Robert Altman’s unique style of filmmaking received its best summation toward the beginning of his 1970s heyday, in Pauline Kael’s review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in the July 3, 1971 issue of The New Yorker:
The classical story is only a thread in the story that Altman is telling…The people who drop in and out of the place—a primitive mining town—are not just background for McCabe and Mrs. Miller; McCabe and Mrs. Miller are simply the two most interesting people in the town, and we catch their stories in glimpses, as they interact with the other characters and each other… Lives are picked up and let go, and the sense of how little we know about them becomes part of the texture; we generally know little about the characters in movies, but since we’re assured that that little is all we need to know, and thus all there is to know, we’re not bothered by it. Here we seem to be witnesses to a vision of the past…
It’s an impressionistic description of Altman’s impressionistic style, and it fits well with the public image Altman was just starting to construct of himself: the slightly mad ringmaster of a circus of improvisation and collaborative filmmaking. As with most public images, it has a few elisions. Here are some words that do not appear in Kael’s review of the film, an adaptation of Edmund Naughton’s novel McCabe with a screenplay written by Brian McKay and Robert Altman: “Screenplay.” “Novel.” “McKay.” “Naughton.” “Written.” That’s a shame, because looking at what Altman did with the texts he was given makes the radical nature of his contribution more apparent, not less.
The director himself was more forthright. Although he had a long tradition of minimizing writers’ contributions to his films (ably documented in Patrick McGilligan’s biography Robert Altman: Jumping Off The Cliff), he didn’t pretend he came up with the idea behind McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He just pretended he came up with the good parts of the idea. Here’s how he described the original story and the way his adaptation subverted it in a March 1971 profile by Ray Loynd for the Los Angeles Times:
This picture is the most ordinary common western that’s ever been told. It’s every event, every character, every western you’ve ever seen. I picked the story because it’s the conventional thing.
A gambler takes over a town, a whore opens a whorehouse. It’s her lack of communication with her lover the gambler. A neighboring mining company tries to buy him out. He refuses to sell. They send in three killers to get him and he kills all of them and gets killed in turn. Now that’s everything you’ve heard, every cliché. All I’m trying to say is, yeah, these things happened but they didn’t happen that way.
The guy wasn’t sure of himself. He was in over his head. The woman was a real whore. Which means she doesn’t like it and doesn’t like him particularly. She’s a real whore and here is a guy who’s a bumpkin.
So that’s what happened, according to Altman: He took an utterly conventional Western and inverted its tropes. But like the man says, yeah, these things happened, but they didn’t happen that way. McCabe was an anti-Western from its first incarnation; the miracle was that after making it through a studio development process, it remained an anti-Western.
First, it was a novel. Though biographical material on Edmund Naughton is hard to find, according to the back of his book, Naughton wrote McCabe in 1957 and 1958, while working as a police reporter in Louisville, Kentucky. It would be fair to call it a neglected novel—it hasn’t been in print since 1991, and its last edition was a Leisure Books mass-market paperback with a tawdry cover. (Though it does have a blurb from The New York Times to class things up, faintly praising it as it “A CLASSIC OF ITS KIND.”) Altman said it was conventional—on the DVD commentary, he went further, calling it “no great piece of writing.” But this sells the book short. The great innovation of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, taking the role of the Western hero standing up for his small town against outside business interests, and casting a man wholly unequipped for the job, was Naughton’s idea, not Altman’s. It’s all already there by the first two paragraphs:
The man who had been called Pudgy McCabe watched a drop of water form near the top of the square, white post. The post was one of four which supported the roof of the belfry. The drop formed in a crack and then ran down, until it merged with a line of water at the bottom of the post.
If you got to go out, then give them an A Number One performance, he thought. I never looked at it no other way.
