1970s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Director: Nicolas Roeg

Screenwriters: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant

By Roderick Heath

Morning in the yard of an English country home. Christine (Sharon Williams), a young, blonde girl, clad in a plastic rain coat the colour of blood, plays in the drizzle with a ball, skirting the pocked surface of a reedy pond, whilst her brother rides amongst the trees. The scenery is shot in that indefinably specific manner of early ‘70s filmmaking, all soft watery light, grainy mists, and fecund hues of green and brown and grey, the few patches of primary colours alight with portentous power. The playing girl’s listless parents inside the house in the comfortable envelope of their lives, with a touch of youthful cool and countercultural edge still to their learned, bourgeois calm, scents of green tea and marijuana blending with the pot pourri in cool English domesticity. Wife researching the deceptive minutiae of natural phenomena, husband surveying slide stills of the medieval churches he restores as cultural artefacts without any spiritual belief, before he suddenly senses disaster. He jumps up, runs outside, and plucks his daughter’s angelic corpse from the water of the reedy pond. He surfaces in a slow motion shot that captures every stir of water, a depiction of raw, primal agony elongated into a fateful eternity, transmuted into art, a motion Pre-Raphaelite painting depicting transfiguring grief. Art dissolves into life just as future, present, and past splinter and speak to each other in Don’t Look Now.

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The reputation of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s third film as director, has steadily climbed to the point where some surveys have named it the greatest British film of all time. That kind of acclaim is particularly noteworthy given that Don’t Look Now is a horror film, a genre that rarely attracts such regard. But Roeg found a way to make the genre the vessel for stylistic ambition and cinematic invention it hadn’t been since the silent era, and Don’t Look Now straddles modes of filmmaking in singular fashion. Similarly, Roeg, who died recently at the age of 90, defied convention and cliché just as intrepidly. The son of a one-time diamond merchant with Dutch roots, Roeg entered the British film industry as a tea boy and worked his way up through studio ranks, becoming camera operator on a range of prestigious films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before gaining repute for his second unit photography work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Roeg soon served as cinematographer on the likes of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). Working with such filmmakers at a time of great cinematic energy and experimentation emboldened Roeg began developing a distinctive approach to filmmaking. He was soon courted for collaboration with Donald Cammell to make his directing debut with Performance (1970). Many talented cinematographers have tried to make the leap into directing before and since, but even greats from Karl Freund to Jack Cardiff to Janusz Kaminski have made it with often less than stellar results.

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Roeg, however, turned out to be something else entirely, a well-trained technician and product of studio cinema who nonetheless proved a unique and challenging film artist. The dazzling visual sensibility he demonstrated as a film shooter was unleashed, although he was lucky to emerge at a time when filmmakers of all stripes felt freer to improvise with the texture of cinema. Roeg took more advantage than most, and created in his early works bold fusions of narrative and experimental cinema, playing freely with cinematic time signatures and composing images in contrapuntal rhapsodies. Even as his style settled down in later films, they retained an element of jagged strangeness and sensual immersion that was utterly distinctive. The roots of Roeg’s style and status in the midst of a national cinema usually praised, or written off, for its penchant for classical calm and literacy, were evident in Petulia, and took that film’s experiments with structure and time to hallucinatory, hyperbolic places in his first two films. Performance offered a brain-twisting graph of blurring identity and the cacophony of Swinging London’s surreal collision of subcultures, whilst Walkabout (1971), his Australian outback odyssey, depicted a crisis in mutually uncomprehending ways of being which Roeg characteristically conveyed as fractured ways of seeing. Don’t Look Now was comparatively straightforward. Only comparatively, as Roeg stitched a dense fabric of image play and time distortion whilst telling an intelligible and deftly intriguing story. that managed to satisfy the generic requirements of a horror film but also, like some other, rare entries in the genre, moves into a realm of mystification and distortion of reality that lays bare a strange, extreme psychological landscape.

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The unfortunate parents glimpsed at the outset are John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). Sometime after their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) died in that pond, Roeg rediscovers the pair in Venice, having left their son Johnny (Nicholas Salter) in boarding school. John supervises the restoration of an historic church. The first shots of John in Venice see him and workmen drilling into the church’s fabric like a dentist hacking into a cavity about to release foul and nasty rot. When the couple have lunch in a Venetian café, they notice a woman who seems to be staring at them. Laura learns the staring woman is actually blind when they meet in the washroom. Her name is Heather (Hilary Mason), and the woman she’s travelling with she calls her sister, Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather claims to be clairvoyant, and she thrills and appeases Laura profoundly when she reports having seen a young girl sitting with them, meaning that Christine’s spirit is close and benevolently watching over them. Laura returns to John in the café but suddenly faints, knocking over the table. She’s rushed to hospital, but quickly recovers and indeed emerges in better spirits than any time since Christine’s death. This epiphany kicks of a subtle polarisation in the couple, as John’s regulation male rationalism seems beggared and suspicious of Laura’s equally regulation female mysticism, but also reunion, as the couple spend an episode of utterly carnal passion, seemingly their first in a long time, fuelled by a sense of liberation from disaster and guilt.

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The basis for Don’t Look Now was a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, who had also provided Alfred Hitchcock with material for Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), and it has certain similarities – the encounter with the travelling duo of English women recalls Rebecca and the preoccupation with marriage and mating under the pretext of an enigmatic and disquieting plot is clearly reminiscent of many of Hitchcock’s films, going back to the likes of Rich and Strange (1932). The marriage of the Baxters, united both by passion and sorrow, is the true engine of a storyline that covers the span between two deaths, for a film that analyses the ephemeral experiences and connections that constitutes life whilst also suggesting a tentative belief in things beyond. The opening scene sees Laura trying to solve a question her son asked her as to why, if the Earth is round, frozen water is flat, and finds that it isn’t, but the arc can be imperceptible. John’s book, Beyond The Fragile Geometry of Space, sits on the sofa. Perception is limited, existence is infinite. John studies slide photos he’s taken of the church he’s working on, spying a red-clad figure seated on a pew, and when a psychic intimation warns him of Christine’s danger, he springs up and dashes out, knocking over a glass of water that causes the red figure on the slide to dissolve and create an abstract swirl encircling the stain glass window of the church; Roeg cuts between this act of incidental art-making with the terrible sight of John rising from the water with Christine’s body, past and future, spirit and flesh, love and hate all blurring in an inscrutable melange.

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The Baxters in Venice are still a handsome couple, but weighed down by experience, as John testily oversees a project that involves digging into the past literally and finding what he describes as layer of faux-Byzantine fakery after another. Laura loses herself in memories of rain-sodden melancholy whilst sitting in a tony restaurant. The encounter with the milky, staring eyes of Heather and her happy pronouncements of lingering personality and beneficence draw Laura out of depression, even as her prompt collapse sets the world into chaos. Roeg zeroes in on the spilt wine, oil, and salad dressing on the motley flooring, a shot reminiscent of the puddle of commingled perfumes glimpsed in one of the stronger precursors to Roeg’s style, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), and with a similar import reflecting the director’s obsession with reality in flux. The film’s most celebrated sequence follows soon, as John and Laura reunite in a scene of sexual passion that pushed the envelope about as far as it would go in a mainstream film sporting two movie stars, intercut with shots of the couple dressing and preparing for dining out. Roeg’s careful structuring, including his deadpan sense of intimacy with the couple as they go through the motions of life together, showering and stripping and lazily eddying within the world-precluding walls of their room (save the hapless hotel maid who comes in to find John sitting naked), invites the viewer into John and Laura’s crucial moment of rediscovery of each-other in both the carnal sense and the subliminal.

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Roeg’s easy feel for the erotic was another facet that distinguished him amongst British filmmakers, and set him in both unity and contrast with the other major radical voice of English cinema of the early ‘70s, Ken Russell, fonder of outrageousness for its own sake. Roeg certainly didn’t spurn perversity as a subject, but he was more clean-cut in his way. Walkabout revolved around the sense of threat and disconnection when Jenny Agutter’s prim schoolgirl cannot comprehend the mating overtures of the young indigenous man, although they should be plain and natural enough, ironically identifying the incoherence of the erotic as the perversion; The Man Who Fell to Earth would invert the equation and contemplate intraspecies sexuality as a potentially valid form of communication. In a way, the pivotal sex scene of Don’t Look Now is fascinatingly square in celebrating connubial passion for a married couple, like Last Tango In Paris (1973) for high Anglicans, depending on Sutherland and Christie, at the height of their sinewy beauty as movie stars as well as actors, to fully inhabit the carnal display. It’s also a moment of cyclical meaning, the eruption of the life force that gives renewal between two losses: what is life but a chain of birth and death, and what are John and Laura Baxter but two momentary expressions of that cycle? The presence of the medium who gives hope of spiritual persistence gives hope of other layers of existence, but John and Laura are trapped, and liberated, by their continued existence on the one where the flesh has such exalted potency. Roeg’s crosscutting was aimed at helping get the scene past censors but also makes poetry out of sublime disparity the couple restoring their social visages, their worldly guises, after all the naked ape business: Roeg inverts moralistic assumption by noting the purity of sexuality and the puerile falsity of the restored worldly appearance and its peevish, isolated insecurities as John and Laura contemplate aspects of their bodies and appearance.

