The idea of Western world as cold and frozen as captured in McCabe & Mrs. Miller may recall the lonely and almost-empty atmosphere of a kingdom in England in The Lion in Winter, since both films brought out contrast looks of their respective background as commonly perceived, yet the strong elements of both genres still convincingly present in the films, either to enhance the genre or to serve as a supporting backdrop.
The former film as discussed here decided to bask itself under the heavy thick of snow, somehow confining the brass loud of Western as usually appeared on the screen, particularly the Western films made in this era, mid-1960s to early-1970s, when Sergio Leone did not hesitate to downgrade the genre with uncomforting violence, at the same time when John Wayne was still around to maintain the dignity of the genre through traditional values of good deeds over evil doings, in a very two-dimensional way at the very best.
The confinement itself then is redeemed by the presence of the two leading characters with their unique traits considered as a breakthrough then. Warren Beatty’s McCabe is an opportunist who often confuses himself with his indecisiveness. He deliberately suppresses himself from his past that made him what he is, yet eventually he surrenders to the past, his own reputation, to a very unfortunate result at the end. It is understandable then that he carries his gloominess throughout the entire film, making each scenes he appeared seemed to be palpable to swallow.
However, the same cannot be said towards Julie Christie, the saving grace of the film. Thanks to her radiant presence shining through her feisty acts, Christie turns her Mrs. Miller as a multi-dimensional character with a mere single look as represented by her generous eyes that speak many things themselves. It is hardly any wonder then that Robert Altman chose to end this film with the camera zooming in Christie’s bewildering eyes, something we seldom see in recent times until another film, Facing Window, does it with the same satisfying effect.
And isn’t that a rarity to see a Western film is almost entirely carried out by a mere presence of the leading lady character? Another breakthrough indeed, from Altman at his playful time in accordance to his famous M.A.S.H..