McCabe is paying attention to the wrong thing, watching rain drip while people are trying to kill him. The voice is there already; the colloquialisms and the suicidal machismo Warren Beatty would make immortal. He’s a gunfighter nicknamed “Pudgy,” for God’s sake. Beatty’s blustery soliloquies are there as internal monologue, not dialogue, but they’re there, too: “I got poetry in me, Constance, only I ain’t the man for putting such things on paper. I ain’t no educated man and I got the sense not to try.” And Constance Miller appears much as she does in the final film: As an independent, intelligent woman who has a pretty good read on McCabe’s abilities. And the other thing that makes McCabe & Mrs. Miller so different from most Westerns, which Altman didn’t talk about—the vague, amorphous nature of the mining company that attempts to buy McCabe out, then sends three anonymous killers to murder him—is more pronounced in the novel than in any of the later versions of the story. Here’s how McCabe’s lawyer describes it to him:
Company is like any animal, organism: second it stops growing, it starts dying. Grows by corruption and fear; any man refuses to be bought—no matter that man’s reason—man’s a limit to that company’s growth. You wouldn’t be bought.
Which is standard Western pablum, albeit more anti-capitalist than usual. What’s unique is the lawyer’s plan: He takes McCabe to the company-controlled Marshal and has him take out a statement alleging coercion and corruption—not so he can fight the company, but so there’s a paper record of his existence that can be used in a civil suit after he’s dead. Here’s how he explains it:
“What do you think is going to happen?” [McCabe] asked.
He saw the lawyer fix his eyes on him.
“I told you you’re going to die,” the lawyer said. “Everybody does. Achieve more dignity doing it than you have any right to expect.”
“Damned encouraging,” said McCabe.
“I’d like to shake your hand, sir.”
Then McCabe asked the question he felt had never been answered;
“But why do you want to fight them so much?”
“I hate them all,” the lawyer said, without looking at McCabe at all.
Whether or not that scene’s any good, it’s clearly not “the most ordinary common western that’s ever been told.” Neither is the showdown the novel builds toward. The first man McCabe believes has come to town to kill him turns out to be a kid looking for a whorehouse. The three men who eventually arrive to do the job are strangers. The structure of the novel needed serious changes to become a film (seven of the novel’s 18 chapters take place during the final gunfight), and Naughton’s ending—McCabe dying in Mrs. Miller’s arms; Mrs. Miller preparing to kill Sheehan for selling him out—was a serious misstep, but the characters and much of the feel of the movie are already fully formed.
Producer David Foster wasn’t looking to buy McCabe. As he explained on the Movie Geeks United podcast in 2009, he was in Paris in 1968 to meet with Simone de Beauvoir in hopes of acquiring film rights to The Mandarins. Foster had never made a film before, and many other people had unsuccessfully tried to talk de Beauvoir into selling film rights, but Foster must have been extremely persuasive, because he made the deal. As he was leaving Paris, de Beauvoir’s agent, Ellen Wright (the widow of novelist Richard Wright), gave Foster another novel she represented, Edmund Naughton’s McCabe. (Naughton used his advance on the novel to move to Paris, where he was writing for the International Herald Tribune.) According to Foster, Wright said both Roman Polanski and John Huston had “shown interest in it,” but it was still available. He read the novel on the flight home, couldn’t put it down, and called his attorney Frank Wells as soon as he’d landed to close a deal for both books. Variety announced that he and his partner Mitchell Brower had acquired McCabe on July 17, 1968. On the strength of the material he controlled, he was able to set up a two-picture deal at Fox in September, and on October 14, 1968, Variety reported that Ben Maddow had been hired to adapt the novel into a screenplay.
Maddow had by this time led several Hollywood careers, which Patrick McGilligan has done his best to untangle. He started in the mid-1930s as a documentarian under the pseudonym David Wolff, worked under his own name while adapting Intruder In The Dust and The Asphalt Jungle, was blacklisted, then worked as a ghostwriter until he allegedly either collaborated with or paid off HUAC in the late 1950s and returned to the screen under his own name for films like The Savage Eye and The Unforgiven. The important thing about Maddow is that he’d been writing movies in one form or another for more than 30 years when he began work on McCabe. Here’s Pauline Kael in her review of Altman’s film, astutely identifying what was missing from McCabe & Mrs. Miller:
The fact is Altman is dumping square conventions that don’t work anymore: the spelled-out explanations of motive and character, the rhymed plots, and so on—all those threadbare remnants of the “well-made” play which American movies have clung to.
