Filmsite Movie Review
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)

Plot Synopsis (continued)

Later, a loud whistle signaled another major genre film entrance - a female - a reversal of gender roles. A slow-moving, noisy steam-powered tractor from Webster's Sawmill in Bearpaw chugged into town carrying supplies. After a six-hour ride, two of its supply wagon's passengers were identified as they disembarked into the mud:

  • Ida Coyle (Shelley Duvall), the young, vulnerable mail-order bride of much older town resident Bartley Coyle (Bert Remsen)
  • Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a genteel British madam (by way of Seattle) with a velvet cape, gloves, frizzy hair and a fancy feathered hat

Constance Miller deliberately sought out McCabe (she had briefly glimpsed him in Bearpaw). After noticing him, she forcefully strode up to him and introduced herself as "Mrs. Miller." After walking into his unfinished saloon, bordello and gambling house (an incomplete wood-framed structure surrounded by tents), she was visibly unimpressed and offended by the coarse living conditions of the victimized, and then revealed that she was voraciously hungry:

Do you have anything to eat? I'm bloody starving. It took six hours to get up here in that flippin' contraption...I'm hungry enough. I could eat a bloody horse.

He suggested the only place to get a meal - at Sheehan's, and offered a bit of 'frontier wit' - implying that she might well be eating a "bloody horse" there. As they walked over to the only functioning saloon in town, she learned from him that the male population of Presbyterian Church was projected to be "upwards of 100, 125 men before long." Inside, Sheehan offered a menu of tripe, stew or deer meat, but Mrs. Miller ordered a hearty breakfast:

I'll have four eggs, fried. Some stew. And I want some strong tea.

She was clearly McCabe's match - much more shrewd, direct and calculating than he was. She immediately saw through McCabe's dapper facade and insulted him when he ordered drinks on the house for everyone. She leaned forward to offer advice: "If you want to make out you're such a fancy dude, you ought to wear something besides that cheap Jockey Club cologne." McCabe was visibly stunned, slightly offended and taken aback by her forwardness and honest directness.

After she overindulged herself and gobbled down her meal, while a fiddler (Brantley F. Kearns) played "Beautiful Dreamer," she unequivocally identified herself as an experienced brothel manager. She had been working at Archer's brothel in Bearpaw when McCabe had purchased three of its brothel prostitutes.

During a memorable monologue, she sternly propositioned the out-matched McCabe about how to run a better whorehouse in town. She would be the madam of the whorehouse and manage the prostitutes. She challenged conventional thinking about the position of females in society by her authoritarian and assertive challenge to the novice bordello-proprietor McCabe, who could only weakly back down and inadequately defend himself.

She accused him - as an incompetent man - of not knowing anything about women: their monthly menstruation-periods or excuses, unplanned pregnancies, lesbianism, outbreaks of religiosity, as well as hygiene and ways to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases such as the clap (gonorrhea):

I'm a whore, and I know an awful lot about whorehouses. And I know that if you had a house up here, you'd stand to make yourself a lot of money. Now, this is all you gotta do: Put up the money for the house. I'll do all the rest. I'll look after the girls, the business, the expenses, the runnin', the furnishin', everything. And I'll pay ya back any money you put in the house, so's you won't lose nothin'. And we'll make it fifty-fifty...You can't call them crib cows whores. I'm talkin' about a proper sportin' house, with class girls and clean linen and proper hygiene...I'm tellin' ya, with someone up here to handle all them punters properly, you can make yourself at least double the money ya make on your own....What do you do when one girl fancies another? How do you know when a girl really has her monthly or when she's just takin' a few days off? What about when they don't get their monthlies, cause they don't? What do ya do then? I suppose you know all about seeing to that? And what about customers? Who's gonna skin 'em back and inspect 'em? You gonna do that?... 'Cause if ya don't, this town'll be clapped up inside of two weeks if it's not already. What about when, when business is slow? You just gonna let the girls sit around on their bums? 'Cause I'll tell ya something, Mr. McCabe. When a good whore gets time to sit around and think, four out of five times, she'll turn to religion, 'cause that's what they was born with. And when that happens, you'll find yourself fillin' the bloody church down there, instead of your own pockets.

Then, she ended her business pitch about providing financial, intellectual and emotional stability with a wagered ultimatum to be 50-50 partners: "Now I haven't got a lot of time to sit around and talk to a man who's too dumb to see a good proposition when it's put to him. Do we make a deal, or don't we?" McCabe reluctantly agreed, but then later regretted her imposing demands and strict stipulation that before entering the bordello, it was mandatory that the filthy and unshaven male customers visit the bathhouse. He groused to himself about her requirement to first build an expensive bathhouse, and that she had taken the reins and redefined the direction of his enterprise: "I ain't taking no goddamn bath! I don't give a s--t if I..."

