could fill a "Bonanza" episode with some to spare, but with its profanity, whoring and opium-smoking, if Little Joe did any of this stuff, he'd probably end up exhaling soap bubbles the rest of the week.
I will admit, the actors playing the title characters do great work. Warren Beatty plays McCabe, the stranger who comes to a small Western town with plans to make a fortune in the whorehouse business. He teams up with Dolly Parton, they sing a few songs and everyone's happy... wait, wrong '70s brothel flick. No, McCabe teams up with Mrs. Miller (played by Julie Christie), a British madam who comes out of nowhere to offer her whorehouse-managing skills (just don't ask about the stains on the résumé).
They get some fresh hookers in from Washington, the hooker capital of the nation, and go into business. But look out, the mining company wants to come in and buy up Beatty's property, and you don't screw with the miners. It's buy or die, Warren. That's the essence of the story and, being an Altman film, it's obviously not going to end happily. There are some good parts to this movie, but as far as I'm concerned, McCabe and Mrs. Miller should never take a place in the hall of fame for Westerns or whorehouse movies.


There is frontal nudity from some of the hookers.

It is dark, hazy, grainy, and quite far from the camera.

I agree with Mr Hicks to a great extent. This film is greatly overrated, although I have ambivalent feelings about it, because it is so effective on so many levels. There are several moments that create a genuinely visceral impact. The mood of loneliness pervades the atmosphere, powerfully abetted by the plaintive Leonard Cohen score which provides the only sound track except for the naturalistic overlapping dialogue. The dialogue is filled with irrelevant background chatter, as it real life. The old west is probably pictured more authentically here than in 99% of movies. It's rainy and cold and miserable and diseased. The people are ignorant and toothless, and drunk as often as possible. They can neither read nor count. There are no women, and there is no pleasant way to pass the non-working hours. The naive and friendly people are considered weak, and are usually shot by the ruthless, the violent, or the just plain crazy. The buildings are ready to fall down at the first sign of a harsh circumstance. There is no law to speak of. Women whose husbands die end up with no choice but prostitution. You get the picture. It works. When the film ended, I was overwhelmed with sadness. If a film were nothing more than mood, atmosphere, characterization, and the search for truth, then I would agree with Roger Ebert's unhesitating praise.

But for most people, a film does need to have more. It has to develop, to move forward at a certain minimal pace. Mr Hicks hits the nail on the head when he suggests that this two hour movie has about ten minutes of plot. Everything that happens in the film could have been covered in the opening credits, if they cut the song. Individual scenes seem to go on interminably and they often seem pointless. If this film's plot were driving on the highway to heaven, it would be arrested for failing to reach the minimum speed.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Commentary by director Robert Altman and producer David Foster

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • Behind-the-scenes documentary

  • Widescreen anamorphic format (2.35)

I have talked before about the inherent contradiction in nihilist movies. If a film espouses the philosophy that the world is utterly meaningless, then the film must either be meaningless or  wrong, neither one a good option. Revisionist movies have some of the same liabilities. If a filmmaker is trying to show that the real Old West was a miserable place in which nothing ever happened to break the monotony - well, either he makes a boring, miserable movie, or he disproves his own point. Neither option is very appealing. Altman chooses to stay consistent and make his point. Almost everything you see on screen proves that the Old West was boring, slow, and ugly. Point made, point taken, but not learned pleasantly.

If you want to see an entertaining revisionist western, try Unforgiven.

Note: Roger Ebert considers this a masterpiece, and it is in many ways, so you should therefore read his article (linked below) to achieve a balanced perspective.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4 - he calls it a perfect film, 3.5/5

The People Vote ...


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. The first truly great anti-Western, which tried to demythologize the West. It succeeded. It feels true. But it is really boring for about 95% of its running time..

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