Last night I finally got the time to watch the copy of McCabe & Mrs. Miller I picked up in the flash sale. I saw a 35mm print in theaters a few months ago, after having anticipated seeing it for a very long time due to my love of Altman and the film's reputation as one of his best, but I was quite disappointed: partly because the print was in pretty bad condition, partly because it was not what I was expecting from Altman at all, and probably partly because I'm not particularly a fan of/haven't seen a lot of Westerns, so the "anti-Western" aspect of it didn't do much for me. But the movie did stick with me, and eventually fell on the side of "I dis
liked it, so I suspect there's something to consider," rather than "I just didn't like it, so I'll move along." Plus, I figured a good quality scan would help my appreciation.
Boy am I glad I sprung for it. On second viewing, it was much, much more interesting. I love Altman because there's always a feeling of just sinking in to watch characters come in and out of view like you're sitting on a bench in the park. For the most part, he doesn't telegraph the importance of characters or plot points, so you miss things if your mind wanders and you focus on things that turn out to not be important, or that are significant but not pivotal, crucial to the atmosphere and the narrative construction, but not to the actual mechanics of the plot. And that's what I love about his films.
But in McCabe, that aspect takes on a claustrophobic, menacing quality which I think was the source of my dislike the first time around. It isn't like taking a swim in a tumbling narrative ocean a la the big ensemble dramas (or even the "chamber" dramas like 3 Women). It's like trying to figure out whether that shadow is a shark or school of fish. By quickly amplifying all the tenuous fears it establishes in the first half, of strangers and the precariousness of the "social contract," of how easy it is to die in the West, the movie turns borderline psych-horror once it moves into the second half (especially considering how the landscape and weather transform from messy inconvenience to menace). (That long-shot and pan of
McCabe running from the church across the snow-covered town!
) It's different even from the explicitly "horroresque" 3 Women, because
by the time we get to the "turn" in that movie, we know we're in a different place that's either the result of severely manipulative mind games or some sort of hallucination or dream.
We're suspicious and we have a target for it,
. McCabe, on the other hand,
basically trips and falls from a world he effectively rules to a world where death could literally be around any corner. We knew he was clumsy and flying by the seat of his pants, and we knew nature was a ready killer, but it's hard to digest just how quickly that mistake precipitates his death. And the fact that he dies slowly, painfully, alone, unloved, and not exactly honorably after successfully defeating his enemies is, with regard to "the Western," just about the most horrifying ending possible.
And my favorite bit of trivia from the making-of doc is that Altman actually shot the ending in reverse shot order, so what looks like snow piling up incredibly quickly was, in reality, snow melting over several days.