McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971). Each of us has movies that we somehow missed, and there is no surprise in most cases. I haven’t seen Ace Ventura: Pet Detective or The Mask, haven’t seen Aladdin or The Lion King or the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, all of them popular movies that don’t quite fit my taste preferences. Robert Altman, on the other hand, is the kind of director who does fit my taste preferences, and I have seen many of his films. The Long Goodbye is probably my favorite, with well-known works like Nashville and Gosford Park right up there, as well. I also have a fondness for some of his lesser-known movies, like 3 Women and California Split. Heck, I kinda liked Popeye, and if I wasn’t very impressed by Buffalo Bill and the Indians, at least I saw it. McCabe & Mrs. Miller would seem to be right up my alley … it has the second-highest ranking of any Altman film on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time (#184). Yet somehow, I missed this one until now. As usual, it’s hard to come at an acknowledged classic for the first time, 40+ years since its release. And I admit the movie got off to a bad start for me once I realized there would be frequent Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack (this is not a knock on Cohen, or on the use of his music in movies, just the use of his songs in this particular case). The songs tell what the movie has already shown, and aren’t necessary. The shaggy-dog feel of the movie, which is v.Altmanesque, also takes a while for the viewer to get accustomed to. You have to give yourself over to the rhythms. Once you do, a lovely movie emerges, one that messes with genre just as surely as does The Long Goodbye. And for all its loveliness, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a very sad movie. But not sad in the cheap way of a standard weeper. Instead, it’s sad because we see how tentative is McCabe’s outward bravado, because we know that despite her competence, Mrs. Miller ends up in the opium den. We want the titular characters to have a happier ending, but that isn’t going to happen. And everything sneaks up on you, because when Altman is at his best, his movies always sneak up on you. 8/10. For more Altman, check out any of the above-mentioned movies … well, you could probably skip Buffalo Bill. For a depiction of emergent capitalism in America that offers a slightly different take, watch the TV series Deadwood. And if the sight of Julie Christie’s frizzy hair sends you into rapture, see Don’t Look Now, where, to be fair, her hair is more curly than frizzy.
Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933). I remembered this being better than it actually is, probably because there are a couple of scenes that burn themselves in your memory. It matters less that Wellman directed than that it is one of Warners’ socially-conscious melodramas. And it’s pre-Code (a bit of a misnomer … the Code was already in place, but it wasn’t pushed too hard yet). Frankie Darro’s a bit much in the lead … he’s always bursting to show what he can do, like Mickey Rooney on the lam. (Darro gets to show off his circus background with a set of backflips at the end of the film.) Dorothy Coonan has a fresh-scrubbed appeal, although her film career didn’t amount to much. By the next year, she was married to Wellman (it stuck … they were married until he died more than 40 years later). And the various action scenes of the teenage hobos are exciting. The ending was tacked on by the studio, and it’s an odd one … a judge decides to help the kids, and there’s a WPA poster on the wall behind him, suggesting that FDR himself is going to take care of those kids just as soon as he can. 7/10. For more Wellman from that period, you could do worse than The Public Enemy. That movie’s star, James Cagney, shows up briefly in Wild Boys when they run into a movie theater that is playing Footlight Parade. And other, better, movies from 1933 include 42nd Street, Dinner at Eight, Duck Soup, and King Kong. Or, if you’re a sucker for Oscar winners, Cavalcade won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1933, but I haven’t seen it, so I can’t recommend it.
Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967). 8/10.