Part of what drew me to this film in the first place was the idea put forth by its director Robert Altman (famous for directing M*A*S*H the movie) that it was in fact an “anti-Western film” because it turns a number of Western conventions on their heads. Even the opening scene makes the case for that idea – the presumed “hero,” John McCabe, does not come into town boldly and loudly. He rides in slowly, quietly, with a pack mule in tow. Leonard Cohen provides the soundtrack in the background, a soft and dark melody about strangers that fits well with the darkened images in the frame. The West, in this case a small town in the northwest United States, does not appear particularly wild, fruitful, or backlit and has already been inhabited by miners – who, interestingly enough, do not exemplify hard work and progress so much as they do laziness and drunkenness. This is already a West not of opportunity, but of opportunists.
McCabe himself continues to subvert a number of Western tropes. Instead of carrying a Smith Westin, he carries some sort of Swedish gun, which causes confusion and speculation amongst several town folk at the saloon. He smokes cigars. He gambles. Instead of inhabiting the role of cowboy, bandit, sheriff, or villain, he uses his newfound power to build a brothel and coordinate with an opium-addicted British madam. Though he possesses a reputation of toughness through his aggressive personality and rumors that he’s a gunfighter, McCabe never actually uses a firearm until the final shootout forces him to from hidden locations, and even then he dies in the process. It cannot really even be considered an honorable death – he dies not defending the town, but defending his own monetary interests. Greed put a price on his head, and even as Mrs. Miller eventually succeeds in reasoning with him, he must pay it.
The presentation of the West as a rather gloomy place full of hustlers and failed dreams makes more sense considering the film’s 1971 production date. Altman relies on developing the sense of the town and its inhabitants – and it is their flaws that make them so real in their humanity – more than he does typical Western “shorthand.” The hero dies in the end, but business will continue as usual. It always does.