The 50 greatest westerns

We count down the greatest westerns of all time

1

McCabe

Dir Robert Altman (Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois)

Another good man done gone

By the early 1970s, the western had boxed itself into a canyon. Woop-wooping Indians, fusty range wars and duded-up gunslingers were the stuff of mockery in films like ‘Blazing Saddles’. It was only by breaking the western down and reassembling it bit by bit that it could break new ground. No film re-imagines the western myth as powerfully and heartbreakingly as Robert Altman’s dreamlike, snow-covered masterpiece, ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’.

This deceptively simple frontier story follows John ‘Pudgy’ McCabe (Warren Beatty), a gambler, businessman and alleged gunfighter – a fact he never confirms or denies – as he arrives in the mining town of Presbyterian Church, high in the cold, damp, muddy folds of the Pacific Northwest. He plans to open a brothel with the aid of Julie Christie’s plain-talking cockney madam, Constance Miller. Clad in a huge bearskin coat and wearing a bowler hat and beard, McCabe bears no relation to western protagonists of old. Sure, he wears a gun, but only for form’s sake. Our hero is a pimp, dandy, coward and fool. McCabe’s thriving brothel, under the stewardship of Mrs Miller, becomes a civilising influence. It’s also a democratic concern, where one man’s money is no better or worse than the next man’s.

No doubt many will quarrel over Altman’s film topping our list ahead of favourites such as ‘The Searchers’ or ‘Unforgiven’. It’s not even set in what we think of as the west. But we should remember that the frontier expanded in all directions – into the harsh northern territories as well as the furnace-hot dog patches of California.

Some may argue that the film lacks suspense or action. And yet, it contains one of the sweatiest stand-offs on celluloid as McCabe fronts up and then caves in to three company stooges sent by mining barons to persuade him to relinquish his holdings. And the film’s finale is one of the most gripping, explosive and naturalistic gunfights in all cinema. It’s also an extraordinarily beautiful film. Altman offers a portrait of the west that’s dingy, grimy, hazy, stinky and chilled to the bone. The soundtrack is also eminently important to the film’s success, with Leonard Cohen's ballads lending the proceedings a fateful air, a sense that some things are written in stone, and Pudgy McCabe’s fate was sealed the moment he arrived in Presbyterian Church. ALD