A lot of people tend to forget that Robert Altman's career started in TV, where with the likes of Sam Peckinpah he gained a good grounding in westerns. He directed episodes from "Bonanza", "US Marshall", "Maverick" and "Tenderfoot". These were all very traditional western offerings, but when he revisited this ground again in 1971, he decided as they say, to do something completely different. What he gave us was a very realistic, mud and rags vision of the west. I have seen many photos taken from that western period, and it is clear that Altman has done the same. The little settlement of Presbyterian Church, is an absolutely authentic looking ramshackle mining settlement, of the type that boomed and bust so often. Altman deliberately shot during the rains that are so prevalent in the far north west, to enhance the bleak look. He also cleverly pre fogged and filtered much of the film, to give it an aged and melancholy look. The final result is a most unusual and very fine film indeed, which simply shows the west for what it really was, and not the highly mythicised Hollywood version. Altman described it as an anti western, but far from debunking the traditional western, it merely shows us how it was 'warts and all'. Whether or not you want the warts is a matter of personal taste!
The story concerns McCabe a drifter/gambler, played by Warren Beatty, who rides into a one horse mining community in America's wild and wet far north west at the beginning of the twentieth century. It does not take him long to sniff out a business opportunity, employing some rather shopworn looking ladies of ill repute. He is soon joined in this business adventure by the feisty madam Mrs Miller, who has a few more women with her and a head for business. The two become partners and everything goes swimmingly until some other operators decide to move in. Their methods are less easygoing than McCabe's. Most of the action is shot on the remarkable Presbyterian Church set, which was specially built for the purpose. It is an impressive bespoke piece of work, and makes the perfect setting for the action. There is an interesting but brief documentary about its construction on the DVD special features. The film has many of Altman's trademark touches, like the overlapping dialogue, that makes for a babel of voices at times, but again helps the authentic feel. Julie Christie is excellent as the madam for which she gained an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Warren Beatty is also very good as the 'not so bright as he appears' McCabe. William Devane also puts in a brief bewhiskered appearance.
The film seems to have grown in stature over the years, gaining something of a cult status. The much talked about Leonard Cohen score is an understated triumph. It is something that has no right to work, but does! Altman's gut instinct proving right again! Look out for one of the most unusual climactic shoot outs in screen history. The film is worth watching for this alone! There are also some lovely scenes shot in some all too real snow. The film has been compared to the more recent so called anti western "The Unforgiven", but apart from being reminded of the mining town in "Pale Rider", and briefly of the finale of "High Noon", I don't believe there is another film quite like this one. It could be considered a very faithful and carefully composed daguerreotype of the old west, caught without make up in moments of mud splattered truth. Once again I will have to consider revising my favourite westerns list, because this one certainly demands a place for its unique vision.