By Scott Ross
This exquisite character study was Robert Altman’s first great movie following MASH (which is to say his first great movie, period) and one of the key American works of a period of greatness in native filmmaking we’ll never see the like of again.
In the late 1960s the big studios were tapped out, the effect both of a society in flux and of the majors’ own profligacy — deliriously chasing Sound of Music profits by plowing obscene amounts into a series of big, numbing musicals, each more disastrous than its predecessor. In desperation, they turned to young directors and a few older mavericks like Altman. As a result, the “personal film” more or less held sway until the mid-70s, when producers saw instant profitability in “event” movies like Jaws and Star Wars. It was a brief ride but a heady one; now, we’re lucky if we get one or two real movies about human beings per annum.
Altman and his co-scenarist Brian McKay took McCabe, an odd literary Western by Edmund Naughton about a drifting gambler, and created from it a kind of cinematic opium dream: The first of Altman’s group character studies and a movie of such richness — visual and otherwise — it’s like a great novel. The director took a Polaroid shot of his raincoat, mixed the colors while the photo was still wet, and told his cinematographer Vilos Zsigmond the result was what the movie should look like — Zsigmond’s images convey a warm, burnished quality not all that unusual today but a revelation at the time, a classical canvas re-copied by an Impressionist master
As the pragmatic dreamer McCabe, Warren Beatty gives one of his best performances, constantly assuring us he’s “got poetry deep inside” him — something no real poet would ever say, yet in our final glimpse of him, he’s become a kind of beautiful metaphor.
Julie Christie’s opium-addicted madam is a career-high as well, the anchor that holds McCabe’s ethereal fancies in check. The great supporting cast includes William Devane and Altman regulars Rene Auberjonois, John Shuck, Bert Remsen, Michael Murphy, Corey Fischer, Shelly Duvall, and Keith Carradine in his movie debut as a sweet cowpoke addicted to the dubious charms of Mrs. Miller’s frontier girls.
Altman listened to a recording of The Songs of Leonard Cohen throughout filming and incorporated a few of them onto the soundtrack. They provide a kind of melancholy, nuanced commentary, like a Greek chorus high on laudanum.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross