Maybe the fact that Warren Beatty has apparently slept with more women than Wilt Chamberlain is what allows him to play the hopelessly inept lover so well. Only the winners know what losing really feels like, or something to that effect. If you knew that his role in Bonnie and Clyde was marvelous but never took the time to understand why, it is exactly the same thing that makes his role in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" even better. It's the way he mumbles and fumbles his way around a girl; a girl who obviously wants him to cowboy up and be more of a real man. He's so darn cute and when he gets all shy and those baby blue eyes hug the ground looking for some sort of traction to use as inertia to will a girl's dress off. It's downright heartbreaking. It reminds you of that time you first got a girl in a car and didn't have the faintest idea what to do next. That's why you love both of these movies. Just in case you wondered.
The opening scene of the movie sets a tone so similar to Deadwood that I'm surprised I didn't make the connection until just recently. David Milch has even said that he likes to think of "Deadwood" as a way of communicating somehow with "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." He calls it "answering one work of art with another," but that sounds like some pretentious bullshit to me. I'll be the judge of whether it's art or not, thank you. In this case, he's right, but I'm just sayin.'
As Leonard Cohen sings, "It's hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky to just surrender," Beatty is urging his horse forward toward his goal of setting up his new dream; a dream quite similar to the dream of both Cy Tolliver and Al Swearengen in Deadwood: Being the Big Dog in a Wild World where anything goes as long as you're the one getting paid. This includes, of course, whores and booze and whatever drugs you want as long as you follow some condensed version of the Golden Rule. In short, Ron Paul's epiphantic version of "what America should be." Unfortunately for Swearengen, Tolliver and McCabe, there is always someone who wants what you have at least as much as you want it yourself.
What does a man do when he's hopelessly in love with a whore? Almost every man has been in the situation where he wondered if his own true love was running around on him, but few men have ever actually been in love with a real live whore. One he owns. That man is in the situation of selling his woman for the very thing which he expects she will give him free and willingly and with butterflies and unicorns on the wallpaper of that fantasy. I think it's easy to see that there is no other probable outcome than violence from such an arrangement. There has to be violence sooner or later, right? And the build-up to the violence in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" is sublime. In "Deadwood" both Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver have violence in almost every day of their lives. It's just a matter of fact. But McCabe is not by nature a violent man. Yet and still, he seems to carry a premonition throughout the film that it will eventually all lead to that. When it comes, it comes in the form of a little devil of a kid accompanied by a bear of a man.
This movie was made by Robert Altman in 1971 and I saw it in the theater when it came out. I knew it was one of the greatest movies I'd ever seen, but I was a whole lot more in love with Robert Altman's entire body of work than I am today. Yet, when I watched this movie again the other day, I realized that no matter how much "3 Women" and "Nashville" annoy me now, there is no doubt that "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" will be required viewing for centuries to come.
Having Leonard Cohen provide most of the music for the film certainly doesn't hurt. Apparently, Cohen didn't much like the film when he first saw it, but revised his opinion later on. My opinion is that both this film and "Deadwood" are as good as it gets.