If you look at my most recent film reviews you’d think I’m stuck in the 1960’s at the moment. It’s just so happen to have gone that way recently. I chose this film purely on the basis of the director Robert Aldrich who has a varied and interesting filmography, who during the 1960’s had a really strong period of directing, OK there’s a few missteps but no-ones perfect. Most known for his work concerning the darker sides of relationships and the tensions within their dynamic. With The Killing of Sister George (1968) he makes a return to the theme of fading/faded fame. After the success of rival sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) that pitted two women both no longer relevant to the public, relying on their past for currency to try and restore themselves. Of course more famous for bringing together Bette Davis and Joan Crawford who famously hated each other. Together on-screen they produced fireworks, on set a few more went off too. Brought to life recently in Feud: Bette and Joan that dramatised the events leading up to their only film together and there after. It seems that Aldrich couldn’t shake the theme, returning to it after the success of The Dirty Dozen (1967), which allowed him to set-up his own production company. Sister George if often cited as he favourite film and you can see why, a lot of energy has clearly gone into it.
The fictional soap Applehurst, all looks rather quaint now, aging actress June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) fears that here role on a long running soap opera’s being killed off. The worst fear for a lot of aging actors even today. William Roach, the longest-serving actor in Coronation Street feared he’d never recover from his stroke, only to be killed off. Now in his 80’s you could easily understand why. Yet fans of the longest running soap still love this character, even if the actor now takes a less prominent role in the soap. It’s the fear of the unknown, not having control over a character that you have shaped, breathed life into for the est part of your career – such as Roach who has made the role his own and probably the only one of his career, in short he knows little else in terms of his acting career. To be cast-aside without even consulted, the sense of belonging and power you have believe you have on the program is nothing. We are a few steps away from Jane Hudson (Davis) whose own career was cut short by puberty and fickle audience tastes. A theme that anyone in the entertainment world can easily related to.
This fear of lack of relevance, having to start over again brings out the worst in June as we find out, a regular drinker and alcoholic we see her reach new lows that don’t go unseen by the BBC. Sending round Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) to put the fear of god in her. June takes out her frustration on who I first believed to be her long-term lodger a much younger woman – Alice (Susannah York) who takes a lot of abuse. June’s in fact the male of a lesbian relationship. Part of the controversy caused by this film on it’s release in the late 60’s, a year after homosexual sexual offences had been de-criminalised. Of course aimed at men, the subject would still be very raw for the general public, getting used to seeing more overt displays in public of homosexual men. Women were pretty much ignored, making this film slightly easier to make and depict women more than co-habiting. The open secret relationships of the entertainment world are the first to be revealed. An industry generally more excepting of people’s private lives.
June or George’s downward spiral is long and dramatic, mirroring a character from a modern day soap, not the twee show she was soon to be axed from. An alcoholic who gets herself in trouble with the Catholic church to making her lover do unspeakable acts in fits of rage. A woman whose clearly passed her prime and in denial about it, needing the approval ratings to boost her delicate ego that’s supported by her drinking. Ruining everything that matters around her. Unaware that the world around her has changed. When Croft arrives we see another side to her, one that wants to please yet ultimately suspicious of the power that she holds.
There are clear comparisons to Jane Hudson who we see long after the carpets been pulled from under her. Here it’s just about to happen, this is the beginning of the fall-out professionally and emotionally. desperately needing to be taken seriously, to not having to be voicing a cow in her next job. A major difference between the two women in this later film is the relationship, one that’s sexual with undertones of fractures, whilst the Hudson sister’s based on a rivalry that has been boiling over for years ready to explode. Aldrich has taken the same dynamic and sexualized it to great effect, we don’t need to men for fireworks to go off. As we have seen more recently more female-centric films (still not enough though) allowing for drama that’s not revolving around a man.
I have to mention the sex scene towards the close of the film between Croft and Alice, as awkward as it is at times to watch, it soon becomes Count Dracula sitting over his next victim who waits to be liberated from one life to start another. Croft who has been eyeing up her latest prey for the duration of the film is now ready to swoop down and take a bite. Easily read as seeing Lesbians still as group a people to be feared unlike gay men who are now to be seen and ridiculed on-screen.
