Through its opium haze, Altman's 1971 Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller still gleams 

Long before anyone thought of handing audiences pushbuttons and joysticks to control the outcome of a work of art, Robert Altman was making interactive movies. A necessary step from the loose-limbed horseplay of 1970's M.A.S.H. toward the kaleidoscopic sprawl of 1975's Nashville, his 1971 Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (screening this weekend at The Belcourt) engages a viewer's attention in ways that make other movies seem narrow and stodgy—especially those controlled by pushbuttons and joysticks.

The movie's set in a frontier mining town just after the turn of the century, and the viewer enters it at the same time as a nameless man, who saunters into a shanty saloon and sets up a poker game. Eventually, among the clatter of voices and sounds, we overhear a conversation in which the man is identified as one "Pudgy" McCabe—Warren Beatty in a scruffy prospector's beard, his Popeye-like mutter serving as his own commentary track.

Before long, the bluff, big-talking McCabe has set up a rustic whorehouse with three scraggly hookers. He thinks big enough to hire a real madam, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), an unsentimental businesswoman who challenges him to open a proper sporting house. They become lovers, for cash up front, and their booming business draws the attention of a corporate syndicate. It will settle this matter of commerce in the ways of the coming century—a hostile takeover.

Working loosely from a script co-written by novelist Brian McKay, Altman created something new in American moviemaking: a genre piece in which the narrative emerges from the periphery—from the buzz of incidental voices, from actions that aren't always at the center of the screen. A viewer watching this for the first time is a stranger in town. When violence occurs, it's not the ritualized gunplay of High Noon or the balletic bloodshed of The Wild Bunch: It's ugly and clumsy and cruelly disruptive. There is uncommon horror in its bleak unfairness and finality—the fate that befalls Keith Carradine's lovably gawky cowpoke is more chilling even than its icy backdrop.

Yet the action, like Vilmos Zsigmond's yellowy, memory-clouded cinematography, gets clearer as the tale unfolds. By the ending's climactic shootout, Altman has fixed the town in our minds as a specific universe, and his piquant ensemble players (including Shelley Duvall, Rene Auberjonois and John Schuck) are its true landmarks. Leonard Cohen's opiate murmur on the soundtrack turns the movie's elegiac mood into melody—you recall the fragile songs with a pang of sadness.

Beatty, always good at finding unexpected dimensions in foolish characters, transforms the boastful McCabe into a tragicomic hero. And Christie was never more vivid a presence; she plays Mrs. Miller as a kind of starved animal who's frightened to feel anything other than hunger. See McCabe & Mrs. Miller today and marvel that it was ever released by a major studio, let alone made.

Email jridley@nashvillescene.com.

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