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Roeg’s evocation of Venice as a place spies flashes of tourist board-friendly glamour but more often regarding a place of festering, mouldering age, hovering like a semicoherent dream just above the water. It’s cold and out of season, not a summery abode of Italianate cheer but the same place of autumnal persistence of Death in Venice and Across the River and Into the Trees. Roeg drolly notes the workaday locals for whom the city is less a place of picturesque enchantment than a waterlogged, tourist-clogged mess. The staff in the hotel where John and Laura are staying waiting out the time until they can close down, still hovering in faintly desperate helpfulness for their single patrons. The cops roused to action over the most imprecise fears. Streets are as painful and confusing to navigate as memory; John’s attempt to rediscover the pension where Heather and Wendy were living sees him wandering in circles. Rats scuttle about with impunity. A killer is at loose in the town; John watches as the filthy and bedraggled corpse of a dead girl is fished out of a canal. He and Laura hear strange noises and cries for help echoing through the city night, and glimpse a diminutive figure wearing a red hooded coat dashing through the alleys. Roeg’s desaturated images give the city’s waterways a grey, crystalline quality, whilst the crumbling brickwork and paving seem near-organic, not entirely sapped of romanticism but charged with something more elusive and uneasy in its intimations.

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The city is as much as body as John or Laura’s or the corpse dragged from the water, a physical manifestation of an entire civilisation, arthritic in its bones and unmoored in its thoughts. John and Laura have trouble telling bridges and alleys apart. John is nagged by the feeling he’s visited certain places before, or denies having been places Laura swears he has been. The often withholding nature of the city architecture, which can harbour boles of chic modernism or ancient, pellucid beauty, also mediates the story’s invocation of psychological space, and the narrative hinging on characters who can no longer trust things lingering in their thoughts to remain obediently in place. A church John and Laura visit lulls them with its aura of hallowed calm and beatitude, encouraging Laura into ritual and John to lapse into prayer-like introspection. Venice offers elusive promise of communion with the past with all its bedraggled beauty and fetid richness. John’s job automatically invokes a sense of past and present commingling, digging into the matter of Venice itself, piecing together mosaics and restoring gargoyles. John interacts with the marrow of past and understands it’s in part an illusion to be sustained by keen eyes like his, the expressions of the long dead, the ghosts of their minds and eyes, needing faithful upkeep. John’s business is with the substance of human expression, where Heather speaks of the ethereal aspect, weaving unseen like mist around people.

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John has been hired by a bishop (Massimo Serato) from a rich and influential family, who takes solicitous interest in the Baxters’ spiritual welfare (“I’m kind to animals and children,” Laura tells him with fumbling humour and honesty when he asks her if she’s a Christian) and eventually proves to have a more ethereal connection with John, sensing when he’s in danger and witnessing his near-fatal accident on a hoist in the restored church. “Churches belong to God, but he doesn’t seem to care about them,” he notes with sad gravitas: “Does he have other priorities?” Meanwhile John and Laura play out a familiar tension, between her willingness to embrace Heather’s message and the possibility of the supernatural, versus John’s stiff-necked rationalism and simmering concern Laura might be slipping back into an irrational state she seems to have lingered in for a time after Christine’s death. And yet John ultimately proves vulnerable to irrational belief himself as he becomes convinced the red-cloaked figure he keeps seeing dashing through the Venetian alleys could be his daughter. Laura’s visit to speak with Heather and Wendy and gain deeper reassurance as to Christine’s benevolent presence sees John left to get drunk in a neighbouring café: he goes into the pension to find his wife only to get caught lurking by a resident and forced to run off in case he gets arrested as a peeping Tom. John later can’t find Heather and Wendy precisely because they moved out after reports of prowlers, a subtle fillip of humour that’s also a deftly reasoned consequence of plot.

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Roeg described Don’t Look Now as his exercise in film grammar, a concise if rather dry description that hardly encompasses all the flourishes encoded into the film’s tapestry-like form, one that recounts a simple story in the most enriching fashion. Adapting Du Maurier allowed Roeg the chance to offer his own, highly individualised tribute to Hitchcock. As many genre writers have also noted, Don’t Look Now also strongly resembles as an upmarket equivalent to the giallo style that was all the rage in Italian film at the time, a distinctive mode of artfully shot, narratively baroque thrillers also influenced by Hitchcock, instituted by Mario Bava and take up by a range of talented directors including Dario Argento. Roeg might well have taken ideas from Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966), with its similar use of a young female figure that proves deadly in the midst of a crumbling, deserted-feeling city, and the shock finale with its revelation of an unexpected killer certainly has a strong giallo flavour. Argento sometimes betrayed stylistic ambition similar to Roeg, as in the revisited, revised stabbing in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and the flash edits of Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), but Roeg’s specific, more overtly audacious method distinguishes his movie from both his model and his rivals, not just in his approach to editing and his fulsome sense of his characters as more vital than machinations of story and spectacle, but his rejection of the rectilinear succinctness of Hitchcock’s visions and the games of framing in giallo.

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Roeg’s visual lexicon is, rather, restless and troubled, sometimes settling into a careful observational rhythm, as in the build-up to John and Laura’s sex scene, or cranking up to outright jangling hysteria, as he zeroes in on the finale. Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond employ zoom shots and handheld camerawork throughout, and angles that could swoop up high or crouch down on floor level. Don’t Look Now composites a wealth of images that mimic both the psychological reactions of its characters, unmoored as they are from the moment by grief and blurred perceptions of reality, and also their physical straits, anxious attempts at control giving way to increasingly frantic and belaboured searching. Recurring visual touches – water, flashing light, mirrors, broken glass, the colour red – are keys to an associative symbology alongside moments of totemic import for the characters that accumulate meaning as the film goes on and are finally ticked off in the rapid succession right at the end. Immersion, with all its uterine import, is also a state between life and death. Venice sits above the water, defiant but frigid, a lot like John’s masculine being: intellectually hip, as his book indicates, he is nonetheless reflexively entrapped by his own conviction that he’s saner and straighter than anyone. In fact, as Heather realises, he’s rejected his own second sight, and so is at its mercy, inflicted with visions that foretell the future but give no context or sense of the illimitable. The warmth and vitality of John and Laura’s relationship is underscored by lingering shakiness, anxiety and discord finally defined as John berates his wife for being taken in by the two women he dismisses as charlatans.

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When the couple get a phone call from their son’s boarding school back in the drizzly English countryside, telling them Johnny has been mildly injured, Laura immediately flies out, leaving John to his work and anxiously await her return, alone in a cold, grey, decaying labyrinth of a city where every step he takes brings him closer to his end. He becomes distracted after he sees Laura on a passing boat accompanied by Heather and Wendy, and alerts the police, who ask him to locate the pension where the women were living, and have him followed by one of their men. There’s a strong suggestion that heather and Wendy are actually a lesbian couple. It doesn’t feel coincidental that female homosexuality was once sometimes euphemistically described as “Venetian tastes”, and both couples reflect Du Maurier’s divided life as a married mother who often had queer affairs, and John’s reaction to his wife gravitating to the women has an aspect of reactionary jealousy. Roeg finds pathos and humanity in both duos as John’s recourse to the police eventually results in him pathetically apologising to and guiding Heather back to her rooms after he gets a phone call from Laura, safe in England and secure in her restored sense of sanity and security. Everyone, according to Roeg, has Venetian tastes, at the mercy of forces encoded in the blood and the mind, hungrily seeking their fulfilment on the way to dusty death.

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Roeg’s faults as a filmmaker could be as pronounced as his strengths, as he often didn’t know when to quit or moderate his flow of images, and could sometimes lapse into atonal showmanship, as in some of the more sophomoric and drawn-out passages of Performance or The Man Who Fell to Earth. Don’t Look Now stands as his best film precisely because its storyline gave a coldly deterministic enclosure that allowed him to deploy his signature visual invention whilst also compressing it with clear purpose. The notion that fate is pressing down on John Baxter grows all the more omnipresent as Roeg’s camera picks out mysteriously significant sights as casual as a man crossing a bridge or as pointed as a double-exposure vision of Heather’s sightless eyes as John ascends to a rickety vantage to inspect a mosaic only for a piece of falling lumber to almost cause his death. Don’t Look Now has strong affinity with the same year’s The Wicker Man as a bleak game of sliding panels unveiling a man’s predestined fate, complete with a nasty twist involving the search for an elusive girl. Both films tried to define new ground for horror cinema whilst also honouring the genre in some essentials, including their gruesome finales and cunningly delayed revelations of the hovering blade over their protagonists. Don’t Look Now is particularly beguiling in the way it traverses arty pretence and character drama before arriving at a final twist that’s as bizarre and grotesque as anything in horror cinema.

