During the 1970's, Robert Altman would direct a series of films unpacking the American mythos, examining each element and telling the story of what makes a culture tick. The peak achievement is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Here, Altman deconstructs, not only the genre of the western, but the legend of the American west itself. Here we find would-be legend John McCabe riding into the small mining town of Presbyterian Church. The church and religion are merely a faux preoccupation as Altman illuminates the pillars that the town is actually built on; gambling, prostitution, drugs and racial segregation. The church's minister is rarely seen, practically an outcast after McCabe comes to town. We've little hint as to what the town was actually like before his arrival, but McCabe is a bigger fish than any in this small pond. He is followed then by bigger fish Mrs. Miller as the two build an enterprise out of their saloon and brothel. As the town becomes prosperous, still bigger fish begin to descend in the form of a corporate mining monopoly attempting to buy out the frontier businessmen who hold property for a nominal price. So it goes that the American story begins and the cycle of predatory capitalism that exists to this day is given a proper introduction. The characters, beside the minister of course, have no intention of creating a sustainable community, merely opportunistically using the town and its resources to amass a fortune so that they can leave Presbyterian Church and start a new life elsewhere. As Leonard Cohen's musical narration reminds us, "Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another". With their eyes on the dough, both McCabe and Mrs. Miller seclude themselves, keeping their fellow human at a distance and turning to whiskey and opium respectively as their sole source of comfort. The American way of life is born.
Legends are created through rumor and hearsay in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. McCabe rides into town and is instantly pegged as a gunslinger who "shot Bill Roundtree" and his holds-all-the-cards behavior only serves to strengthen his legend (we only later find out that it's entirely false). He uses this perception to his advantage without ever addressing it, de-throning the town's leading business owner Sheehan and pressuring the people of the town into working for him while he provides them with a cut-rate saloon. Mrs. Miller introduces the next level of the racket when she implements a more luxurious establishment with more exotic women, then builds a bath house and demands that the men pay to bathe before being allowed into the brothel. Business deals find their equivalence in gambling, and McCabe's luck runs out when he finally attracts the attention of those more skilled at the intimidation game. Altman spins his tale of perceptions incongruous with realities and the difference between talk and action, the American ratio of brute force to politics. McCabe eventually turns to the help of a lawyer with his eyes on a Senate chair and the comedy is fully illuminated. The lawyer spouts classic American rhetoric, the narrative of the courageous "little guy" set against the elements, building his life with his own bare hands, painting a picture of the free-enterprise system. McCabe, in over his head at this point, responds "actually, I just didn't want to get killed". It is this collection of rugged individuals, each with their eyes firmly on their own brand of prize (personal glory in some way, no matter the scale), that make up the ensemble of the film. It unites preacher, businessman, businesswoman, gun slinger, politician and worker. It is the driving force behind the enslavement of entire groups of people. McCabe goes from a dealer of cards to a dealer of human beings via the brothel. The film's lone black couple can be seen joining with the town for solemn funerals or town emergencies, but never partake in the barroom antics at the saloon. Presbyterian Church has an oft alluded to, but rarely seen Chinatown of its own, where the population is kept to itself and kept in check via drug addiction, indulging vice in the opium dens. It is remarked that their life has no value, and it makes cost effective sense for large businesses to deal with the negligible fines for killing them when thinking of how profitable they can be for clearing mines with explosives. The people rush to save the church as it is engulfed in flames near the film's climax, yet its state of operation just before the fire breaks out clearly shows that it has never been used for a proper service, while the town's other establishments have long been completed and in use. As Altman deconstructs the Western mythos, the film deconstructs itself with each passing scene, showing the falsity of what came before it. Revealing its characters' frailty rather than building up their legend further, revealing their convictions to be fueled by insecurity rather than bravado. The true power stemming from institutions and partnerships, the bad men here are not a posse of individual bandits, but a team of hired assassins working for corporate powers, dealt out and getting paid for their services like everyone else. As the curtain falls, McCabe's desperate bid for survival ends alone in the snow as the town once again joins together under the church, Mrs. Miller retreats to the comfort of fellow outsiders, everyone plays the part in the charade of being what they are not. The more simple and honest characters meet their end in random, senseless confrontations.
A raw and rugged west, where there are no champions. Altman displays his characters as those who would face the wild frontier as lost souls looking for comforts. Cohen, our narrator, again reminds they're "looking for a manger". When one manger dries up, they'll go looking for the next best thing, they'll repeat it on and on until they depart this world. The finale's hypnotic and peaceful retreat, away from harsh realities and into comforts wherever we can find them, are the final statement. Human life is cheap and can always be vended for greater profits. Altman finds that this has always been the American way, even as time passed and our ability to find comfort grew, the same notes played on and on. The warm glow within the brothel, a place for the stranger to hang his hat between trains, a journey alone in the wilderness. As McCabe's life slips away and Mrs. Miller's mind slips as well, the orange glow of the comforting interiors contrasted with the harsh white of the outside, we find the film's ultimate combination of images that speaks for it all. America is a search without a true destination, just a vague feeling, an idea. Like the stranger in search of shelter, it departs in fear of the comfort as soon as it attains it. As real as the legend feels, it can only last an instant.