At least some of those conventions had already been dumped in the novel, with its boneheaded hero, amorphous mining company, and anonymous killers. Ben Maddow’s approach was to put those explanations of motive and character and rhymed plots back into the story. The Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library has two of Maddow’s drafts, and they’re positively ingenious in the way they convert the source material into a more conventional Hollywood Western.
The first major change does the most structural damage. Naughton’s vision of the mining company as a sort of faceless devouring worm is replaced in Maddow’s screenplay by actual human beings with discernible motives, the “spelled-out explanations” Kael railed against. Maddow’s version of lead assassin Butler is an active character, not a killer who appears out of nowhere to do the company’s bidding. Early in the screenplay, Butler meets with several representatives of the company (in a private railcar, naturally) and pitches them the idea of expanding operations into Presbyterian Church. Though a mining company official makes the initial offer to McCabe, he’s working with Butler, and when Butler arrives in Presbyterian Church with his two lackeys, he has a personal stake in McCabe’s death. What’s more, he has a history with McCabe, by his own account having “run him out of White Fork, Boomtown, and Silver Hills.” So their final confrontation is now personal, and Butler is fighting for control of Presbyterian Church and its mines, not simply working for a bounty.
The fight plays out a little differently, too, mostly in small ways that make McCabe more heroic. McCabe still stalks the Kid from behind down a muddy street, but where Naughton had him accidentally alert the Kid when his boot gets stuck in the mud, Maddow’s McCabe can’t quite stand to shoot him in the back, and deliberately makes a sound. In another concession to rhyming plots, Maddow plays up the hostility between McCabe and Sheehan, making it more of a betrayal when McCabe leaves Sheehan’s to set up his own gambling operation, and giving Sheehan a jealous interest in McCabe. As in the novel, Sheehan sells out to the mining company immediately, and tries to persuade McCabe to do the same. And again with the rhyming plots: Maddow lets Sheehan be the one to kill McCabe, watching the gunfight from a distance from an upstairs window and unloading with a shotgun when he realizes McCabe has killed Butler. This gives Mrs. Miller a clearer motive to shoot Sheehan at the end; in this version, Sheehan hires her after McCabe’s death; she welcomes him in, and the audience hears a shotgun blast before seeing her riding out of town alone toward San Francisco.
But even if Maddow is the only person who lets Mrs. Miller leave Presbyterian Church, the other changes he makes to her are unforgivable. Maddow’s version of Constance Miller has none of the strength or charm of Naughton’s. His first draft opens with McCabe meeting Mrs. Miller in Bear Paw, as a client. He asks her to travel with him, as he’s headed in the direction of San Francisco, and she refuses, which is nearly the only independent decision she makes. After McCabe has his gambling operation up and running in Presbyterian Church, he pitches her the idea that she should run the brothel he’s planning to open. Most egregiously, rather than Naughton’s story of two damaged people who can’t admit they care about each other, in this screenplay, Mrs. Miller is practically loopy. Shortly after her arrival in Presbyterian Church, and immediately after sleeping together, she tells him, “I’m falling in love.” McCabe replies, “Anybody I know?” and she answers, “I don’t care if you believe me or not. But I find I can’t stand for you to visit and I can’t stand for you to leave.” Giving all of the power in their relationship to McCabe—even if Mrs. Miller still understands the danger of the mining company better than he does—puts the script back in the tradition of Westerns that preceded it, with their reticent heroes and moony women. It also would have made Julie Christie’s luminous performance completely impossible.
