McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)


McCabe and Mrs. Miller – 1971

Director – Robert Altman

Starring – Warren Beatty and Julie Christie

So we come to yet another Robert Altman movie. This time Altman subverts the western genre, transforming a series of characters from cookie cutter black and whites into more realistic grays and earth tones. Warren Beatty plays the McCabe of the title, arriving in a new frontier town in the Pacific Northwest with his sights set on jump starting the gambling and whore house industries. His reputation in town precedes him as the bartender bolsters his reputation by telling stories of his “gunfighting past” (it’s not revealed till later whether or not this account of his past is rumor or authentic). The town folk, rapt with attention, line up to hear his stories, play poker with him, and to sample his wares. His operation is going well, and McCabe grows more and more full of himself until Mrs. Miller, another entrepreneur new arrival in town, shoots holes in his rather short-sighted and limited plans.

She knows the true potential for this sort of business in town, and more importantly she knows how to run it. She convinces McCabe to put up the cash and soon enough they are in business. Together, their business flourishes as does the rather one sided affection that McCabe feels for Miller. Her desire to legitimize the spot she has cut out for herself, serves as a blockade to McCabe’s attempts to sweep her off of her feet. The greater their success, the more amorous he tries to be, and the more distant she becomes.

When a large conglomerate business makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to purchase the business, McCabe refuses in a bluff, attempting to squeeze a larger sum from the buyers. Mrs. Miller knows how ruthless these men can be, and does what she can to warn McCabe of the danger of playing with fire. Beatty’s “gunslinger” is full of the glory of his own legend, claims to know how to play the game. Unlike the rest of the townsfolk however, Mrs. Miller can see right through his posturing.

Altman’s tendency to turn archetypes on their heads, results in McCabe having the ego and confidence of a Hollywood cowboy, but without the skills or experience to back it up. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but up until now he’s been lucky. Despite her addiction to opium, Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller can see that plain as day, and resigns herself to what is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. What follows at the end of the film is brutish and inevitable.

When the shunned offer results in the conglomerate company sending a couple of fearsome, hired guns to forcibly relieve McCabe of his enterprise, his pomp and ego turns into bargaining and cowardice. The three men sent to kill McCabe are a scary bunch of outlaws who seem to fear nothing, or no-one. They run roughshod over the town, and the townspeople, taking what they want and killing indiscriminately. Rather than stepping out on the street and having a showdown, Altman’s characters fight it out like they would in real life, by hiding and through ambush. The bad guys fight dirty, and in order to stay alive, the good guys have to fight dirty too.

Altman’s change of venue from the arid southwest of the United States, to the chilly and bleak northwest provides just the right tone for the film. Bleak and foreboding, harsh and unforgiving. Altman had his cinematographer purposefully flash expose the film to light before developing to get that hazy 1800’s photo quality. Before learning this, I thought it was a bad transfer on my DVD, and it annoyed me to no end. Just like each of his other movies, I grew to appreciate it. While I never ended up loving how it looked, I could at least appreciate that the film itself was used as a tool through which the story was being told. Altman isn’t necessarily afraid of making the finished look of the film weathered and used, if it helps along the story.

The town’s sets in this movie, reminded me a lot of the apartment complex set from Rear Window. At first the flood of visual information seems overwhelming, but as the story progresses and the sets are used again and again, we become at home in them. They start to take on a reality, a three dimensionality, and a familiarity, that transcends the 2 hours or so that we inhabit them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this place is still standing somewhere (I guess I actually would be surprised, but the feeling of it being a real functioning place is no less diminished for it being gone in today’s world.)

Like each of Altman’s films that I’ve seen (and I suspect the ones I haven’t seen as well), The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short-Cuts, and M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a product made up of carefully laid out elements that form the cohesive whole. Film stock, film-developing, editing, direction, acting, sets, and costumes all work with one another towards a common goal. I started out not liking this movie, ready to write it off as a dud, but as I kept watching, I felt more invested in this little nook of the world. I felt like I grew with each of the characters as they went through the story.

The Player (1992)


The Player – 1992

Director – Robert Altman

Starring – Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Lyle Lovett, Fred Ward, and Peter Gallagher

I’ve had a little time since watching this movie to let it sit in my brain and smolder, and just like the other Altman movies that I’ve seen, smolder is exactly what it’s been doing.  As I’ve said before in my review for The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman seems to work best after a couple of days of thought and rumination.  This theory holds strong for the Player, the ultimate meditation on movies, the formulaic happy ending, and the cost of entertainment.

The player in question is Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a studio executive whose job is on the line thanks to the “next-hot-thing” producer played to the nines by Peter Gallagher.  Mill, who, has for some time been receiving death threats, crumbles under the mounting pressure.  He pieces together the evidence at hand, and finds the man he believes to be his harasser (the battery acid spewing Vincent D’Onofrio as Dennis Kehane).  They meet, and heated words eventually turn physical.  Fully feeling the danger of losing his job, Mill lashes out at the writer and, in the heat of passion, accidentally kills him.  Upon the realization of what’s happened, Mill makes it look like it was a simple robbery.

It is at this point that the typical Hollywood set-up begins to fall away.  We have the obvious path that we believe the story is going to follow, man commits crime and runs from the cops only to be caught and tried justly in a court of law  Instead there are a few twists and turns that complicate things.  One of those turns comes as Altman is playing with the juxtaposition of Hollywood ending, and realism.  We expect the police to conduct a thorough investigation, put together the clues and come out in the end with the criminal in handcuffs, but what we get instead is the slow steady bending of the conventions of Hollywood film.