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Along the way Roeg casually tosses off a superb sequence of physical suspense staging as John clings desperately to the collapsed hoist in the church, saved by a worker’s cool and clever efforts. This near-disaster seems to prove Heather’s warnings that John is in danger, but its happy ending also gives the illusion of restored safety. Don’t Look Now is built around evoking a sense of a thin and permeable membrane that constitutes reality, a membrane easy to mistake for solidity and security. The hoist accident sequence dramatizes the concept as John’s secure footing turns instantly to chaos, dangling high above the church floor, debris falling on his bishop sponsor and workers alike. The shock of the incident coming on the back of Johnny’s accident and Laura’s departure informs John’s quick segue into clammy panic after he catches the bewildering sight of Laura with the two women. Don’t Look Now verges on a fatalistic statement that fate claims its pounds of flesh sooner or later, but also strives to make a vital point that it’s precisely the vulnerable, all too perishable bonds of being that give life its beauty as well as pain.

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Despite the mounting sense of portent, the later scenes of Don’t Look Now have a quality reminiscent of screwball comedy in the sense of criss-crossing paths and missed meetings, using Venice’s torturous routes as a stage to enact an anxious sense of disconnection, as Laura dashes back to her husband but can’t quite catch up with him as he takes Heather home from the police station. The faintly comic element twists into panicky concern as Heather experiences a mediumistic fit as she’s possessed by Christine, and tries desperately to warn Laura that John’s headed off towards danger. The climax of Don’t Look Now, as vivid and delirious as its opening, sees John pursuing the small, red-clad figure, oblivious to the cries of warning and fear that often ring out whenever it appears, locking himself inside an abandoned building with it so he can corner it. Roeg offers some familiar horror movie hype here, as the Venetian canals and cavernous ruined interior swim with mist and shadow, whilst his handheld camerawork becomes frantic as Laura tries to chase them down, scuttling over bobbing boats and beating at the locked gate.

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John corners his quarry, who seems until the very last instant to be some lost and desperate child if not an actual ghostly manifestation of his daughter, but turns to him at last finally reveals a wizened and malevolent visage – an elderly, viciously psychotic dwarf who whips out a knife and cuts John’s throat. This is ridiculous touch on one level, of course, but also Don’t Look Now’s most inspired and gleefully cruel conceit. John’s paternal grief and misfiring second sight bring him to a brutal end, his life flashing before his eyes as his life blood gushes out of his neck in a great red spume: Roeg’s most symphonic editing arrives as he revisits sights and actions from the rest of the film and stitches them together in new context, the desperate striving for meaning in the last few moments of a man’s life. The killer has been waiting for John ever since glimpsing her in the church photo, mysteriously conjoined with his daughter’s loss. Could she be regarded as an agent of fate, the minion of some patiently boding evil, or just a random expression of chaos, of the things that maul and mutilate? The coda offers a mordant yet also grand, even triumphant sense of revelation and completion, as it’s revealed his sighting of Laura with Heather and Wendy was actually foresight of them accompanying his body to a funeral on a hearse boat. The salving aspect of this could be Laura’s firm and centred gaze and gentle smile as she buries another loved-one, alone but also bolstered by new faith that nothing is every truly lost.

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1960s, Auteurs, Epic, Romance, War

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriter: Robert Bolt

By Roderick Heath

David Lean had been a respected and heralded director since his debut helping Noel Coward realise his vision on 1943’s World War II classic In Which We Serve. His reputation was burnished with a succession of intimate, shaded, romantically charged dramas including Brief Encounter (1945), The Passionate Friends (1949), and Summertime (1955), sharp-witted, dark-edged comedies like Blithe Spirit (1946) and Hobson’s Choice (1953), and lovingly realised immersions in fictional worlds, with his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). But today mention of Lean’s name still conjures a very specific connotation, an impression of vast landscapes and dwarfed humans, lengthy running times and grand dramatic canvases, the coherence of space and time so vital in the cinema experience wielded with a unique tension between the titanic and the finite. Lean, chafing against the limits of the British film industry and audience of the time, which was already leaving behind some great talents like Michael Powell or obliging others like Carol Reed to oscillate between home and Hollywood, began to think big. When he started collaborating with American impresario Sam Spiegel, the two films they made together, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), proved huge hits, captured Best Picture Oscars, and made Lean perhaps the most prestigious name in cinema.

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On the hunt for a new project of comparable scale and vitality, Lean next chose to work with Italian movie mogul Carlo Ponti on adapting Russian writer Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, whilst continuing his successful collaboration with screenwriter Robert Bolt and his star discovery, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. Despite the pedigree, the film was released to lukewarm reviews and played to empty cinemas for a time: if released today, Doctor Zhivago would have been shuffled off to a streaming service and written off as a concussive flop. But the radio popularity of “Lara’s Theme” from Maurice Jarre’s score, abruptly rescued the film by turning it into a quintessential date movie, and eventually it proved one of the most profitable films ever made. To this day it still works for some with drug-like fervour and leaves others cold, and even as it’s retained popular regard, has never really enjoyed the same level of respect as Lean’s previous two works. The rhapsodic yet ironic approach to adventurous war stories with his two earlier projects had allowed Lean to transmute them into veritable cinematic myth, but such an approach seemed quite distinct from the essence of Pasternak’s 1959 novel, which transposed a semi-autobiographical rumination on one of his love affairs to the midst of the Russian Revolution with all its cruel, transformative drama.

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Pasternak’s work had been met with disapproval in the Soviet Union in its attempt to analyse the place of the artist in such a time, and his attempt to reckon with the frail hopes and looming terrors of the country’s crucible age. Pasternak, whose literary reputation up to that point had been as a poet, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but forced to turn it down by the Soviet authorities, turning the book into a cause celebre. Filming the novel was always going to be a difficult proposition. Although the stage is history at its most vital, the actual subject is personal, intimate, even subliminal. Pasternak’s poet hero Yuri Zhivago was an onlooker, a bit player in history who nonetheless becomes a titan in that history through art. Pasternak’s book got into trouble precisely because it meditated upon a basic contradiction in regards to Communist thought, the concept of history being driven by impersonal forces but only transmissible through recourse to personal perspective, a perspective often inimical to heroic social narratives. Such a story might also seem entirely out of step with the needs of epic cinema.

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But such a character held attraction for Lean, whose focal figures were so often watchers striving to become heroes of their own stories, people who knew they were at the mercy of forces far more powerful than them and yet striving to find purpose and agency. Such protagonists range from the lovers who find themselves ridiculously unable to realise their passion in Brief Encounter, to the course steered by Pip through life under the urging of unknown gravity in Great Expectations, and the messianic delusions and gutter disillusionment experienced by T.E. Lawrence. Lean’s Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) is a pair of eyes, a sensitive instrument watching his world destroy itself whilst experiencing all its ephemeral grace and brute immediacy, as much or more than he is protagonist, clinging to the people who mean something to him but faced with an age that doesn’t just assail his body but wants to deny him the right of his mind. And yet this suited Lean perfectly on the vital level of his relationship with his medium, who had discovered an argot with Lawrence of Arabia that came close to pure cinema, immediately influencing a host of director heroes like Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone, giving them permission with a seemingly spacious but actually intensely rhythmic cinematic design, purveyed through great care in alternating delay and effect.

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A scene late in Lawrence of Arabia depicted the faux-titan hero confronted by a hospital filled with ragged, ruined humans in a Turkish military hospital, and slapped by a British officer decrying the outrageousness of the scene before them. Doctor Zhivago inverts the confrontation, depicting a similar scene in which Zhivago happens upon a hospital flooded with the diseased and mangled victims of war, seen this time through the eyes of the healer who, unlike Lawrence, strives constantly and conscientiously to avoid the eye of history except in the mode of its artistic conscience. The film starts properly in a prologue set decades after the main drama, with Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) a potentate in the Soviet regime, his flag-bedecked car drawing the apprehensive glances of workers on a dam construction. Yevgraf is the first thing scene in the film, a living Soviet Realist sculpture but also a living witness to the struggles of a legendary age – “Do you know what it cost?” he asks of the young engineer (Mark Eden) overseeing the project. The film returns to the setting at its end, echoing the circularity of Lawrence of Arabia with a more testimonial quality: the gaps in Yevgraf’s narrative are also the gaps in history into which people vanish. Yevgraf is seeking the long-lost daughter of Yuri and his legendary muse Larissa, usually called Lara (Julie Christie), subject of a beloved sequence of long-suppressed poems.

