1. The & in the title. This is a business partnership.
2. The fact that when she is alone in her room at the whorehouse, she is always reading. It’s just such a nice unexpected detail. I was dying to know what book she was reading. A novel? Or maybe a book of economics? A biography? The Bible?
3. The sense that nature is always whistling in through the cracks in the floorboards. The windows are fogged up, the trees heavy with icicles, the wind howls, you can feel how cold everyone is always. Indoors is indistinguishable from outdoors.
4. How McCabe talks to himself. It is never fetishized or dwelt on, it’s not a “bit”, which is the best part of it. It is him working things out for himself, getting his frustrations out. He is not the brightest man, although ambitious. He needs to work things out on his own time, and his choices are not always the best. So he talks to himself when he’s alone. “I got poetry in me…” he blusters at one point. Beatty does not seem to be performing here. It is a classic example of the Private Moment.
5. Keith Carradine’s young friendly cowboy character (his film debut). His character’s death always upsets me, no matter that I know it is coming. He has, what, 10 lines in the film? Doesn’t matter. From the moment he shows up, I like him. I feel the loss.
6. Michael Murphy. I love Michael Murphy. I am happy when he shows up in anything. To me, he will always be the guy in What’s Up, Doc?, but I love him in Nashville (that powder-blue suit) and I love him here.
7. How Julie Christie devours her food in the first scene with McCabe, her hands dripping with bacon fat and egg juice from mopping up the excess with a clump of bread. She is concentrated and starving. Hard to imagine an actress of today allowing herself to be seen like that in a film where she is also the Leading Lady, or at least without making a big show of how “unglamorous” she was being. Christie manages to eat like a slob and still be beautiful and powerful. He stares across the table at her, amazed. Aroused. A woman with such a voracious appetite for food suggests other possibilities. She is unaware of his gaze. Or maybe she is aware, but she is too damn hungry to care.
8. How, except for the periodic Leonard Cohen songs, there is zero soundtrack. Music does not underscore scenes. We are not told how to feel by insistent music. Even the Cohen songs are ambivalent and ambiguous. Meaning is left to be assigned by us, out there in the dark watching.
9. Random overheard dialogue from minor characters, typical Altman style, like the guy in the bar who wonders if he should shave his beard. “I have been thinking of shaving off my beard.” Pause from the man listening. Then: “Why would you want to do that?” Moving on. It is a glimpse, a fragment, there for texture, filling in the blanks of the people living in this tiny town, and the movie is filled with moments like that. No one is a caricature. Even the murderers at the end are not caricatures. They are hard men. They have objectives and goals and McCabe is in the way.
10. The entire sequence with the church on fire. Amazing.
11. The chilling moment at the funeral of one of the guys in the town. His wife (a mail-order bride played by Shelley Duvall) stands by the grave, looking around. She barely knew her husband. She is now out in the middle of the wilderness, a widow, with no one to look after her. She looks across the grave at Julie Christie, bundled up against the cold, and Christie is giving her a calculating dead-on stare. You know what it means. Only one place for Shelley Duvall now. It is brutal. All with no dialogue.
12. The scene with William Devane, the lawyer McCabe goes to see, trying to figure out how to deal with the big company that wants to purchase his mining interests. What is interesting to me about this scene is: Mrs. Miller has advised McCabe, in a panic, to make a deal with the corporation. She knows the stakes. Take the money and go. If you hold out, these guys don’t mess around. They will come and kill you. McCabe is slow on the uptake, slow to realize that he is wrestling with a giant anaconda, but once he gets the picture he tries to find the deal-makers, to say, “Okay, okay, let’s make a deal.” In the meantime, the lawyer, played by Devane, in a subtle scene, so subtle you might miss it, advises him to hold out. “You are a symbol of the little man. The small business owner. We can fight this in the courts.” These are hi-falutin’ words in such a rough world with such rough justice, and you can see a flicker of unease cross McCabe’s face. In the courts? But … won’t he be killed in the meantime? How much time will all this take? Devane is a theorist, a man with an ego who wants to make his name. He deals in symbols, and ideals … and convinces McCabe that this is the right thing. When McCabe goes back to Mrs. Miller to report on the meeting, he spouts some of the theories from the lawyer, as though he has now taken them on – “Someone’s got to stand up for the little guy … this is a free market … someone’s got to make a stand …” These words don’t sound right coming from McCabe’s lips. They are regurgitated theories that may work well in a classroom or a law book, but it will not help him in the crisis he is in at the moment when outlaws are going to kill him to get him out of the way. Devane is “right”, intellectually. But he is dead wrong, when seen in the larger context. Mrs. Miller gets that immediately. It’s one scene, but it’s crucial. There is an intellectual point being made, about politics and economics, and we already know (because we have seen McCabe be unable to add up 14 and 9 in his head) that McCabe is out of his depth.
13. With all his stature as a movie star and sex symbol, I think Warren Beatty is best when he plays a man a little bit out of his depth. Surprised by how little he knows (he’s always got a huge ego), and befuddled and frustrated when he comes up against a stronger force. (Bonnie and Clyde, Reds, even Shampoo). He is best when he plays someone who has all the trappings of a winner, but who doesn’t quite have the intellectual fortitude to be Top Dog. It’s an interesting dynamic, especially with Beatty, in his prime here.
14. I love the perfect blend of hard and soft in Julie Christie’s character. She is tough and uncompromising, she knows what she needs to set up a “proper” whorehouse, knows that McCabe is an amateur (“What do you do if two girls fancy each other? What about when they get their monthlies? Who’s gonna inspect the customers? Because if you don’t, your town will be clapped up within the month.”), and makes demands all along the way to get what she needs. I love how Altman sort of leaps us into their sexual relationship without showing us the setup. We see the start of their business partnership, we see the creation of the whorehouse, and then suddenly there’s a scene where he’s getting ready to get into bed with her, and it is obviously not the first time. I love it when movies force me to play catch-up. And I love how she always makes him pay. But when he is down, and scared, she treats him with compassion and caring. She does not belittle him. She listens when he needs it. She is a strong woman, and in her he has met his match (I love when she quizzes him arrogantly about arithmetic, showing her own knowledge of figures), but why he goes to her, why men so often go to prostitutes, is not for the sex, but for the listening ear and the companionship. That is what is missing for them. Julie Christie plays this perfectly, and with zero cliches. She always seems like a real person, not a page out of the Whore With Heart of Gold playbook. We never once see the two of them kiss. We don’t need to.
15. The last shot. Because of what I just said about Mrs. Miller, as played by Julie Christie, it is doubly devastating. It calls to mind the last shot from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, with a bit of the same reverb: someone consciously losing themselves in an opium haze, as the world goes to shit outside. It’s infuriating and sad. She has already moved on at that point, even though she is unaware of the hell that is breaking loose on the other side of town. She knew what would happen already, and she had let him go in her heart. Everyone is flawed. She is an ambitious businesswoman, a good boss, and a drug addict. I do not have high hopes for her chances of remaining spiritually and emotionally intact after the film is over, and that makes me sad. I would like to think of her going on with her life, sitting in her room at night with her music box on, reading whatever it is she likes to read, enjoying the gentle unwinding of her busy days. But that’s just a fantasy. She will now be lost. She chose it. She chose to be lost.
A real film for grown-ups.