In the Pacific Northwest in the turn of the century, McCabe finds himself in a town called Presbyterian Church, but most folks there don't seem too devout to things spiritual. Brothels do a brisk business. When Mrs. Miller rides into town, she seeks to expand McCabe's low rent whore house into something classy, with clean linens and all. Even a bath house. This would be quite something in this muddy wasteland of a town that must reak of alcohol and dirty overalls. Mrs. Miller is smart, sexy, and has a head for business. She brings in some girls from San Francisco. The kitty fills with cash. She explains that when clients are slow to arrive you gotta keep the girls busy otherwise they get bored and read the Bible. Then the church fills up instead of the house.
How does a two bitter like McCabe fit into Mrs. Miller's life? Business partner? Lover? She charges him the top rate of five dollars, just like any other client. She makes him take a bath like all the others. But she will soften eventually. She doesn't tell him of her opium habit. What will happen when representatives from a mining company offer to buy out McCabe's enterprise?
1971's MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is nominally a Western but refuses to play like one. Even with a climactic manhunt when pistols are raised. Robert Altman directs with his usual wandering eye but this time the audience is never denied what the key players are saying or doing. That multi talker babble/overlapping soundtrack is there as always, but even if you're not listening through headphones you should catch what you need. You'll want to pay particular attention to McCabe's ramblings, particularly towards the end, when he describes himself as "full of poetry" during a realization that he is not the smartest or bravest of his gender. But he is not the only flawed, tragic figure in this story.
With many of his films, Altman distances himself from the material (THE LONG GOODBYE, QUINTET, even MASH) but here he seems to be as invested in his characters as they are. There is more dramatic tension than usual. His script, co-written by Brian McKay, is more than just a jumping off point for improvisation. The social observations are as pointed as ever. But also, so many points made about the encroachment of progress, technology, and the timeless vice of greed. The Old West was dying, choked by corporations that nary give a whit about the individual. Altman could certainly relate to that. Maybe he saw himself like McCabe, downed in a snowdrift.
The director clearly sees through D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond's dirty lens, capturing the grime and ice so vividly as to make the viewer feel somewhat immersed. The use of three Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack only adds to the overall feeling of isolation and defeat. The loneliness is palpable. This is my favorite Altman picture.