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Yevgraf believes one of the dam workers (Rita Tushingham, billed only as “The Girl,” although she’s named as Tonya Komarovsky by Yevgraf) is that daughter, although she’s a nervous, anonymous member of the much-vaunted proletariat. Lean’s deep investment in her protagonist becomes clear in an early scene depicting a formative event of Yuri’s youth (played as a boy by Sharif’s real-life son Tarek), the funeral of his mother. This scene becomes a parade of epiphanies that incorporate obsessive motifs of both Yuri’s outlook and Lean’s cinema – the wind-thrashed autumnal trees and branches tapping against the window glass, the lace-wrapped face of Yuri’s mother, imagined within her coffin, the towering mountains charged with spiritual import and plains of Dali-esque flatness where humans stalk in assailed columns. Yuri’s father’s estate has been embezzled and he has a half-brother he’s never met. His one real inheritance is his mother’s balalaika, an instrument she played as a virtuoso. But young Yuri finds fate almost overly generous to him at first, as he’s adopted into the family of his mother’s childhood friend Anna Gromeko (Siobhan McKenna), who’s married to the affluent and affable Alexander Maximovich (Ralph Richardson), and almost from the first Yuri seems destined to marry their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).

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Yuri’s special artistic talent proves to be poetry, an art he gains fame for even as he studies to become a doctor, a calling he feels is connected with the deeply empathic art he creates. Such a connection is acerbically doubted by his tutor, Prof. Boris Kurt (Geoffrey Keen), who takes Yuri with him to attend the attempted suicide of a pathetic couturier, Amelia Guichard (Adrienne Corri), former mistress of Kurt’s urbane and influential lawyer friend Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). Although left no less idealistic by the sight of Amelia’s sweat-sodden and bedraggled body, this visit proves to be a life-changing experience for Yuri, as he first sets eyes upon Lara, the daughter of Amelia: the luminous Lara reclines in teary solitude under Yuri’s gaze. Zhivago witnesses a scene between Lara and Komarovsky that tells him what the audience has already seen: Komarovsky has forcibly seduced Lara and made her his new mistress. Lara is nonetheless engaged to student radical Pavel ‘Pasha’ Antipov (Tom Courtenay), for whose benefit Komarovsky plays the kindly, interested father figure, before he rapes Lara in a spasm of jealous anger.

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Lara writes a confession to Pasha and sets out to kill Komarovsky with a gun Pasha gave her to hide. She wounds Komarovsky in a swank restaurant just as Yuri and Tonya are announcing their engagement: Komarovsky insists she be allowed to leave with Pasha, and they flee to the country. When the Great War breaks out, the disillusioned and unhappy Pasha and the radically committed Yevgraf join the army for their own diverse reasons. Yuri eventually follows to ply his humanitarian trade and meets Lara again in a military hospital as the war effort breaks down, as she’s become an army nurse in hope of locating her missing husband. Yuri and Lara fall in love working together but don’t act on it. When he returns home to Moscow, Yuri finds Anna has passed away and the Bolshevik regime is descending onerously, and a visit from Yevgraf convinces him to take Tonya and Alexander away. They decide to head to the Gromeko country estate outside the town of Yuriatin out in the Steppes on the far side of the Urals, where the war with the Whites is raging, and board a crowded train to make the long journey that takes through landscapes of holy awe and scenes of human devastation. Some of the horror is perpetrated by the roving, mysterious radical warlord Strelnikov, hero of the anti-Bolshevik revolutionaries.

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By contrast with the general admiration for his previous two films, Doctor Zhivago and its follow-up Ryan’s Daughter (1970) were received by some at the time as laborious exercises in brand extension by Lean. From today’s perspective it seems more like Lean was trying to return to the kind of romance-driven films he had often made in the first stage of his career, where Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia had been quite unusual as costly cinema works virtually without women. Doctor Zhivago pointedly revisits many aspects of both Brief Encounter and Great Expectations. Particularly the latter, as Lean revisits many of its key images and ideas, from the vision of a young boy frightened by a seemingly animate landscape, to climactic scenes in an abandoned and decaying house that has likewise come to seem a living entity, a place where that lost childhood must be reckoned with as well as the pains of maturation and the evils of the world. Like Pip, Yuri grows from a timorous boy to a grown man who nonetheless finds himself driven around forces vast and beyond his control, and yet the wandering eye and mind of the poet insistently recreates that world.

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The careful craftsmanship poured into Doctor Zhivago was at once one of its publicised assets and critical negatives: although rendered in a largely realistic fashion, the universe glimpsed in the film represents the exact opposite of verisimilitude, its period Russia completely fabricated in Spain, with added location shooting in Canada. The central set representing downtown Moscow is a vast piece of theatrical setting, a carefully controlled space to allow Lean’s micromanaged sense of cinematic epiphany space to unfold. Such control is evident in the sublimely chilling moment Lara and Komarovsky pass by a silhouetted cavalry officer waiting for a quiet moment to assemble his fellow horse soldiers to attack a protest march led by Pasha: Lean matches one form of violence, intimate and coercive as Komarovsky forces himself on Lara, with another, as the horse soldiers ride down the protestors. The build-up to the attack on the protest is exacting on the level of cutting and generated menace, but Lean then cuts to Yuri’s reaction as witness, relying on the shivering horror on Sharif’s face to convey the impact of violence on his gentle hero rather than indulge the pyrotechnic delight of bloodshed. Pasha is left badly scarred and forced into hiding after the assault, whilst Lara, fobbed off with vague moralisations when she visits a priest continues on uncomfortably as Komarovsky’s mistress.

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One notable irony of Doctor Zhivago is that for a film prized for its romanticism, the romantic element is complex, even grubby, revolving as it does around abuse and infidelity. Yuri, after all, has his great fling with Lara when Tonya is pregnant with his second child. Lara herself is taken advantage of, abandoned, and eventually forced to take up again with the creep who deflowered her. Komarovsky is in many ways the most compelling figure in the film, a man who compares himself to “ignoble Caliban”. He’s expertly played by Steiger, who cunningly brings outsized charisma and urbane authority to the role as well as occasional slips of vulnerability and outright monstrosity, weapons he easily brings to bear in making Lara his lover. Lean signals his nascent erotic interest in her as he playfully drapes one of her mother’s wares, a light silk scarf, about her face, turning her into a houri, and by the time he’s done with her Komarosky has her dressed as a red-clad, teetering tart. Komarovsky embodies the superficial cosmopolitan assurance of Tsarist Russia overlaying brute prerogative and clasping greediness just as surely as the intense, puritanical, neurasthenic personality of Pasha anticipates the oncoming Commissars. “All this is experience of a kind,” Komarovsky retorts to Pasha when they meet and the younger man boasts of his hardscrabble upbringing, with the acidic undercurrent lying in Komarovsky’s certainty the idealistic young hero can’t make a woman orgasm. A note that seems mordantly confirmed later when Yevgraf’s narration describes Pasha’s reasons for joining the army lie in disappointment.

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Meanwhile Yuri weds the lovely, elfin, dutiful Tonya, but falls under Lara’s spell when they’re thrust together in service, in part because like Yuri himself she’s a bereft soul who exists on the fringes of the common psychic landscape. The grace-note quality Lean sounded in the later reels of Lawrence of Arabia here becomes more like a dominant aesthetic as Yuri constantly finds himself stumbling upon human wreckage left by the passages of armies and dogging the tail ends of columns of moving humanity. His introduction to the warzone long with Lara is tending to the mangled men left by their own rebelling soldiers on the road away from the abandoned frontlines. Yuri’s desire to patch together bodies and express the intricacies of the mind are constantly confronted by people who want to do the opposite, to remake themselves as hard and marauding incarnations of a cruel age. Authority, not the false currency of civil authority or mere hierarchical command but the achievement of it through personal fortitude and certitude, was a concept Lean was obsessed with. A revolution is certainly a stage for the genuinely heroic to step forth, as well as the dauntingly monstrous, the insidiously craven, and the snippily officious and small-minded. He rhymes crucial moments when Pasha and Yevgraf part crowds like Moses before the Red Sea and save people close to them purely by dint of a force of charisma and an understanding that the strongest gestures are the simplest. Yevgraf empties out a gang of cackling vultures with a click of his fingers and lets his uniform do the rest of the work.

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Yuri has no authority; his currency as a humanitarian and poet are stolen from him in an age in which others dedicate themselves to unstinting revenge against the rest of their society. Yuri and Lara repeatedly graze against representatives of the new regime, from the Bolshevik soldier who works with them in the hospital and mutters “God rot good men,” in response to another’s praise of Zhivago: Lara’s sharp glance at the soldier bespeaks her recognition that the world is soon going to belong to men like him rather than those like Yuri. Soon Yuri is up against hatchet-faced representatives of the new order in the former Gromeko home who grow timorous and threatening (“Your attitude has been noted!”) when Yuri prods them over suppressing the truth over disease outbreaks and general famine, and feel more at ease trying to strip the Gromekos of the last of their possessions. Political evolution is staked out in evolving iconography. Posters of the Tsar carried by the soldiers marching off to war are soon supplanted by the stylised visages of Lenin and Trotsky looming heroically over the flotsam of the age – hands are outstretched and gesturing in both sets of posters, offering, paternal, inclusive. The very end sees a colossal image of Stalin, his face rendered stark in black and white on a red field, hovering above a drab and featureless urban street, Lara a tiny figure retreating into oblivion in its shadow, perfectly encapsulating the onerousness of the oncoming age of the Great Terror as Yevgraf’s testimony on the soundtrack describes it in his own terms: “A name on a list that was later misplaced.”

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One common criticism tossed at Doctor Zhivago was that it was impossible to make writing a dramatic act, and that the film neglected giving much sense of Yuri as a poet. To look closer at Doctor Zhivago however reveals that Lean actually succeeded in doing something very rare and specific, selling a grandiose work of poetic reverie to a mass audience. Lean doesn’t need to make much of Yuri’s poems in themselves because the entire film has been doing that, purveying a series of landscapes, both elemental and human, charged with totemic meaning. Although the romance between Yuri and Lara looms large in both their lives and the film’s sensibility, it’s easy to forget how little of the film is given over to it, and the couple are left clinging to each-other in large part because they’re forcibly stripped of everything else. Lean had built his cinematic method through his gift for building intensely rhythmic sequences, instilled as an editor but growing as a director to manipulate every element of film to achieve his coups de theatre.

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Doctor Zhivago offered a unique stage to give his visual effects holistic meaning, joining his visual effects to Zhivago’s poetic method, the chains of associated images that become charged with inferred, symbolic import as they accumulate, and also with the relationship of the artistic process with experience, the collecting of such images over the course of a lifetime. The opening scene doesn’t just present the formative images that haunt Yuri and fuel his imagination, but also anticipate his future, the threat of the blasted Siberian wastes Yuri eventually finds himself alone and exposed in. Lean repeats this seer-like element with a dash of humour as Yuri and Lara unknowingly come into contact on a streetcar in downtown Moscow, well before they properly meet: Lean cuts to the sparks on the overhead cable. The slowly wilting sunflowers Lara picks to brighten up the stark hospital space become associated forevermore in Yuri’s mind with the promises of fecund seasons and the specific beauty of Lara herself.

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Lean contends with the idea of cultural memory in part through the textures of his own cinema. Any filmmaker of Lean’s generation, and especially an editor like him, would have gone to school on Sergei Eisenstein’s films. Lean confirms debt and kinship as he nods to Battleship Potemkin (1925) in the demonstration scene – cutaways to children lost in the tumult and brass band instruments kicked along the street by fleeing people – and offers some distinctly Eisensteinian framings, like the shot of sailors saluting Strelnikov’s passing train. Of course, Doctor Zhivago inverts the propagandist tilt of Eisenstein’s famous films, presenting the early years of the Soviet Revolution as a period of glorious slogans and petty, often pathetic or vicious individuals. Lean makes further nods to silent cinema in his lighting, often staking out his actors’ eyes with pencil spots and placing the rest of them in shadow, a technique reminiscent of German expressionism, also kept in mind in shots like one early in the film when the dam workers file out of a brightly lit tunnel, the red star over the tunnel mouth, like they’re emerging from the maw of branded history. The brief scenes depicting the frontline of the war boil down grand, nation-shattering calamity to a few grimly totemic shots of frozen soldiers still manning their posts on the wasteland frontier, like something left over from a primal war. Lean tips his hat to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by quoting Milestone’s signature lateral tracking shot, speeding along the advancing wave of Russian soldiers as they’re cut down by machine gun.

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Cinematographer Freddie Young, whose work is superlative throughout, pulls of one of his best shots as Pasha, respected by his fellow soldiers enough to follow him into the jaws of hell, seems to be killed by a shell blast, his glasses falling to the snow in colossal close-up. Several key passages of the film are played out in a manner reminiscent of the vignettes of silent cinema. Yuri’s first sight of Lara, seated in darkness on the other side of a pane of glass, encapsulates the notion of romantic vision as a cinematic ideal, framed and inviolate, a scarcely liminal vision upon which breaks a miniature dawn, as Komarovsky enters her room with lantern. In the later scene in which Pasha reads her confessional letter, sparking his anger and then forgiveness, the whole scene is shot through a window with a candle slowly burning away the frost on the glass; the shot dramatizes the bleak emotional straits of the characters as well as allowing Lean to stake pure belief in visual storytelling. The scene in which Yuri finally meets Yevgraf, who comes to visit his brother just in time to save him from the wrath of petty commissars over some stolen firewood, utilises Guinness’s voiceover to report his speech rather than have him interact with Sharif and the other actors, an ironic touch that somehow conveys the awful weight of intervening years and the schism between the half-brothers that’s based around totally diverse loyalties but also retains a certain mutual, guttering admiration.

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Lean’s approach to cinema remains fascinatingly indifferent to spectacle on many levels in spite of the infrastructure on hand: his background as an editor, a composer in the dialogue of duration and severance, is plain enough throughout. The long build-up in the tunnel scene to burst out into a grand landscape segues into a jolting edit before anything can be drunk in. The film’s close-ups are just as epic as the landscapes. The way Lean shoots Sharif and Christie reflects their functions as actors inhabiting roles, Christie often nearly facing the camera, caught in reactive moments – particularly the scene in which Yuri breaks off with her, his voice heard but the man unseen, camera instead fixated on Christie’s face with all its tremulous emotion. The camera becomes Yuri overtly here, but has no existence free of Lara’s feeling. The poet is a void without muse. Like many films of the era, whilst there’s nothing outright anachronistic in sight, the quality of Christie’s hairstyles and makeup still often see utterly modish to the mid-’60s, whilst Sharif looks improbably like a bohemian college tutor in black turtleneck. But Christie and Sharif give remarkably good performances considering the fascinatingly diverse demands placed on them by their respective roles. Sharif had to consciously retreat within himself to play a character who observes and absorbs, whilst Christie plays the emotional lodestone, eyes of blue stirring like the ocean as she suffers predations and woundings.

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The train exodus sequence is the centrepiece of the film, where Lean’s cinema is tied most explicitly to Yuri’s perspective in finding sights and sounds of wonder amongst grimy and tawdry circumstances. The train car is packed with fetid bodies, floor littered with straw crusted with shit and piss, food boiled potatoes, but the world without is a parade of alternating natural splendour and human terror. One of Lean’s great coups comes at the segue from the intermission, as he fills the soundtrack with the tumult of the train on the move although the screen remains black, before a point of light grows and suddenly the train bursts from a tunnel amongst soaring, snow-crusted mountains. A pane of ice frozen across the doorway is shattered, revealing a vast landscape of ice-caked lakes and sepulchral forests. The sun burning through morning mist in the trees during a stop distracts Zhivago until he stumbles into danger as he happens upon Strelnikov’s armoured train. Strelnikov has been mentioned breathlessly before, particularly by the chained anarchist zealot (Klaus Kinski, in a small role that nonetheless instantly made him a cinema weirdo of choice) in the passengers’ midst: Lean’s sleight of hand when Strelnikov’s train barrels past theirs is to reveal Strelnikov is Pasha, who might as well be a chill-blooded zombie arisen from the ice, declaring that “The private life is dead,” and musing that he used to admire Yuri as a poet but now feels obliged to find his work petty and trivial.

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Yuri responds by questioning why he attacks and burns villages indiscriminately, and retorts to the proposition that the point must be made, “Your point, their village.” Yuri learns from Strelnikov that Lara is living in Yuriatin, whilst the manor house that was the heart of the Gromeko estate proves to have been claimed and locked up by Bolsheviks. The family instead retreat into a neighbouring cottage and weather out the winter, and Yuri resists the temptation to visit Lara for a time. But when he does finally meet her in the town, their passion finally blossoms. Fate however still has a malicious joke in store for Yuri, as he’s snatched up by a Bolshevik partisan unit engaged in free-roaming warfare against the Whites, who want Yuri’s service as a doctor and pay little heed to his protests as they shanghai him away for a campaign. Lean offers brief but startling visions of guerrilla warfare, in a cavalry charge across a frozen lake on machines guns, with Yuri and the unit’s political officer Razin (Noel Willman) the only members not engaged in battle.

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Razin nonetheless rules the unit as he reminds his fellow soldiers that “all men will be judged politically,” like a secular inquisitor ready to winnow out the unfaithful. Lean’s admiration for John Ford is signalled through in his use of space and landscape (plus Ford had recommended Christie to Lean after directing her on Young Cassidy, 1964) but a scene here in which the unit massacre some White soldiers who turn out to be boys from a military academy pressed into a glorious, pathetic charge, could be seen as darker meditation on a scene Ford offered as a joke in his The Horse Soldiers (1958). “Did you ever love a woman?” Yuri questions Razin when he dismisses the deaths in the face of history. “I once had a wife and two daughters,” the priest of nihilism retorts. The battle in Doctor Zhivago is to remain alive as a thinking, feeling being in the face of such omnipresent horror. It’s a battle Yuri eventually wins, but at the cost of using up his physical body, a candle burnt at both ends. Part of the film’s allure in the day lay in the way it offered a heightened reflection for the idea of a romantic couple fending off such horrors. Yuri abandons the Bolsheviks as they encounter bedraggled survivors who can’t tell the difference between the uniforms tormenting them, and makes his solitary way across the frigid wastes to return to Yuriatin, hoping to return to Tonya and his children. But he’s left with Lara instead, as Tonya and her father have fled the country. Yuri and Lara decide to spend whatever time they have together, and start living in the Varykeno mansion, much of which is filled with sculptural ice.

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The ice palace is one of the film’s most singularly strange and semi-surreal images, echoing back to Miss Havisham’s infested house in Great Expectations as a representation of something bleak and twisted in the psyche and in the world at large, but also with its little annex free of ice, with the table where Yuri learned how to write still intact and well-stocked. Such a little islet of the mind amidst a threatening shell anticipates the image of the family home drifting in space at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), another tale of blighted romance and agonised becoming. Here Yuri scribbles out the Lara poems in feverish activity whilst awaiting whatever knock on the door portends their fate. Of all people, it proves to Komarovsky who does the knocking, the ultimate sophisticate cynic and survivor having successfully reinvented himself as a useful tool of the Soviets offering safe passage to the far east, to escape the coming wrath of the Bolsheviks now that Pasha has abandoned his Strelnikov identity and shot himself rather than face a show trial. Neither Yuri nor Lara want to make any kind of pact with Komarovsky, but Yuri urges Lara to leave with him with a false promise to follow. Yevgraf wraps up his account by describing how Yuri, sickly and taken in hand by his brother after living in obscurity for many years, heads off to work at a hospital only to glimpse Lara from a tram and try to chase after her, only to collapse from a heart attack and die.

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By comparison with the achievement in pacing and image flow that is Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago often feels by comparison a touch rushed and choppy despite its expanse. This is particularly true of the episode depicting Yuri’s service with the partisan band, which is arguably the most interesting part of the narrative and the one that best justifies the film’s epic lustre, and yet which passes by in a few minutes. The evocation of frantic longing and loss in Yuri’s dash to catch a passing glimpse of Lara from the high windows of the ice palace is perfect, despoiled to a certain extent by Lean and Bolt’s choice to turn a full circle with Yuri’s death scene pushes rather too close to a rather more familiar and sentimental kind of romantic drama. The frustration of Doctor Zhivago is also part and parcel with its enormous success: the carefully fashioned, distinctively intimate poetic drama is constantly nudging against the wannabe pop hit. But the diffuseness of the last act is in part a deliberate reflection of the patchiness of history: history is a gaping hole that swallows people, and only lost but talented orphans like young Tonya emerge, and artwork like the Lara poems testifies to the qualities of the lost world. The film’s very end aims for a rhapsodic sense of becoming as Lean surveys the great dam constructed by the workers, the revolutionary project giving birth to its own wonders.

Standard
1970s, Auteurs, Western

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

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Director: Robert Altman

By Roderick Heath

Robert Altman’s vision of the American frontier is a dream welling out the sea, given raw form upon a shore that is sometimes mud, sometimes ice. His hero breezes into town a vague and ambiguous apparition and dissolves back into the landscape as his life blood leaks out. The aesthetic is at once near-mystical in its evocation of the past and also a tragicomedy in a key of shambling diminuendo, fever dream, opium fancy, reverie in an on old tintype. Yet it’s rooted in a thoroughly physical, tactile sense of being – mud, snow, gold, booze, bodily fluids, history written in such matter, the stuff people ingest and exude. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides out of the woods, sizes up the situation as he lights a cigar, and takes his leisurely time making his way into the saloon of Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), watched by a ragtag collective of miners who make up the population of this small frontier colony somewhere near the Pacific Northwest coast, a town that will become known as Presbyterian Church for its most beloved structure, and yet which grows out of history’s muckiest compost heap.

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The miners are intrigued and anxious, wondering if the stranger brings trouble or excitement. McCabe seems to be merely a professional gambler, setting himself up in Sheehan’s tavern and swiftly contending with the owner’s pretences to businesslike authority, listening to his idea of a deal and turning it down, before getting down to business. But Sheehan has heard rumours, rumours he gleefully repeats, that this guy McCabe is nicknamed Pudgy who used to be a gunfighter and shot a man named Bill Roundtree with a derringer. A thousand westerns kick off with the same situation, of course. The stranger with a past breezes into town, hoping to leave that past behind and remake himself as just another man on the make in a land full of them. Where Altman’s specific touch manifests is in his approach to the cliché. McCabe is an oddball, a guy who talks to himself, cracks crude jokes, charms and wheels and deals entirely by the seat of his pants. He’s smart enough to see in this collection of shacks on a hillside, with a stream of wealth being hewn out of the ground steady enough to support an entrepreneur’s readiness to service men with things to spend that wealth on.

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Altman identifies with McCabe and fears for him as an independent impresario and as a kind of showman. The key to his popularity and success as a gambler is not mere skill with cards but the convivial and entertaining aura he weaves about him, drawing people to his table, eager to win and lose in his company. His reflexive mastery of his business is casually hinted as he makes sure where the back door to Sheehan’s saloon is before setting up his game. But McCabe seems to be tired of drifting and the tenuousness of his trade and has got himself a case of genuine, certified, 100-proof, all-American ambition. McCabe’s idea, as far as it goes, is to start meeting the needs of these men who labour far away from community and women with the things they most want and which Sheehan isn’t already providing them with, that is, everything that isn’t overpriced hooch and a filthy bunk for the night. So he travels back down to the nearest developed town, Bearpaw, and buys a trio of prostitutes, and sets them up in tents, each denoted by a sign: 2-for-1 Lil (Jackie Crossland), Pinto Kate (Elizabeth Murphy), and Almighty Alma (Carey Lee McKenzie). But the difficulties in running such an operation are soon made perplexingly clear to him as the mousy and silent Alma, for whatever reason, starts bellowing and trying to stab one of her clients with his own Bowie knife. What he needs in turn comes into town shortly after, riding on a laboriously trundling steam tractor: Mrs Constance Miller (Julie Christie).

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Amidst the many gems rough and polished scattered throughout Altman’s career, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has slowly resolved from the fog of initial bemusement to be regarded as perhaps his greatest achievement. Altman’s phase as a major film artist of untrammelled regard and liberty stretched from the compromised but fascinating Countdown (1968), gained traction with the huge hit MASH (1970) and reached a highpoint of acclaim with Nashville (1975), with many oddities and gems in between, to the end of the 1970s. Altman’s career crashed against the shoals of a changed audience mood, an increasingly lockstep film industry, and his own restless artistry. He spent the following decade or so in a critical and financial wilderness, before a resurgence of patchy brilliance in the 1990s. Altman’s rude reassessment of American social and historical mores and mythology was frequently leveraged through determined assaults on film genre frameworks, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller fits squarely both into Altman’s private genre of satirically inverted twists on familiar storytelling modes and received wisdoms, and into the run of darker, probing, guilty revisionist portraits of the Old West and American history that sprang up in the late ‘60s and extended into the following decade.

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The very making of McCabe & Mrs. Miller evokes the rare and rich window in the history of the movie business it exemplifies as an artwork, some of the hottest talents in Hollywood collaborating on this strange, shaggy, never-never excursion, stranded on a muddy hillside outsider Vancouver. A collective of draft-fleeing Americans helping build the sets in the backgrounds of shots. Altman, still a recent escapee from the treadmill of week-in-week-out TV work, a director who had scored an unexpected blockbuster hit a year earlier now determined to push his credit as far as it would reach and beyond, and work out just what his new-found style was good for. A pair of tabloid-bait movie star lovers at the centre giving career-best performances, the classy Oscar-winner playing the iron-plated whore and her mogul-star boyfriend playing a half-smart tinhorn, lost purely in art as a way of life, playing people who are linked personally and professionally and yet remained fatefully alienated.

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Altman himself called McCabe & Mrs. Miller, an adaptation of writer Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel, an “anti-western,” a description that seems both acute and yet also something of a miscue in terms of what the film actually does. On a narrative level, it’s actually a perfect western, essaying basic themes and conflicts that run like a seam of ore through the genre canon: the arrival of the white man’s industry in the wilderness, the founding of civic life and enterprise and slow achievement of order and community, and the battle of the lone maverick against the forces of bullying power. The finale, which sees the people of Presbyterian Church band together to save the structure that gives it its name and which embodies a yearned-for status and promise whilst ignoring the travails of the man to whom the community owes much of its existence, has a tragic irony that takes up where John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) left off, whilst the characters and aspects of the story evoke the people presented in Stagecoach (1939) who are obliged to keep a good distance ahead of the encroachment of mature civilisation because their habits, knowledge, and trades are inimical to the pretences of that civilisation.

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McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s disassembly of the traditional template is more one of tone and conceptual counterpoint than of plot. The western had been transformed greatly in the previous decade, chiefly by the influence of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, and their more authentic concept of the Old West as a place that ran on the exploitation of raw, easily accessed elements, both natural and human, in a manner the older, straight-laced westerns could never portray. But Altman went further in completely dismantling their mythologies of macho potency and freedom. Altman’s method of shooting the film as the set for the town was steadily built up around the ears of cast and crew, and his focus on Presbyterian Church as a community, mediated the happenstance fellowship of MASH’s jerry-built hospital and the panoramic studies of communities in his signature works like Nashville or Short Cuts (1993). But McCabe & Mrs Miller’s dreamlike mood, the sensation of an experience half-remembered, makes it less a precursor to his panoplies than to the dreamy, interiorised worlds Altman would venture into for his less popular but more personal works like That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977). Narrative drifts along on the soundtrack’s Leonard Cohen songs like the snow flitters on the wind.

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The audience has seen Miller before McCabe, in the background as he negotiates with a Bearpaw pimp, moving about with a taciturn determination to close herself off, but apparently overhearing enough to see an angle. The way Miller wolfs down her food on McCabe’s dime suggests that she hasn’t been doing that well, and she like him needs that very specific tide pool formed by history, the wide-open town ready for her peculiar arts, to truly prosper. But Miller is snappier, cannier, faster-paced as an entrepreneur than McCabe. Perhaps that’s because her looks are a transportable ore that needs no mining or refinement, holding value so long as she keeps following the frontier, but also leave her perpetually patronised. McCabe has to charm, to pause and weave a space about himself to be effective; Miller must barge through. Miller presages a later development in capitalist development than McCabe, who profits initially through the pastimes men pursue without women; Miller lays down a template to create a hub where one part of business creates another, by building a bathhouse men want to use to wash and get ready to then venture on to a “proper sporting house with clean linen.” Miller fends off McCabe’s stammering protests of business knowledge with an impressive display of hard-won acumen, how to deal with such bottom-line-affecting problems as lesbianism and outbreaks of religiosity and venereal disease. The Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company arrives as the next stage, impersonal and all-consuming. It doesn’t need allure or skill.

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Altman’s vision in Countdown of the first moon landings as a collection of metal husks and littered dead bodies gave his own, sarcastically desolate rough draft for a future of space colonisation, prefiguring his very similar concept of the historical version. Human ventures are flimsy, ridiculous tilts at eternity and usually result in disaster, but civilisation still accumulates. The populace, entirely white and male at first, is men who dance by the camera in their own little eccentric spaces – the bartender (Wayne Grace) who wants to experience new adventures in moustaches and his foil, the grouchy miner Smalley (John Schuck), McCabe’s bespectacled foreman who makes excuses and parrots his boss – and make their living for the sake of having something to spend on what McCabe and Miller offer them, and they’re boyishly happy to be enfolded by the bawdy embrace of the whorehouse. As the town grows, its makeup becomes more diverse and sophisticated. A dapper and gentlemanly black barber, Sumner Washington and his wife (Rodney Gage and Lili Francks) arrive, whilst the new selection of prostitutes Miller brings in just behind them are a cross-section of ethnicities from the various immigrant communities flooding into America – Scots, Irish, German, Chinese. It’s Altman’s seditious take on the way such cross-sections were employed in classic Hollywood westerns and war movies: the melting pot where everyone’s the son of a whore.

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Miller’s bawdy-house provides a locus of free-floating sexual abandon reminiscent of the camp in MASH, although there’s no us-and-them divide between besetting proceedings. There are no voices of onerous religion or authority, although there’s also no order. Terrible crimes occur but go unpunished because they’re just part of the texture of life out here. Altman unspools absurd schoolboy theorising about the anatomy of Chinese women over footage of the newly-arrived whores gleefully bathing, a collection of Renoir nudes in all their fleshy, raucous joie-de-vivre – or is it Courbet’s origin of the world, turned sideways? Good authority is found wanting: “A guy like Amos Linville isn’t gonna spend vice dollars just to find out something that isn’t true.” Either way, the Chinese prostitute costs $1.50, whilst Mrs Miller can be had for 5.00, but there’s no damn way John McCabe can be taken for a measly $5,500. McCabe is chagrined when part of his business vastly outperforms another, the whorehouse a machine for making money that dwarfs whiskey-selling, the realm he controls. Miller is breezy in her indifference to any familiar moral or social structure or mode of rhetoric. McCabe’s habits of muttering to himself return, Miller his bete-noir and beauty, true love and bitch queen, fending him and making him cough up his five bucks for the night but possibly adoring this weird lug. McCabe is swiftly infatuated with Miller but also identifies her with the forces of a world he can scarcely comprehend: “I’ve got poetry in me,” he declares in one of his monologue rants, “You’re freezin’ my soul.” His leitmotif is “money and pain.”

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McCabe’s attempt to regain the upper hand when two representatives of Harrison Shaughnessy come to make him an offer sets him onto a path towards a lethal confrontation, anticipated in the joke he tells the two emissaries, Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland), about a frog eaten by an eagle who then pleads not to be defecated out at a great height. McCabe’s pride as a successful entrepreneur, a big fish in a small pond, is truly worth more than money to him, and even when Miller has told him the danger he’s courting, he still can’t bring himself to accept an offer. He assumes business is a process of negotiation, but it’s actually a monologue of power and need. A food chain of hype is evinced throughout: at first McCabe easily outwits Sheehan’s deal-making and has other men repeating his words in awe, where later McCabe will be the one who can’t make deals and finishes up parroting a fancy Lawyer’s (William Devane) folderol about taking over big monopolies and trusts. McCabe’s fate is sealed by his own posturing, but also by pure chance: Holland is peeved he’s been sent out on such an errand and can’t be bothered hanging around for more negotiating. There’s a quality of ruthless wit in Christie’s performance, in the way her Miller’s hard glaze of disappointment and dread after listening to McCabe’s first explanation of his encounter with the emissaries gives way to an expression of indulgent adoration when he returns, a shift enabled more by a big dose of opium smoke than his hopeful tidings.

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Young mail-order bride Ida (Shelley Duvall) arrives in town along with Miller to be wed to the much older Bart Coyle (Burt Remson), only for Bart to get himself killed trying to defend her honour against someone who takes her for another whore. So Ida goes to Miller to become a prostitute, to Miller’s assurance she’s only performing the same job for better pay. These shifting roles and places on the pecking order amplify the basic conceit of That Cold Day in the Park, where the predatory young man finds himself finally prey to an insane woman, and would echo on through Altman’s prime phase, his fascination with people who find their identities and memories mutable, often influenced by hierarchies of power and ability, a constant fact of life in the rambunctious republic, prone to suddenly and surreally inverting. Where Images and 3 Women would toy with this idea in terms of gender and lifestyle and The Long Goodbye in terms of friendship and the roles of sucker and wiseguy, McCabe & Mrs. Miller does is explicitly in romantic and capitalistic terms. How many lovers has Miller lost to their own egotism and miscalculation? “I should’ve known,” she mutters ruefully when she listens to McCabe’s spiel after rejecting Sears and Holland’s offer. No wonder she prefers drifting off in ball of opium smoke, where glittering baubles hide worlds within worlds and the present can’t hurt you because it already feels like a very distant past.

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Altman’s feel for identity’s mutability tied in with his fascination for theatricality itself, the act of playing roles, an interest naturally bound up with his love for letting his cast weave their own roles in settings that collapsed the boundaries between movie set and living organism. Altman would go on to transform Buffalo Bill Cody into a more famous and exalted version of McCabe in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or; Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), struggling to massage the chaos of history and its living avatars into the neat demarcations of legend and showmanship, his façade of jaunty success becoming a terrible rictus grin. Later Altman would step through the looking glass in The Player (1992) to consider things from the point of view of the big shot who nonetheless commits to the same game of identities, destroying the artist and appropriating his life. At least McCabe never faces that kind of indignity or dishonesty; although Altman pitches his eventual decision to battle Harrison Shaughnessy’s gunmen somewhere in the no-man’s-land between earnestness and lampoon because of McCabe’s sheepish self-recrimination in misjudging his position, he does nonetheless put up an awfully good fight. That McCabe proves ultimately to be a stranger, more ambiguous figure than he seems is both a surprise but also entirely in keeping with this theme; no-one plays the same part all the time in life, unless they have no actual identity.

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Vilmos Zsigmond’s groundbreaking photography helped define the look of other westerns for the following decade and beyond, using film rendered slightly foggy before shooting, giving images a ghostly feel as if the film texture itself is having trouble remembering the images and people placed on it. There are flashes of the kind of lyrical, pictorial beauty prized in the look of films from its time, coming in the same way they tend to come at us in life, as brief glimpses that suddenly compel. They’re brief and mixed in with muddy interiors loaned faint honeyed warmth from the lamps and film grain fuzz threatens to swallow up the good-looking stars, where the saloon denizens loom like characters in one of Goya’s black room paintings. Everything seems a shifting, shapeless dramatic landscape coalescing like the snow in the finale: the adamantine stature of the framings of Ford and Howard Hawks and their brethren have given way to a camera that drifts and idles eventually finds its tiny focal points.

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These moments of elucidating precision abruptly glint in the morass, like the camera movement that zeroes in on Miller’s grim and pensive expression amongst the singing mourners at Bart’s funeral as McCabe goes to talk to a menacing-looking stranger on a horse who rides in when they’re expecting trouble from Harrison Shaughnessy. This shot lays bare the whole of Miller and McCabe’s relationship, the veneer of stoic distance and the quietly gnawing mutual awareness, one that’s been quietly knitting together in a series of shambling interludes in which McCabe tries to make courtly advances on Miller only to be shut out or hindered or displaced by a john. This shot also contextualises the finale’s very last cut between McCabe and Miller in their mutually prostrate states, still linked and still distinct. Habits and peculiarities are glimpsed, McCabe’s breakfast of a raw egg in liquor, Miller’s delight in reading. Panoramas suddenly resolve, describing character and power relations, as when Sheehan is glimpsed reclining with a prostitute, smeared in cream in bawdy indulgence, on one side of a frame with the antiseptic duo of Sears and Holland in the other, signalling an alliance in aims that nonetheless presage entirely different ends.

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Altman’s use of three Cohen songs from his debut album is one of those touches that divides viewers, given Cohen’s morose lyrics and insistent, scuttling melodies can grate or mesmerise depending on your receptivity. But it’s hard to deny they fit the film as not merely written for it but in it. They lend the images coherence and unity in knitting an evocative emotional context under which Altman’s vignettes can play out requiring no further context. The film almost becomes a musical in this regard, making it weird kin to an equally anarchic version of the west, if purveyed in a very different style, in Joshua Logan’s Paint Your Wagon (1969). The Cohen songs’ melancholic romanticism accords with this landscape where relationships are defined by transience and no hint of rigid moralism has yet descended, where people drift in and out of each-other’s arms and lives, where the wind carries with it the faint ring of chimes mindful of a lost time of happiness. Stephen Foster’s standard “Beautiful Dreamer” is heard repeatedly, its gently sauntering melody redolent of bygone charm, and the title could certainly be said to describe Altman’s people. But he’s not quite that sentimental: he offers the song more as the mode in the period through which his characters understand themselves, their lingering courtly pretences and romanticism, even the most degraded prostitute or labourer.

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Even the hints of religious imagery and abstracted spirituality in Cohen’s songs accords well with the aspect parodying religious myth (carried over from MASH’s Buñuel-derived Da Vinci spoof) as McCabe becomes a cold-climate Christ figure, sacrificed to communal selective blindness and the religion of business. The church that gives the town its name seems irrelevant to its daily needs, needs fulfilled instead by McCabe and Miller, but this is brutally inverted as McCabe finds his shotgun appropriated by the church’s self-appointed guardian, who orders McCabe out of the church with cold and punitive purpose as he tries to hide their whilst eluding the assassins. Only then the pastor is blown apart by a gunman, mistaken for his quarry, and the church catches fire from spilt, ignited lantern oil, a disaster that brings out the townsfolk to save the building whilst McCabe and his enemies continue to battle unnoticed.

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Altman’s sociological bent extends to a delight in the paraphernalia in a past that’s not simply historic but becoming something else, as Presbyterian Church moves with blink-or-miss-it speed out of medieval landscape into the dawn of modernity. Altman was chasing Peckinpah in this, as his old west encountered the day of motor cars and machine guns in The Wild Bunch (1969), but Altman goes for less urgent markers, quainter and clunkier devices. Music is made on fiddles and flutes but also now from mechanical proto-jukeboxes, the brothel clients and the ladies dancing to the tinkling strains of a gleeful novelty, horses are displaced by the laborious but steady and relentless chug of steam locomotion. Michael Cimino, in Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York (2002), would take up Altman’s attempts to encompass the idea of a country becoming. At the same time Altman plays an extended game with the western’s argot of mythologising and immortalisation in rumour that would also provide seeds for the likes of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), as McCabe is wrapped in mystique from his first vision. He’s the man with the past, the man who shot so and so, the gunfighter and card sharp, except he seems increasingly unlikely to worthy of it, before the very end seems to confirm it was all true, at least in some dimension.

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The second half of the film resolves into a slightly more conventional narrative form and offers a variation on a hallowed western movie plot, as McCabe encounters the emissaries of Harrison Shaughnessy and then must cope with the company’s hired guns. Butler (Millais), Kid (Manfred Schulz), and Breed (Jace Van Der Veen), are three cast-iron killers who intimidate the locals whilst awaiting their moment, whilst McCabe gears up to take them on after realising there’s no way to buy them off or gain the law’s aid. Altman’s history isn’t written in ritualised square-offs and chain-lightning gunfights but in shots in the back and battles of wits, hidden weapons and concealed positions, in outmatched heroes and villains who like to gun down hapless strangers. Altman offers his take on the infamous scene in George Stevens’ Shane (1953) where Jack Palance’s thug guns down Elisha Cook’s farmer. Here the affable, horny cowboy (Keith Carradine) McCabe initially mistook for a goon but who’s been happily rogering all the girls in Miller’s brothel is accosted by the Kid, at first bullied and then wheedled into showing his gun, a gesture the Kid uses as an excuse to shoot him down. Altman’s cold dissection of Stevens’ model swaps black-clad menace who gives his foe a slight chance for a baby-faced psychopath who could also be a schoolyard bully, the lowest form of life in Altman’s book who also happens to be everywhere, who gives none at all.

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Butler on the other hand is a gentlemanly British raconteur who likes to regale people who tactics for killing off unwanted Chinese labourers, who whose own hard edge is made patently clear to McCabe as he makes a show of being affably interested in what he has to say before assuring him there’s no more deals to be made. Sheehan hands him ammunition to taunt McCabe by getting him to pretend to be a friend of a friend of Bill Roundtree. The subsequent scene of McCabe’s visit to Devane’s Lawyer in Bearpaw provides a spot of modishly satirical pot-shot at pompous mouthpieces who emit high-flown rhetoric that conceals a multitude of offences, and helps close the circle on McCabe’s displacement as rhetorical kingpin, but it also feels tonally at odds with the greater part of Altman’s achievement, a hangover of Altman’s momentary stardom as a hipster wag worked out in MASH and Brewster McCloud (1970). Sometimes when watching McCabe & Mrs. Miller I tend to wish that Altman had minimised what plot there is even more, and left a movie that exists entirely in a key of running-watercolour images and the nudging strains of Cohen’s songs.

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Then again, the nagging pull of the film’s dreamy, instantly nostalgic texture is part of Altman’s trap, a movie that unfolds via the blissed-out textures of Miller’s drug fancies but which unfolds in an altogether crueller world, the one McCabe eventually tries to live or die in even as Miller chooses another. The climactic scenes see McCabe playing an elaborate game of hide and seek with the gunmen, trying to use his knowledge of the town to his advantage in eluding and ambushing his enemies. His tactics work, but not quite well enough: he cops a bullet in the side from the Kid, who just won’t die quite fast enough when McCabe puts a hole in his back, and then Breed, but takes another bullet from Butler. These scenes ironically see Altman exercise directorial muscles developed orchestrating the action scenes on the TV war series Combat where he learned the art of action filmmaking inside out. He doesn’t merely wring pyrotechnics or suspense from the scene, but a sense of near-cosmic absurdity from McCabe’s evasions and exclusion, his interminable solitude, the near-comedic quality of life and death that’s also brutal and terrible, a precise weighing up of the cost of McCabe’s efforts to stay alive and defend his paltry piece of turf, accrued in men crawling off into the snow to die.

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The shoot-out strongly recalls Ford’s take on the OK Corral in My Darling Clementine (1946), filmed without music, only the sound of the whistling wind and the incidental clamour of background action, the moments of truth brief and fateful and final. Where in Ford the edge of competence imbued by the life of the gun was their strength and the struggle was stand-up, Altman sees the same wit that gives his small businesspeople their edge in life as just as vital: McCabe is a shrewd little bastard who nearly makes it, but the odds were always against him. Altman’s last sleight of hand comes when Butler brings down McCabe, only to cop a derringer bullet in the forehead as he stoops over his conquered foe. Everything Sheehan said about McCabe suddenly seems true, in a way that elucidates Altman’s overall point about the old west, his version of Ford’s “print the legend” dictum. The details are correct, the shape of the myth perhaps accurate, but the real story, as ever, evades all cordoning. Altman’s love for McCabe as a slightly pathetic but beautiful dreamer doesn’t make him flinch from sacrificing him. But it does stir perhaps the most profound emotion to be found in any of his movies, in the final image of his snow-caked body being wrapped in ice, intercut with Miller escaping into her dream world, each glad perhaps to swap oblivion for reality, for reality is never real enough.

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