Though little noted, Robert Altman’s iconoclastic high-tide as gonzo director/cultural guru lasted only six years, from M*A*S*H* in 1970 to NASHVILLE/‘75.* Even within it, only five of eight hold up, but none more so than this NorthWest pipedream of a Western. A literal pipedream for Julie Christie’s opium smoking Mrs. Miller, the entrepreneurial prostitute with a business proposition for Warren Beatty’s slow-on-the-uptake gamblin’ man. Together, as a scrappy mining town goes up, they build & run a dream whore house that draws in free-spending customers and death-dealing competitors. With a refracted physical & narrative design that always serves the story, Altman loads on gorgeous ensemble work in every corner. Something of a necessity with Altman & cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond pulling focus on secondary characters at any given moment in his tenderly ‘distressed’ film stock. More of that pipedream effect, extended from image to sound & narrative, as if thru mist & memory. All capped by a heaven-sent snowstorm finale as McCabe attempts to outwit three professional gunmen who’ve shown their colors in an unforgettable encounter with young buck Keith Carradine in his winning debut. A stunning piece of violence, one of the best things Altman ever did. As is the entire pic.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Modern viewers have few problem with Altman’s cluttered sound design & multi-layered dialogue. But what a brouhaha it made back in the day! One reason was that while Altman & his team worked with state-of-the-art equipment, the final ‘mono’ mix (later films used multi-track formats) was eventually played in ancient sound systems at local bijoux whose speakers and acoustic design were decades out of date, designed to ‘warm up’ dryly recorded optical soundtracks. They turned sophisticated sound design to mush. (So don’t wimp out and turn on the subtitles.)
DOUBLE-BILL: *Two of Altman’s best from this golden period never caught on, then or now: THIEVES LIKE US and CALIFORNIA SPLIT/ both 1974.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Apparently, Warners hadn’t a clue on how to sell this. See poster.