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McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Directed by Robert Altman

Warner Bros., June 24, 1971 (US)

Screenplay: Robert Altman and Brian McKay, based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton

Starring: Warren Beatty and Julie Christie

It’s a devil’s claw. Ghost flower. Sagebrush. The many species of cacti. Joshua trees. Tumbleweed. Snakes and scorpions. Camels, coyotes, prairie dogs and porcupines. That life can survive in the desert is nothing short of miraculous. Lizards, Kingsnakes, fire ants. A praying mantis. Hell, there is even a place called Death Valley where life is inexplicably sustained.

Miracles be damned. Life in the Wild Wild West holds very little meaning to those doing the actual living. Disputes are routinely resolved with gunfights, winner take all. Free time is reserved for whiskey and whores and one last chance, double down. Overindulgence is the name of this game. The preservation of life is of little consequence here. If that’s what you’re after, you’ve drifted to the wrong town, partner.

When characters in a Western become more than just the movable parts of a genre, you take notice. When the saloon dust settles, it turns out that a man and a woman can actually mean more to one another than an afternoon catch-and-release (even if she is the madam of the house and you are a paying customer). It turns out that it is okay in fact to dream of something more than the ace of spades or queen of hearts.

Desolate and dire, the wasteland may seem strikingly familiar. The gunslingers and prostitutes may be as deceptive and stubborn as they are anywhere else. But somehow, under the snowy windswept surface of this little town in this faraway corner of the western world—cue Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy”—it just so happens that a heartbeat may still be worth a damn after all. In all that is left unsaid and all that remains unseen, life and love actually do matter, hanging as they always have, as they always will, so delicately precious in the balance.