Breughel way out West, with a screenplay by Mark Twain. The point of departure is the mining hamlet in Peckinpahís Ride the High Country (and Corbucciís The Great Silence, perhaps), burgeoning Presbyterian Church is the wild frontier gradually inching into the new century, all wood planks and sludgy ice. McCabe the shaggy braggart (Warren Beatty) rides in with his jumbled reputation and winged-frog anecdotes and swiftly sets up shop in the ramshackle saloon: "Gunfighter?" "Businessman." Whoring is the business, the dim pimp fancies himself the lord of the "goddamn gooseberry ranch" until heís cut down to size by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a frizzy-haloed Cockney madam and a far more shrewd entrepreneur. Robert Altmanís warmest, most lyrical masterwork doesnít so much scrape the mythology off the Western as invent a folkloric form of its own, where squalid grain harmonizes with burnished oil-lantern sepia and the howling wind outside sounds a lot like Leonard Cohen. Beatty in scruffy beard and gold tooth is a send-up of strapping daguerreotype heroes and glamorous Hollywood stars, yet the director has a bottomless affection for the gambler who inescapably overplays his hand, the hazy individualist who mutters "Iíve got poetry in me!" Narcotizing camera rhythms, Christie grinning under the covers as her beau places the nightís fee on a nightstand, "Beautiful Dreamer" on a fiddle and warbled by prostitutes huddled in a bathtub. Corporate capitalism is already there to gobble everything up, a distant panorama of the town at gray dawn abruptly zooms closer to reveal a trio of ruthless hired assassins ready to go to work. Laws are for lawyers in this "just society." The upending of High Noon's triumphant confrontation finds the pioneer scrambling to live up to his own legend, depleted (or is it purified?) in the falling snow while his beloved floats away in an opium cloud. A vision at once roughhewn and delicate, Altmanís cynicism and his romanticism in perfect balance, a ballad and a dirge. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. With Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Corey Fischer, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen, Michael Murphy, Antony Holland, and Hugh Millais.
--- Fernando F. Croce