After the gravity of his crime has sunk in, Mill falls in love with the dead man’s girlfriend.  As his fascination grows, this motivates him to distance himself from his current steady girl.  He spends more time planning his romantic interludes than he does evading the police, who at this point have solidly fingered him for the crime.   It is through chance, and bad eyesight, that Griffin manages to remain a free man, but this distraction only seems to get in the way of his new obsession.

The seeming indifference of Mill to the severity of his crime is mirrored in the cut-throat world of movie making.  Directors, writers, executives, and actors, all give up their integrity and vision in order to claim a piece of the back end.  It is only in this type of world that a man could not only get away with murder, but profit quite heavily from it.  It is this environment that managed to produce this very movie.  I bet the studio execs were less interested in what the movie was actually saying, and instead, focusing their attention on how many star cameos could be packed in, and the impact said cameos would have on the opening weekend box office.

Altman was smart enough to see this this fact, and in lesser hands, I can only imagine this movie would’ve never been made.  The films ending, gives us both a saccharine hollywood finish AS WELL AS the realistic, gritty, unsettling ending. 


Griffin Mill escapes unscathed from his crime, he’s used the confidence and authority it gave him to manipulate his way to the top, dispatched of his former girlfriend, while making off with his new love.  The bad guy wins, and not only does he win, but the people who are honest and hardworking end up losing (Dead, Rejected, Un-Employed, etc.).  In the end, we are left feeling both satisfied and let down.  Altman, gives us what we want, and then makes us feel guilty for wanting it.

(***Spoilers END***)

Movies are so important to this film, they are not only central to the plot, and to our involvement with resonance of the story, but they also inform us about the state of the characters, and the state of the movie itself.  Just short of actually breaking the “fourth wall” and talking directly to the audience, we are given various signposts and clues referring to the lineage from which this film comes.  The opening segment is an homage to the long tracking shot in Touch of Evil, and sets the stage for the eventual murder story to come.  Likewise little clues into the psyche of the characters comes from the movie posters that they are surrounded by (or the lack of), and the movies that they talk about and watch (M, The Bicycle Thief, etc.).  The Player utilizes our common social knowledge of movie cliches to actually get beyond them, and become something more.  It is not only a commentary on film, but on the responsibility of the audience as voyeurs as well.

The Long Goodbye (1973)


The Long Goodbye – 1973

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, and Mark Rydell

So, I’m familiar with Philip Marlowe, or should I say Humphrey Bogart’s version of Philip Marlowe.  Needless to say, I thought he was great, a real tough guy without being over the top, or just angry.  He was smart, knew how to handle himself and new his way around the thug-ish underworld of double crosses and shady dealings.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Robert Altman realization starring Elliott Gould, and set in the early 1970s.

What I ended up getting was not what I went in hoping for, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Some things that Elliot Gould brought to the character were more natural and less stylistic.  For instance, Elliott as Marlowe found himself mad, but unlike Bogart, he lacked the skill to use it to his advantage.  There were no crooks he could slap around, or sharp dialogue he could hurl at his adversary, he was simply left to feel frustrated and angry.  Where Bogart was all about that steely calm that seemed to keep him in charge, there were numerous times that Gould seemed motivated by his frustration, rather than by what was the smartest course of action.  This, of course, isn’t meant to say that he didn’t fully understand his predicament, or deal with it with his own best interests in mind.  This lent to his credibility as a real, functioning, breathing personality.

This more believable behavior DID allow him to more comfortably slip into the “real world”.  Figures from classic Hollywood movies always seemed to be separate from this reality.  They exist in neat packaged little worlds that serve to house the film’s story and characters, and nothing else.  Four walls a roof and a floor, nothing else.  Nothing that doesn’t serve the forward momentum of the plot.  Films from the seventies, however, seem to inhabit a much larger world.  A world that is populated by multitudes of people, all living out their own “real” lives even if our story doesn’t overlap them.  These films seem to be conscious of the world around them.  Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe, exists in this world.

Aside from being in color, with set pieces that are less stagy, the main difference is that this Marlowe isn’t able to confidently predict or avoid danger.  He has to stumble through, be aggravated, and endangered by it just like any of us would.  He doesn’t have all the answers, and he doesn’t pretend to.  In fact, unless it was mentioned numerous times throughout the movie, there is no way you know know that he was a private eye.  This Marlowe seemed to have almost no intuition about the case from a detective’s point of view, he eventually stumbled onto the facts, but without the streetwise knowledge, it took him forever to put it all together.  The one and only shared element of both versions of this character, was the fact that he always knew when to speak and when to keep his mouth shut.  He’s as tight lipped and smart with the police as he is with the bloodthirsty gangster (played fantastically by Mark Rydell) who just wants his money.   The best moment of this movie came from Marlowe’s first encounter with Rydell’s gangster when, after calling his young lady-friend closer, he proceeds to show Marlowe what he’s capable of.  In terms of shock value and unexpectedness, this is worth the price of admission alone.

I’ve learned that I have a sort of growing fondness for Robert Altman movies (excluding his version of Popeye with Robin Williams and the role that Shelley Duvall was meant to play).  The Long Goodbye, like Short Cuts before it, and M*A*S*H before it (my viewings of, not their releases), didn’t attract me at first, but then grew on me as I thought about it afterwards.  There is something about his work, and I suspect the man as well, that has resonance.  It has more to say than just what is on it’s surface, and it is best enjoyed after the absorption of the material has taken place.  I’m lucky, in that I haven’t seen that much of his work, because now I can go back and check it out.  Unfortunately, along with everyone else, I am unlucky that he died and I won’t get to experience these same feelings of growth on something that someone else hasn’t already felt and talked about to no end.

“Worth It just to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in yellow boxer briefs.” – Ashley