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   Progress, Plight and McCabe & Mrs. Miller:    

  A Case Study of an Effective Closing Sequence

How many films can you recall that have an interesting premise, set-up, characters, and  plot twists only to fall apart in the closing sequence? No doubt, probably more than a few. And yet film is such a powerful medium that a good ending can resonate so strongly for us that it plays in our mind long after the credits role.  What exactly makes for an effective ending? 

Although many attributes can contribute to a memorable finale, I think one thing is critical for an ending to be 

effective: proper handling of wrapping up the themes. Failure to do so can result in an audience feeling manipulated and cheated of proper resolution. An example I would use to explore the idea of an effective closing sequence is McCabe & Mrs. Miller (d. Robert Altman, 1971).

 McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a different kind of western tale from its predecessors in the genre. Made during the era when genre revisionism was among the hottest ideas in moviemaking, studios were falling and turning to young, often radical filmmakers for direction. The opportunity to make films that explored themes by unconventional means was more accessible then ever. The two key players of McCabe & Mrs. Miller were pivotal of this age, both experiencing enormous success with industry shaking anti-establishment films –Altman with M*A*S*H (d. Altman, 1970) and Warren Beatty (as lead and producer) with Bonnie and Clyde (d. Arthur Penn, 1967).

 McCabe & Mrs. Miller explores many themes including capitalism, ill-fated love, religion, and the nature of progress. McCabe (Beatty), however, is not you typical western protagonist archetype. He is not a steadfast hand with high morals or convictions (he shoots people in the back). Instead, he profits in the organization of prostitution, facilitated by gambling wins.  Although he prides himself as a man of progressive thought, he is a symbol of obsoleteness. Meanwhile Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), hardly the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold standard, favours her opium pipe to her partner's romantic advances. The end sequence of McCabe & Mrs. Miller emphasize that both represent a period that has past: they are displaced and without hope. The end sequence features three henchmen stalking McCabe. They plan to kill him because he did not sign over his business to a prosperous industrialist (a commentary on the ‘little guy vs. big business’ theme).  His refusal to adhere to the progression of capitalism will have dire results for McCabe. During the entire stalking scene snow is falling.  No person, including McCabe cannot stop progress and time.  The passage of time is represented by the seasons and specifically in this scene by the falling snow (thanks to a freak snowstorm during production). Snow is everywhere and it continues to fall from the sky. Only nature determines when it will stop. Snow, like progress, is a force that is stronger than the wills of individuals.

 At one point, McCabe seeks refuge in the local church. The preacher holds McCabe at gunpoint with McCabe’s gun and sends him away.  The irony of the preacher (with gun in hand) dismissing McCabe while proclaiming, “This is a house of God” serves as a broader symbol for the story. The church was not going to be a place of safety, let alone salvation for McCabe. Much like the church, the town (named Presbyterian Church after the very church from which he is dismissed) is a place where McCabe will find neither refuge nor peace. When the leader of the henchmen shoots the preacher, the lamp from the preacher’s hand falls and sets the church to flames.  Fire, like snow, is another natural element.  Fire, however, is much more threatening, especially for the people of the town of Presbyterian Church.  Although no one offers any assistance to McCabe’s plight, the townspeople scurry to save the burning church.  The fundamental twists that this situation presents are varied.

 First, one would expect that the church would be the one that is expected to try and save the townspeople from fire (hellfire), especially in the town where drinking and prostitution is the two most popular recreations. Second, one wonders why everyone is so anxious to save a building they never set foot in. Ironically, it is the prostitutes and drunks who save the church. Once the fire is put out the town celebrates by drinking and carrying on in a seemingly immoral way. Almost losing the town’s namesake, and the spiritual symbol it represents, is lost on townspeople of Presbyterian Church (in which case the original title for the film “The Presbyterian Church Wager” seems appropriate).  Much like the deserted streets where the gunslingers fight it out, the church signifies emptiness. Evidently the church is not the heart of the town. What appears to be the heart and hope of Presbyterian Church is the very thing that upstages everything else in the sequence - the fire engine. The townspeople bringing out the fire engine feels like the dawn of a new order, one in which technology will dominate. Even the way the vehicle moves – trampling through snow – suggest progression and movement forward. The fire engine, not the church nor McCabe, is at the core of the town’s deliverance.

In McCabe & Mrs. Miller the environment plays a very important role – almost as a character itself. The naturalistic style of the camera and the use of zoom lenses to find the people and the events as they happen give the audience the sense that the environment is huge, natural and dominating. The heavy snowfall and the empty streets heighten the sensation that McCabe is alone in his battle with the henchmen. Meanwhile, Mrs. Miller in an opium haze detaches herself from any concern. We are left to wonder if McCabe realizes that his fight will be futile. Even if he defeats the henchmen, there will be more to take their place. Most western heroes get to ride off into the sunset, returning to the wilds from which they came.  McCabe does not get such luxury.  He is not a typical western hero. He is a symbol of the century that has passed. Technology is the future – the engine that plods through the snow. McCabe, mortally wounded, however, is consumed by snow, ultimately buried by nature and by progress. 



 © NightAngel Productions 2006