Still, at least one part of Naughton’s original concept is present in the first Maddow draft: McCabe is way out of his depth. This aspect is softened in the next version, labeled the “Revised First Draft” and dated March 14, 1969. (Although the first Maddow version is undated, I am fairly confident it predates the “Revised First Draft,” because the undated version is has consecutively numbered pages, while the dated version has revision pagination—e.g., pages 6, 6a, 6b, 7—and shot numbers, which are usually added later in the writing process.) This is the most conventional version of the story, and it reads like an actor’s draft, with the kind of changes a writer makes to attract a star. In Adventures In The Screen Trade, William Goldman spells out the problems the role of a loser like McCabe poses to a producer trying to attract a star:
The star will lose if—big if—we know he could win if he wanted to. As long as he can wink at the audience and have them know his cock is still the biggest around, he’ll lose, and gladly… Because now we know he’s still the same neat guy you loved on the Johnny Carson show.
Maddow’s revised first draft reads like someone involved in the production took this advice to heart. The motives are even more spelled out now—instead of a line of dialogue revealing that Butler and McCabe have crossed paths before, this version opens with McCabe running a gambling table in the Chinese section of a mining camp, before Butler robs him and throws him out. (Butler has now been promoted to enforcer for the mining company, which wants a monopoly on gambling.) Shortly thereafter, despite having had his hat, gun, and boots stolen, McCabe outwits Butler and his gang the way only a star can: by holding them up with a stick, which he pretends is a rifle. (Nobody turns around to check.) Whatever goodwill this bit of ingenuity gives him with the audience is slightly undercut by the fact that Maddow also has McCabe cut off a piece of Butler’s scalp as a souvenir, like a psychopath. (Perhaps this was inserted in the draft as a sort of poison pill by a screenwriter—correctly—pissed off at having to make revisions that made the script weaker.) There’s also a new, completely pointless scene in which McCabe wins a knock-down drag-out brawl with a gigantic, nameless miner, who shows up for the fight to give McCabe a chance to look heroic before vanishing forever. It couldn’t be more of a sop to actorly vanity if Maddow had McCabe spend several minutes preparing for the fight by flexing his muscles and rubbing himself down with baby oil. But the changes to Butler are what really wreck the script: Now the final battle is a showdown years in the making, even if Sheehan still gets to end it with an anticlimactic shotgun blast.
So it was probably for the best that this version of the film collapsed. In summer 1969, Variety mentioned that Jack Smight was planning to direct the film, but in October, it reported that Robert Altman was now attached. (The way Foster tells the story, he kept the fact that he’d signed Altman under wraps until M*A*S*H was released—he hired him after being snuck into a composer’s screening of the unfinished film—but he may have just meant until people around Hollywood started seeing it.) In any event, it wasn’t until April 1970 that Variety reported Brian McKay would be working with Altman to revise the screenplay.
McKay was a fascinating figure—he was doing time for stealing money orders when Altman got to know him through his correspondence with Altman’s wife, Kathryn Reed. They started collaborating when McKay got out of prison. He was a natural fit for adapting McCabe, and according to McGilligan, produced a draft in five weeks, which everyone remembers as excellent. However, by this point, the relationship between Altman and McKey was strained (McGilligan’s account of an earlier fight contains the ominous notes, “Their line of credit was rescinded, McKay came down with dysentery,”) and between the first draft and the shooting draft, they had a fight over Brewster McCloud. Attempts to repair the relationship failed. McKay’s original draft isn’t readily available, but the shooting draft, dated July 27, 1970 and credited to McKay and Altman, is online. It’s unclear how much Altman rewrote McKay, but it is clear that most of the major decisions about the film’s structure and feel were made on paper, well before filming began in October 1970.
