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).
& 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).
& 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.
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.
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.
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.