1970s, Action-Adventure, Mystery, Thriller

The Parallax View (1973)

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Director: Alan J. Pakula
Screenwriters: David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr, Robert Towne (uncredited), Alan J. Pakula (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Alan J. Pakula’s work as a director was often defined by the gulf between the films he’s known for, and all the rest. Pakula stands as virtually synonymous with a type of paranoid, conspiratorial thriller, a reputation that does honour his deepest influence and best work, but also stands in contrast with his attempts to sustain a varied and mature-minded oeuvre. Originally entering the Hollywood system as an assistant in Warner Bros.’ animation department, Pakula quickly proved his worth as a behind-the-camera manager and became regular producing partner to Robert Mulligan. Pakula gained his first Oscar nomination in his mid-30s, producing Mulligan’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Pakula made his first venture as a director with 1969’s The Sterile Cuckoo, a portrait of young college students struggling with their emotional maturing. His second film, Klute (1971), presented an eerie and disorientating melding of character drama and giallo-influenced psycho-thriller. The Parallax View, his third outing, was initially met with mixed reviews and poor box office. But it quickly became a cult object, and so effectively established Pakula’s touch with conjuring an enigmatic and obsessive atmosphere that Robert Redford hired him to direct All The President’s Men (1976), a portrayal of the investigation into Watergate that proved one of the most generally admired films of ‘70s Hollywood.

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Afterward Pakula seemed to consciously choose to leave behind thrillers for a time, for an array of personal dramas, but like many directors who had revelled in the openness of ‘70s movie culture, Pakula struggled throughout the 1980s, making several films virtually no-one saw, with only the post-Holocaust drama Sophie’s Choice (1982) gaining real acclaim. Unlike many faltering fellows, however, Pakula resurged with the excellent, moody courtroom drama Presumed Innocent (1990), and whilst his last few films before his death in 1998 were weaker, The Pelican Brief (1993) and The Devil’s Own (1997) rewarded his return to thrillers with high-profile successes. As easily his most famous and admired work, closely joined in style and tone, Klute, The Parallax View, and All The President’s Men represent both crucial unity and divergence. Klute’s focus falls on characters detached from all sense of self and the latter, with its reportorial veracity, contends with individuals at odds with a blank and alien sense of authority as threat. The Parallax View, based on Loren Singer’s novel, mediates as a nominal portrait of post-1960s anxiety and distrust but one driven by an ironic sense of its central character as a portrait in self-delusion, for a film that ruthlessly disassembles the old movie mythology of the fearless reporter. Warren Beatty’s lead performance, one of his best, is characteristic in trying to boil a sense of his character to the essence.

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So, in playing reporter Joe Frady, Beatty summarises the character’s motivation and character to a casually hapless admission: “Can’t help it.” He’s clearly a man who’s disappointed and aggravated many of the people who work with him and even those who love him, with a history of abusing the bottle and rubbing editors the wrong way. The Parallax View first truly registers Frady when his colleague and ex-lover Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) gives a rueful smile and refuses to play along with security guards as he tries to get in on a press junket with her (“Is he with you, miss?” “No.”). Frady, Lee, and other journalists are covering the campaign of Senator and Presidential candidate Charles Carroll (William Joyce). As Carroll visits the top of Seattle’s Space Needle, he is shot dead by one man dressed as a waiter (Bill McKinney). But another waiter, Thomas Linder, is the one seen holding a gun and pursued by security, falling to his death after a struggle on the Needle roof. A congressional committee reports that Linder was the lone assassin. Three years later, Lee visits Frady’s apartment in a quietly terrified state, telling him that several of the people who were near to Carroll at the time and counted as witnesses to the killing have died in the interim, including a judge, Arthur Bridges; Lee has been in contact with another witness, Carroll’s smooth and wealthy aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels), who like her suspects an active plot to wipe them all out. Frady can barely take Lee’s story seriously despite his solicitude over her emotional state, but is soon called to identify her body after she turns up dead, supposedly having crashed a car whilst under the influence of drugs.

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The Parallax View establishes its odd, oblique, off-kilter rhythm as Pakula’s cool, distanced style depicts Carroll glad-handing and campaigning in the midst of Seattle festivities. Pakula employs little direct dialogue as his camera simply notes his actors at large amidst documentary-like footage of milieu and hoopla. The selection of jostling people around the politician are observed as an organic mass of types exemplifying the familiar paraphernalia of American political life, an event with a surface appearance of being a scrambling, freeform carnival concealing its reality as a carefully ritualised act. Only later do the individuals involved in this scrum of democratic energy and playacting resolve, according to the roles they play in the assassination’s aftershocks. The systematised use of locations to shape the drama is first really noticeable in Pakula’s depiction of Linder’s desperate attempt to escape secret service guards atop the Space Needle, falling over the edge with a desperate scream and the agents: it’s all done in one dizzying shot, the radius of the roof and the panorama of the skyline converging zones of strange space with a hapless human vanishing at the meeting point. Lee’s visit to Frady’s apartment sees them photographed through the blinds of his balcony, at once a suggestively romantic image but also one that’s ghostly, ethereal, transient, anticipating Lee’s death which arrives with brutal force at the very next cut.

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Frady has a prickly relationship with his boss, Seattle newspaper editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), who barely tolerates Frady’s shambling persona and tendencies to push patience and licence to a limit. When Frady is first glimpsed after the assassination, he’s harassed and arrested by local cops who want him to give up his sources on a story. Rintels, after getting him released, compares Frady’s liking for stirring up trouble and giving potential news stories a creative push to a comedian who makes fun of people to entertain audience: “They’re amused, but they’re not happy about it.” Later he bitterly accosts Frady after he asks him for money to continue the investigation: “I won’t advance you a dime. I don’t care if your self-serving ambition gets you a paperback sale and a Pulitzer.” “You’re really tired, aren’t ya?” Frady questions by way of retort, writing Rintels off as another ossified remnant getting in the way of his mission to blow the lid off things. Frady’s breezy reasonableness when talking with Lee drives her to the point of becoming distraught. Beatty skilfully puts across Frady’s character, alternating professional savvy and a certain remnant zeal with a dry drunk’s need to perpetually justify himself as the man who’s more authentic and tuned-in than anyone else, with occasional flashes of self-awareness. Frady knows how badly he’s alienated so many people close to him and his attempts to rebuild himself and his reputation ironically test the last few bonds even more.

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Cronyn plays a potential cliché – the hard-bitten but likeable editor – with aspects of remnant, potent authority and sorely tested moral resolve as he dresses down Frady, and exhausted acquiescence, perhaps seeing something of himself in the younger man. The low flame of amity he feels for Frady brightens a little as he comes to realise Frady’s really on to something. Both contrast Prentiss’ brief but effective portrait of a soul in a state of true desperation, fully aware she’s going to die and like Cassandra doomed to not be believed. Frady’s sense of personal mission as he sets out to find why she was killed seems genuine, but the truth in Rintels’ assessment of him is visible as his investigation becomes inextricably linked with the expectation the story will bring him rewards and riches, as he blows off an offer from Tucker for money to keep low and quiet. Tucker himself is living in fear, closely watched over by a bodyguard who’s so thorough in tending to his boss’s anxiety he makes Frady go through a full-body search before allowing them to meet. Before encountering Tucker, Frady investigates Judge Bridges’ death, going undercover with false IDs obtained through his friend, the former FBI agent Will Turner (Kenneth Mars), and posing as a “hostile misfit” (“For that, you don’t need an ID,” Turner quips).

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Frady visits the small town of Salmontail where he’s bullied in a bar by a sheriff’s deputy, Red (Earl Hindman) over his long hair, sparking a brutal fistfight that Frady wins, impressing the sheriff, Wicker (Kelly Thorsden), who seems to accept Frady’s story of being a friend of Bridges wanting to know how he died. Frady goes fly fishing at the river spot where Bridges was drowned, apparently caught unexpectedly by a discharge of water from a nearby dam, despite the great volume of the sirens warning of the release. Frady is confronted by Wicker with a gun, who seems to intend Frady die the same way, but Frady manages to swat him with his fishing rod and the two men are washed whilst grappling downriver. Frady survives, Wicker does not, and the reporter goes to the sheriff’s house where he discovers strange literature sent out by an organisation called the Parallax Corporation, including a bewildering questionnaire. Frady has to escape Salmontail, stealing Wicker’s police car to elude other cop cars and crashing it into a supermarket, but he manages to slip away and get back in contact with the still-cynical Rintels. Frady talks next to a psychological researcher (Anthony Zerbe), who thinks the Parallax questionnaire is designed to filter for psychopaths and violent types. Frady gets him to school him in the right answers to give to look like a great candidate. When he meets with Tucker on his yacht, Frady barely escapes with his life as the yacht explodes from a planted bomb.

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Gordon Willis, who would shoot many of Pakula’s films, had a specific aesthetic and sense of expressivity Pakula was well-attuned to. With his grainy, slightly underexposed images and use of shallow focus, Willis filters the film’s visual experience to match the theme, heroes glimpsed as blotchy manifestations amidst complex and jostling frames or isolated and exposed, a sense of myopic confusion engrained in the very filmic texture. Some of this is based in a wary sense of the contemporary landscape – the soaring reaches of the Space Needle, the wavy, plastic forms of the Parallax headquarters, the blank, drab, voluminous expanse of the hall where a political rally is to unfold, scantly decorated with blocks of patriotic colouring in furniture and decoration. Pakula’s penchant for suggesting hidden patterns through visual cues, exercised more overtly on All The President’s Men, is illustrated here in a scene where a corpse is slumped over at the same angle as the books on a shelf behind, and later scenes where Frady roves around the interior of a building with interiors sliced up into frames within frames like a Mondrian painting, the jangled and compartmentalised reality Frady is exploring realised as well as a dark joke based in the idea of Frady marching towards a frame-up.

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The few, spasmodic moments of action are similarly mediated through jagged or layered images. Carroll’s killing is glimpsed through a window of the Space Needle observation deck, spurts of blood appearing on the glass, before Pakula returns inside as people dash to and fro in chaotic reaction, silhouetted and indistinct against the sunlit windows. Frady’s fight with the sheriff breaks up the actual physical conflict into a succession of blurred, obliquely framed actions and very quick glimpses of blood and violence, alternated with calm, distant shots of the water spilling from the floodgates and gushing down river, dragging the two men along. The explosion of Tucker’s yacht is similarly shot from a distance as the craft moves with languorous grace across the water. Moments like this gain a strange kind of impact because Pakula’s carefully modulated approach: innocuous things become charged with a lingering sense of menace, but also dangerous and frightening things come to seem strangely familiar, even humdrum. Parallax employees look like any rank of suited, smooth-talking corporate functionaries.

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The Parallax View is usually classified as a political thriller. Certainly it deals with a preoccupation common to both 1973 and today, questioning if the official version of things dealt out to the public is a true one, conveyed here through the narrative’s echoes of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Lee and Frady can be seen as exemplary period liberals left bereft and paranoid by the failure of alternative political options leaving the nation mired in Watergate and the last legs of the Vietnam War: Frady expresses this directly as he remembers when “every time you turned around some nut was knocking off one of the best men in the country.” The Parallax View describes a feeling of political void, the ruination of democracy through the systematic removal of its most effectual figures, perhaps indeed to maintain not a party rule or a factional force but to enforce the tyranny of the mundane, to refuse change to exactly the equal and opposite degree people like Lee and Frady want to shake them up. “You move his plate five inches, that boy’s gonna starve to death,” Wicker comments about Red, a throwaway quip that also perhaps nods to this need by the kinds of people who support Parallax to keep things exactly stable, the meal ticket well-filled.

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The notion of forces stirring behind the façade of democracy, such as shadowy corporations that have more wealth and immediate power than governments, certainly also raises one of the great worries of contemporary democracy. And yet on other levels The Parallax View not political at all, not in the same way that Mikhail Kalotozov’s I Am Cuba (1964), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) or Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969) are in contending with real and present contentions in world governance. No real political ideas or concepts are explored or at stake save the broad notion of democracy. In many ways The Parallax View updates the sinister cabals and lurking criminal conspiracies glimpsed in the silent films of Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang, with shades of Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Spione (1928) but without villainous figureheads to embody the evil, as well as the quasi-abstract espionage threats Alfred Hitchcock was fond of. That is to say, like those precursors, it’s more a work of existential anxiety, a feeling of being surrounded and corralled by impersonal, malevolent forces. The storyline rearranges the pictures and themes of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), whilst giving them new dimensions. The plot to assassinate a presidential candidate during a political rally in Frankenheimer’s film gives way here to a listless rehearsal in a near-empty space, the booming political speech pre-recorded whilst the candidate holds his place in distracted boredom. Rather than offering a brutal plan to corrupt and shatter the democratic process, The Parallax View offers what we see as another facet of government’s perpetual background drama, real power’s theatrical apparatus, planting seeds or trimming branches where needed.

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Most genre films congratulate an audience on letting them identify with canny and competent protagonists. The Parallax View’s storyline has a vital similarity to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man from the previous year, as a cynical moral drama portraying a hero whose faith in his own skills and street smarts proves far too inflated and who ultimately walks easily into a nasty trap he’s been carefully measured for. Like Sgt Howie in Hardy’s film, Frady represents a particularly ripe sacrifice to a dark god because he represents an opposing camp with real but self-deluding passion. Some of All The President’s Men’s potency would stem from the sense of incoherence in power – the seats of authority and its figureheads are all too visible but the minions, the midnight operators, are manifold and insidious, with perhaps even the people nominally in charge of them having no real command. In the end The Parallax View, being fiction, is freer in expostulating a sense of murderous threat, a dark nexus of evildoing which is after a fashion more reassuring as a world-view to some sensibilities.

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The inspired notion of a corporation specialising in creating operatives for conspiracy and assassination, a logical confluence of big business amorality and right-wing politics, is employed without being clarified. The film resists to the utmost any temptation to have anyone explain Parallax’s outlook or purpose – the company’s recruiting film suggests aspects of it, but Pakula still leaves it for us to infer to what the corporation is up to and why. The only member of Parallax to speak for himself, recruiting emissary Jack Younger (Walter McGinn), offers Frady in his guise as a good potential applicant, the kinds of opportunities that would sound perfect for a frustrated, self-perceived exile within their own society (of whom the internet has only proven there’s a proliferating number of in recent years), with promises of wealth and adventure based in precisely the characteristics other zones of society have rejected them for. Younger is less a voice of fascist politics than a salesman for a line in self-improvement by radical means. Coscreenwriter David Giler, who would help produce and write Alien (1979), would carry over some of this film’s eerie and paranoid sense of corporate malfeasance to that work. The other credited writer (Robert Towne was hired for polishing) was Lorenzo Semple Jr, whose schooling in writing the Batman TV series emerges during Frady’s fistfight with Red as a mockery of macho brawling.

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Frady proves surprisingly adept in fisticuffs and, later, improvising to escape Salmontail by any means necessary, proving that for all Frady’s lacks, physical adeptness and ability under pressure aren’t amongst them. Pakula and the writers are inflect the post-Bullitt (1968) action stuff with a more than faint flicker of absurdity, pitting Frady against small town cops not particularly more able than he is, Frady’s make-it-up-as-you-go action moves and careening driving successful mostly in being fuelled by reactive necessity. Later, as he ventures closer to the true nexus of evil, his instincts fail him as he fails to consider he might be the one being played, even when encountering such happy coincidences as glimpsing Carroll’s assassin in the Parallax headquarters. Then again, Frady’s encounters with various police departments could make a guy cocky. “The truth is they don’t have very bright guys,” Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward in All The President’s Men, hinting heavily that Nixon’s conspiracy comes undone in part because the real world’s villains are often much less competent than they think they are. The Parallax View however articulates a worthy anxiety of encountering an organisation in the world up to no good that really has its shit together.

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The Parallax View’s pivotal sequence sees Frady visiting Parallax headquarters after talking with Younger. Frady is left to settle in a large, dark theatre in a chair that seems to be rigged to measure his reactions, and shown a sort of recruiting film. The film flashes up words with potent, straightforward evocations – LOVE, MOTHER, HOME, COUNTRY and so forth, magazine ad images of homey associations of such words mixed in with still from movies like Shane (1953) and patriotic shrines like Mt Rushmore, the word ENEMY illustrated with pictures of Hitler, Mao, and Fidel Castro, HAPPINESS as stacks of coins, good booze, naked women, and so on. As the film goes on, the inferences become darker and the distinctions blurred, becoming a scurrilous satire of sentimental imagery – FATHER becomes associated with Depression-era poverty and gruelling, consuming toil, MOTHER with sorrow and sour regret, COUNTRY with gawking, 3D-glasses wearing voyeurs looking on in detachment at lynching and Ku Klux Klan rallies, as well orgiastic promise, murderers and superheroes. Show business and politics, art and journalism, propaganda and advertising. By the end all binaries and concepts have been churned into a frenetic and indivisible evocation, violent rape and incest, assassination and pornography, riches and power all part of a system of insiders and outsiders, users and the used. This marvellous vignette offers a strong experimental film deployed within a larger commercial movie narrative.