Both leads are well suited for their roles, York’s Alice the younger woman whose perfect for the role, after being turned down by Julie Christie, who he’s clearly still looking for when he found York who portray’s a victim of domestic abuse yet still able to break free of the cycle which would only get worse. Whilst Reid is clearly enjoying the role of George, the insecurities of an aging actress are all there, the ego, the resentment and bitterness that comes when your passed over or tossed aside. A role that was turned down by Angela Lansbury and eyed up by Davis on the hunt of her next Oscar, something Aldrich wanted no part of for a third time. I can see where the controversy that surrounded the film. A clear shift in tone for Aldrich who was well aware of changing tastes in America and France, wanting to push boundaries himself. A year before the release of Midnight Cowboy (1969) that made the depiction of Sex and Drugs acceptable to the modern audience. The Killing of Sister George was one of those ground-breaking films that paved the way for American New wave to get underway in the 1970’s.
I originally dismissed McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) on the basis that I could hardly hear the actors talking, the action was slow and the soundtrack was much the same too. Then as I learnt more about the film, the director, the 1970’s and revisionist westerns I had to return and find out what it was really about, instead of being shallow and dismissive. Finding something I have found before with other director such as Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah who left their mark on the then dying genre. Breathing new life into it, for however short a time it was. McCabe & Mrs Miller feels as modern as Unforgiven (1992) or Open Range (2003) (which I really should watch again). The tone and look of the film more realistic with Robert Altman in the chair, than most of my favourite westerns. The men and women in turn of the century America talking about modern issues, such as how to trim facial hair or to a buy out of property.
What begins as a lone man (John McCabe/ Warren Beatty) wanting to start out on his own a new brothel in an old mining town. He arrives complete with his own reputation that precedes him, a killer of a politician, someone to be feared or respected. He knows what he wants. He main weapons are really charm, cunning and little business acumen. All that he really needs. The townspeople led by Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois) welcome him and his new venture, a sure winner in a town populated of mainly men. Yet its not overtly adult, there are excited men, at the site of prostitutes in this mountain town, they are a welcome addition. Life just goes on.
Things are going along smoothly for McCabe until he encounters Constance Miller (Julie Christie) a professional Madam who knows a good thing when she see’s it, joining up with McCabe, they form a casual relationship, which on-screen is confused, we never know what they are, they share a bed, the profits, yet its never overtly dealt with, it’s private and confused, like life I guess. She shakes up the business, bringing a different class of prostitutes with her, something the clients will really like and pay good money for.
For a film set in a “whore house” we don’t really see any sex, we know it happens upstairs, it’s just a part of the fabric, so why show it? Things start to fall apart for McCabe with the arrival of two men wanting to buy him out, what could be a profitable venture for him goes ever so wrong, his bravado gets the better of him, and later it gets him.
Only two years into a new century, the ways of the old west, the “whore house” is still a nice venture, yet ways of doing business are changing, to McCabe’s misfortune treating it as a game and little else. He has something pretty good and doesn’t want to part with it. An independent man, who can support himself, proud of his empire, to give it up so easy is not his way. A way that is becoming more cut-throat.
The finale is not what I expected, the atmosphere shifts from a happy mining town, to one greedy for development and change. A quiet gun fight in the snow, are we seeing a legendary gunfighter take up his gun once more, or a man fighting for his life. Whilst Miller, a woman strong on the surface seems to give into addiction, something rarely seen in westerns, simply glossed over, everyone is having problems. The final shootout has more cunning here, unlike the poorly remade fight in The Missouri Breaks (1976) which felt hollow, there was no cunning or wanting to survive, unlike here in the heavy snow that made the stakes even for both men. As the old west was dying, so had the men who wouldn’t change with it.
I’m glad I finally revisited this gem, that pleased me on many levels, the lighting which was far more accurate, as I have worked with myself, reflecting more the time, left very much in the dark. Whilst the sound quality was poor, I soon adjusted and paid even more attention, adding another layer to this modern classic. Which would be far less without Leonard Cohen‘s soundtrack which swept us off to a bygone era when life was simpler yet so much harder. Coming across as bittersweet as Bob Dylan‘s in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), demonstrating a real change in tone in the 70’s for the genre, using contemporary music for the soundtrack.
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) (templeofschlock.blogspot.co.uk)
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) (cinepinion.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Films of Warren Beatty-“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) (mark-markmywords.blogspot.co.uk)
- McCabe & Mrs. Miller (mymoviemusings.wordpress.com)