The film was made in 1971 – near the start of that great wave of American films in the 1970s – that decade ended with ‘Raging Bull’ which was made in the 1970s and released in 1980 (the same as Altman’s ‘Popeye’).
The 70s in US filmmaking is often referred to as the ‘silver age’. It was a time in US cinema when the auteur theory really kicked in, and directors like Altman and Coppola and others rose to prominence, given free rein to make the movies of their choice.
Coppola was the most naturally talented filmmaker – and he hit a run that included ‘The Godfather’, ‘Godfather II’, ‘The Conversation’ and finally ‘Apocalypse Now’, the making of which nearly killed him, but did manage to finish him financially and artistically (except for maybe ‘Rumblefish‘ – made in the 80s and on commission – but an artistic marvel left over from his 70s works).
Altman’s breakthrough film – ‘M.A.S.H’ came at the dawn of the decade in 1970. Altman made 13 films in the decade (including ‘The Long Goodbye’ and ‘Nashville’)13 films is ridiculously busy – but by the end of the 70s his career was hitting the skids and 1980s ‘Popeye’ put the lid on the coffin for a while.
McCabe and Mrs Miller is a haunting modern Western, and it looks better and better every year. I first saw the film in my teens (Maybe on Alex Cox’s ‘Moviedrome’ on the BBC?) – it struck me as beautiful and haunting then – but as I grow older – approaching my 50s now – the film grows and grows.
Altman made films in a particular style – he sits back as an observer, and sometimes slowly moves in with a long zoom – picking characters out of a group. Then we follow the characters he chooses – sometimes the characters are tragic, or deluded, daft or dangerous. McCabe as played by Warren Beatty is all these things – even if he’s not self aware enough to see it.
Altman’s style clearly works for some projects – but not for others. McCabe looks like a happy accident of a film sometimes. I know Altman was skilled as hell, but when the films don’t work – they really are a puzzle. In McCabe the style fits perfectly, the casting is spot on, the production design is stunning and the cameraman is Vilmos Zsigmond so the lazy looking zooms look beautiful and pick out the most interesting and arresting detail.
The music (by Leonard Cohen) really WAS a happy accident – the editor and Altman used Cohen’s songs as a temp track when editing, and then couldn’t get rid of them – as songs like ‘Sisters of Mercy’ became the actual soundtrack proper – those sad, drifting and haunting songs stuck to the film.
Finally the film has one of the great endings in Westerns. Sam Peckinpah was still alive and making films when McCabe was released – what would he have made of this film? Or John Ford? Or Howard Hawks? Clint Eastwood must have seen it? It’s what they call a revisionist western and it’s a great film.
Matthew Cooper has been a scriptwriter for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.
His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham’ was released in 2020, his second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ hit the screen in 2021. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.
You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.