The strangest thing about the Altman/McKay script is that while virtually everything from Maddow’s version has been jettisoned, someone clearly worked from his draft, because a few inconsequential passages (scene descriptions, mostly) have survived, as did the best scene Maddow invented, of Sheehan having his photo taken with McCabe’s corpse. This draft, titled The Presbyterian Church Wager, opens with a shot of the present-day ruins of the town, before panning to McCabe’s arrival. From there, it sticks much more closely to the feeling of the novel than Maddow had. Once again, Mrs. Miller has more agency than McCabe, the mining company is distant and inscrutable, and the killers who arrive are strangers. There’s a sense of the chaotic feel Altman eventually created on set in the numbered lists of ad-libbed lines in crowd scenes. This is the first version that feels like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, structured around the construction of the town, and complete with Mrs. Miller’s final retreat to the opium den. This version also has one of the film’s highlights, the scene in which The Kid murders The Cowboy, which Noel Murray astutely identifies as “the moment in the film when it’s clear there’ll be no more negotiations.” In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind says McKay’s script was “very much a conventional Western,” but unless the July 1970 draft is a complete page-one rewrite, this doesn’t seem possible. (It seems more likely that people were confusing Maddow’s version with McKay’s.)
The film itself doesn’t match exactly, of course. McGilligan credits a number of other writers who worked on the script during production, including Julie Christie, Joseph Calvelli, and Robert Towne. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Warren Beatty credits exactly one: Warren Beatty. But with one major exception (cross-cutting between the fire at the church and McCabe’s lonely death), the structure matches. There are some sharp thematic additions, like changing McCabe’s meeting with Butler into another failed negotiation, and one smart omission (the “Presbyterian Church Wager” of the title—McCabe betting on his own survival—which survived in every version of the story until the film). But mostly, these were cosmetic changes. Beatty later gave people the impression that all of his lines were his own, but most of the most famous ones are from McCabe’s internal monologue in the novel, even though they disappeared and reappeared in different versions of the screenplay. (Credit where due, however: McCabe’s riddle about the frog with wings and “Money and pain. Pain, pain, pain,” are Beatty’s.)
McKay once estimated that about half of his script ended up onscreen, and that seems about right, if you’re only counting lines of dialogue. The only character who is completely reimagined from the shooting script is the lawyer. McKay and Altman wrote him the way Naughton had—as an ominous figure with strong feelings about capitalism. Someone else re-imagined him as a would-be senator with a belief in free enterprise. The effect of making him as much of an oblivious buffoon as McCabe is a clear improvement: It makes Mrs. Miller seem more aware that she’s surrounded by idiots, and makes McCabe more responsible for his own fate. But other than the lawyer, the main characters may sometimes say different words than are in the script, but they mean the same thing. Altman didn’t decide on location to make an anti-Western; he’d had one all along.
Not to say that after all that, the writing was the most crucial part of Altman’s style in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It was essential, but not sufficient. The real truth Kael was getting at by ignoring the writers is that a lot of how the film feels is found around the margins. In the unimportant, half-captured dialogue. In the tiny scenes that go nowhere, while the main engine of the story moves along elsewhere. So although it’s wrong to say Altman transformed a story that meant something different into McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s entirely accurate to say he changed the way the story felt. Here’s another summary of the plot Altman gave Ray Loynd, more accurate than his other story about how he took a conventional Western and turned it on its head:
‘Presbyterian Church’ is about a guy who is riding his bicycle with no hands down the street past his girlfriend’s house and he gets hit by a Mack truck and killed, and she doesn’t see him. She’s on the telephone talking to another guy, and that’s what it’s about.
That answer reveals Altman’s method: the bare emotional core that he could decorate with all the extravagant, elliptical details that make up the worlds of his films. McCabe & Mrs. Miller has a steam engine, not a Mack truck, but it’s easy to imagine Altman making the movie he described to Loynd, and having it mean and feel the same. He’d need collaborators to figure out what should happen in each scene, what each line meant; what each character was like, what they did. But Robert Altman, more than any other director, could take a thin thread—a showoff on his bike and a distracted woman on the phone, say—and wander with his camera through a living world he’d built around it.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of McCabe & Mrs. Miller ends here. Don’t miss Noel Murray’s Tuesday Keynote on the way the film establishes, then demolishes its protaganists through the deals they make, and the accompanying conversation about the film’s weary pessimism, Leonard Cohen songs, and use of the Altman ensemble approach. And come back next week, when we kick off a month of independent horror films with Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street.