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This might even be part of the point for Parallax, reaching for a part of the psyche beyond doubt for a more primal nexus. It suggests something deeply troubling about Parallax’s approach to recruiting its goons – not with overt indoctrination but with images wielded with a mesmeric associative inflection, at once laying bare aspects of their outlook whilst still remaining shrouded in ambiguity. Does Frady pass or fail the implicit test? Is Frady revealed as a phony, or is his inner identity as yet another schmuck who thinks he’s a genius confirmed and prized? Frady at this point has no reason to think Parallax knows who he is, as he’s officially dead after the bombing of Tucker’s yacht – only Rintels knows he’s alive. The most Hitchcockian sequence directly follows the screening as Frady catches sight of Carroll’s assassin, recognised from photos Tucker showed him, leaving the Parallax building, and tracks him to the airport. Frady realises the assassin has placed a bomb hidden in luggage on a plane that has one of the current rival Presidential candidates, Gillingham, as a passenger, but only after he’s trapped aboard. Frady tries to tip off the plane crew to his fear without giving himself away, first writing a message on the toilet mirror and then sneaking a written missive on a napkin so the flight attendants will discover it. This does the trick and everyone is evacuated from the plane moments before it explodes.

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When he returns to his grimy rented apartment to resume his assumed identity, Frady is again visitedby Younger who, as Frady expected, has established his identity is false, and Frady now claims to be a man on the run from the police. Meanwhile the assassin poses as a deliveryman to give a poisoned lunch to Rintels, who is found dead in his office the next day: Frady is completely oblivious to his one ally’s death, having sent him a tape recording he made of his talk with Younger. Pakula portrays Rintels’ death first with a sense of low-key tension, drawing out the moment when he’ll consume a meal we know will be the end of him, and then cutting dispassionately to the discovery of his body the next day, a forlorn sight with a sting as Pakula notes the package containing Frady’s tape missing. Frady next follows Younger to a large office and convention centre where it proves a rally for Gillingham’s rival George Hammond (Jim Davis) is being rehearsed. The assassin shoots Hammond as he drives about across the hall in a cart and leaves the rifle at precisely the place Frady has been so expertly lured to. Frady realises, far, far too late, that he’s the patsy for the assassination, witnesses below pointing him out from below and tracking his attempts to escape.

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This sequence is a masterful piece of moviemaking that sees Pakula and Willis generating a sense of the nightmarish whilst completely resisting usual methods of creating suspense. The pace of shots stays calm, the framings still often oblique, action viewed from a remove and glimpsed in small portions of the frame. A piece of showmanship put on by the young boosters, flipping around cards that form images of patriotism and great leaders like Washington and Lincoln before arriving at Hammond’s caricatured visage, echoes the Parallax film in proffering calculated iconography as well as Pakula’s segmented visual scheme. Hammond’s cart, its driver slumped and dying, pathetically trundles about, crashing through the neatly arranged furniture. High shots from Frady’s perspective sees a labyrinthine network of shadowy catwalks and gantries, below the brightly lit stadium floor a grid of colourful blossoms on grey concrete, a zone of clandestine criminality lording over the bright clarity of democratic spectacle. Shots from the floor only offer vague glimpses of Frady. Silhouetted Parallax heavies roam like androids in apparently searching for Frady, but really they’re herding him. Michael Small’s subtle, creepy scoring doesn’t overwhelm the ambient noise, which eventually includes ambulances and police cars invading the hall floor, as the great hall becomes a trap where every noise and motion seems amplified.

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The camera stays at a distance from the hunters and hunted in the ceiling reaches as they scuttle along gantries: the nominal urgency of the moment is suborned and becomes something more like watching some game of logic being played out with grimly concerted precision. Urgency only comes when a way out suddenly beckons. The open door that represents deliverance to Frady is filled with brilliant, hallucinatory light, and his dash to it filmed from front on in a reversing zoom shot that stretches out the moment in infinite agony – only for a Parallax goon, a figure of black, blank fate, to appear in the frame and blast him dead with a shotgun. The earlier shot of the congressional committee is now reversed, the inevitable report that Frady was Hammond’s killer and denying all conspiracy theories now filmed with the camera drawing out, officialdom shrinking to a paltry block of light in infinite black. The cruel ingenuity of The Parallax View lies in the way the entire narrative has pointed to such an end without giving itself away. But the greater part of its force lies in the way it conceives of political paranoia in essentially mythic terms, a warning about blocs of potential power and disruption in contemporary life that could also be a carefully observed paranoid psychosis in the mind of an assassin. When reality has lost all shape, all faiths and creeds corrupted, reality can be chosen by will.

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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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