McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Not your typical Western protagonists.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a 1971 western film directed by Robert Altman. Altman himself called it an "anti-western", as it ignored or outright subverted a number of usual western conventions. The film at heart is intended as a more realistic portrayal of life in the old west; something which one reviewer remarked would be like what a documentary filmmaker might make if he traveled back in time to the era and filmed people going about their daily lives.

Starting with being set in the relatively wooded northwestern United States as opposed to the orange deserts of the southwest as most westerns are; professional gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) turns up in the tiny town of Presbyterian Church (named after its only substantial building) one day at the start of the twentieth century, and quickly has the entire town under his thumb. He establishes a brothel with three prostitutes purchased from the nearby town of Bearpaw. Not long afterwards, opium-addicted brothel madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie) turns up in town herself and convinces McCabe that she can do a better job running the brothel than he can, and that she will share the increased profits with him if he lets her do so. He accepts. The two flourish, but then a pair of agents from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company in Bearpaw arrive seeking to buyout McCabe's business. He refuses, trying to drive the price up, but they lose patience and leave town. Miller warns him that the company has a reputation for sending assassins to kill those who won't sell. Sure enough, three gunslingers arrive shortly after. McCabe fights them. And dies. Remember that this film seeks to defy as many western cliches as possible.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller was added to the National Film Registry in 2010.


Tropes used in McCabe and Mrs. Miller include:
  • Black and Gray Morality
  • Blond Guys Are Evil: "The Kid", one of the bounty hunters hired to kill McCabe. He challenges an unarmed character played by Keith Carradine to a gunfight and shoots him in cold blood.
  • Catch Phrase: "If a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass so much, follow me?" and "All you've cost me is money and pain... pain, pain, pain..."
  • Crapsack World: Altman's vision of The Wild West is one of loneliness and greed. Happiness is fleeting and tragedy looms around the corner.
  • Deconstruction
  • Downer Ending: McCabe dies, cold, quiet and alone, whilst the rest of Presbyterian Church attends to other business. Things aren't exactly peachy for Miller, either.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Butler. Sure, he's an amoral killer, but he's so well-spoken!
  • For the Evulz: The youngest assassin offers to help a kid with his gun, and then as soon as he reaches for it, draws his own and shoots him. Why? Because he was bored.
  • The Gunslinger: There's a story circulating that John McCabe is one ("Pudgy McCabe"), and that he shot someone called Bill Roundtree. At first it seems like its untrue, but many people interpret McCabe's actions in the final scene to be a subtle confirmation of the story.
  • The Hero Dies
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: As mentioned above, McCabe is hounded by rumors that he killed Bill Roundtree, but no one's quite sure who Bill Roundtree was. Butler later taunts McCabe by (falsely) claiming "my best friend's best friend was Bill Roundtree."
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: One of many subverted tropes. Miller and the prostitutes are out for themselves, and themselves only. While it seems like Miller might care for McCabe a bit more than she lets on, in the end she abandons him.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Averted. After John shoots him, one assassin manages to shoot back twice (and hit him both times) before dying. Another manages to stagger quite a way through the snow before keeling over, and McCabe himself takes several minutes to die. The only one who dies instantly was shot in the forehead.
  • In the Back: McCabe takes out two of the assassins by shooting them in the back.
  • Name and Name
  • No Except Yes: Butler isn't here to kill anybody. He's just here to hunt bear. (Guess who wears a big, shaggy bear coat?)
  • The Other Rainforest: one of the few Westerns set in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Pop Star Composer: Leonard Cohen lent some of his songs to this movie, including "The Stranger Song" and "Sisters of Mercy".
  • Shoot The Shaggy Gambler: Not only is McCabe's death lonely and sad, but it's ultimately pointless and for a dubious cause. Did we mention this is a Deconstruction of The Western?
  • Slice of Life
  • Snow Means Death
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The gentle, slightly mournful, "Sisters of Mercy" plays over some of the more distressing scenes.
  • Subverted Trope: Too many to list.
  • Young Gun: One of the assassins hired to kill McCabe.