Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Reframing the American West
Robert T. Self
Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller.—Roger Ebert in The Great Movies
When he died in 2006, director Robert Altman left a rich legacy of films, from MASH, his breakthrough black comedy, through masterpieces like Nashville, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. But many would agree that his crowning achievement was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a daring downbeat film about a gambler and a prostitute. Robert Self now provides an illuminating new look at this long neglected classic.
“Self's erudite book makes a strong case: this neglected ‘anti-Western’ may be the truest Western of all.”
—Film & History
“In this provocative and absorbing study of one of the most intriguing films to emerge from the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s, Robert Self presents a mirror of the period, revealing, among other things, how the film reflected the feelings and imagination of the moment. . . . Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller made an indelible mark on America’s popular culture in the 1970s. Robert Self’s study expertly analyzes Altman’s artistry, provides a comprehensive, historical context, and, most important, greatly enhances the experience of the film.”
—Western Historical QuarterlySee all reviews...
“. . . A worthwhile and useful book, detailed and enthusiastic in its examination of an important post-Western—‘post’ in the very precise ways that it comes after and moves beyond the mythic West while simultaneously dialoguing with its forms, themes, and traditions.”
—Western American Literature
“Self’s book is important to historians of the West because he places Altman’s film in the context of the new western history that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. McCabe & Mrs. Miller foreshadowed many of the trends in that historical school, such as an emphasis on women in the West and a demythologization of the frontier impulse. . . . A major addition to the field. ”
—Journal of American History
“Combining his long-standing interest in Altman with his knowledge of the Western to salutory effect, Self takes on the challenge of convincing readers that McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a ‘signature’ film. He proves equal to the task. . . . Joining genre classics such as John Cawelti’s The Six-Gun Mystique and Will Wright’s Six Guns and Society, this book will be particularly valuable for those interested in study of the Western and film genre in general. Recommended.”
“In his loving analysis of the movie, Self places it in context among other Westerns and the times in which it was made, and points out the ways in which the film was revolutionary. . . . Self marshals many provocative ideas and cites from a variety of historians and critics who have studied the West. . . . Self’s placement of McCabe & Mrs Miller within the context of film and U.S. history enhanced my appreciation for it. Self has demonstrated how generous a work of art can be, allowing admiration from a number of angles. . . . Self makes a cogent and passionate argument.”
“Written with intellectual passion, Self’s book embraces and illuminates Altman’s angry, funny, moving elegy to the Western film.”
—Robert Kolker, author of A Cinema of Loneliness
“Opens a window onto both the West that was and the turbulent years around Altman’s neglected masterpiece.”
—Elliott West, author of The Contested Plains
“A wonderful and compelling work that locates Altman and his movie amidst changes in the genre of the Western, American society, and historical interpretations of the American West.”
—Richard White, author of Its Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American WestSee fewer reviews...
A snowbound version of High Noon, Altman's film has been described as a revisionist western, an antiwestern, and even a hippie western. Featuring cinematic icons Warren Beatty and Julie Christie at the zenith of their careers and a haunting soundtrack from legendary troubadour Leonard Cohen, it provided a new way of looking at the western and the West.
Placing the film within the contexts of Altman's career, its critical and popular reception, and the history of American cinema, Self shows how Altman's idiosyncratic interplay between story and style reframed the American West for a new generation. Viewing McCabe as a kind of precursor to the New Western History, he argues that it both embraces and revises the conventions associated with the Western movie genre, especially with its antiheroic protagonist. He also highlights the film's portrayal of the contemporary counterculture, pitting the loner against corporate power and mainstream religion and granting women a newfound voice.
In addition, Self sheds light on the film's production, showing how its rare sequential filming reflected the seamless collaborative efforts of director, actors, cinematographer, and set designer. Here, too, are Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue, painterly visuals, signature pan and zoom shots, crowded and communal mise-en-scenes, and a musical soundtrack mirroring the narrative—all in the service of Altman's inimitable storytelling and indelible gallery of fascinating characters. Self's beautifully written, admiring, and insightful study of this great film should significantly enhance its reputation and reinforce Altman's place in the pantheon of American filmmakers.