By Scott Ross
An exquisite character study — 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-to-late-‘70s, when, after the unexpected, phenomenal, success of producers of Jaws and Star Wars, began seeing the potential for instant profitability in making “event” movies. If it was a brief ride, it was also a heady one; now, we’re lucky if we get one or two movies about actual 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 Vilmos Zsigmond it was what the movie should look like, and 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 finest 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. He achieves true poetry only in dying.
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 the heartbreakingly beautiful young 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