The newly-established brothel and bathhouse stirred up lots of rumor and talk, and rankled some of McCabe's workers who were commissioned to construct a fancy bathhouse with large barrels functioning as bath-tubs. They complained and grumbled:

  • "She's bringing them girls all the way from Seattle. Real first-class fancy women, I hear."
  • "I can't imagine nobody payin' no 25 cents for a goddamn bath...I wouldn't take one if they was free."
  • "It's that Miller woman. She's the one responsible."

McCable was also rattled by talk of how Mrs. Miller was running the show and he became overly defensive about the usurpation of his male-dominant role. He snapped back to assert that he was still directing the establishment:

You think I'm gonna let some goddamned chippie come up here and tell me how to run a gooseberry ranch? You got the goddamn saddle on the wrong horse. Them girls'll come up here when I goddamn tell 'em to come up here. As I recall, I'm payin' you boys 15 cents an hour after you've been in them goddamn mines all day, so's you'll have somethin' to do at night besides go home and play Mary Five Fingers (a reference to masturbation).

The ambitious McCabe forged what would become a profitable business alliance-partnership with Mrs. Miller, who promised to transform the initial tents into a classy and professional well-built bordello (and bathhouse) within the soon-to-be booming town and community. However, he was initially worried that she would bankrupt him.

The intelligent and shrewd, high-class bordello manager-madam Mrs. Miller had plans to import five classier prostitutes from Seattle. As she read a book in the golden light of an oil lantern in her room, she listened to her wind-up music box playing Brahms' "Lullaby." Not allowed entrance and essentially ignored, McCabe spoke from outside her door where he whined about finances:

I want to know when them girls is gettin' in here from Seattle. I got them boys workin' on your bathhouse, and I got a right to know. Paid for their transportation. You think I'm nothin' but a bank. So far, you've cost me nothin' but money. Money and pain. Pain, pain, pain!

During a rainy downpour, the new prostitutes from Seattle walked on foot into the town after their wagon had broken down a mile away. Sumner Washington's Tonsorial Parlor wagon pulled up, with the gentlemanly black barber (Rodney Gage) and his wife Mrs. Washington (Lili Francks) onboard, carrying most of the ladies' luggage and belongings. Mrs. Miller instructed Lil to provide the tired and irritable women with a hot bath. The group of five new, heavily-clothed prostitutes were a cross-section of diverse ethnicities:

  • Eunice (Janet Wright)
  • Blanche (Linda Sorensen)
  • Birdie (Elizabeth Knight)
  • Maisie (Maysie Hoy), Chinese
  • Ruth (Linda Kupecek)

The more-sophisticated, gentrified whores were complaining and upset amongst themselves ("My ass is frozen!"), believing that they had been misled to leave Seattle for this forsaken town, as they mocked Mrs. Miller's promises:

You told us there was gonna be a house up here. Keep your hair on. I'm buildin' a bloody palace here for you girls. What kind of customers do you expect to get up here? I'm not f--king any Chinamen. You said in your letter there was a house up here. You call this a house?

But then they relaxed once they were gleefully naked, cavorting, and singing in Lil's prepared hot bath - resembling fleshy Rembrandt or Renoir nudes.

Dogs barked and the wind howled as McCabe crossed town and entered the bathhouse-saloon-bordello, now well-furnished and populated with attractively-dressed brothel workers who took pleasure in sexual escapades. Mrs. Miller's lucrative workplace was a warm and inviting oasis to visit in town - a contrast to the cold and forbidding exterior. A checkpoint at the door had been established to collect money for tricks and to ensure the required policy of bathing. Lil had advanced from whoring to the dignified position of saloon cook. A number of customers from town were inside the new establishment, including Mr. Smalley and Berg. The going-rate for a prostitute was $1.50, but Mrs. Miller garnered a top rate of $5.00 to entertain town resident Mr. Quigley (Terence Kelly). The selling of herself brought concern to McCabe's face before he abruptly left.

Later one night near the saloon's bar tended by McCabe's bartender (Wayne Robson), McCabe was at a desk calculating his business proceeds with a book-ledger: "I've got my tit in the wringer on these books. I can't tell the goddamn owls from the chickens." As he complained, Mrs. Miller overheard and noted his bad mood: "Why are you always in such a lousy temper?" He vented his frustrations about his own realm of business - the failing saloon. She assured him that the other enterprises - especially the two-pronged approach of both a bathhouse and whorehouse, were booming profitably and that their coffers were swelling. She then criticized him for his lousy, inadequate book-keeping methods:

McCabe: Because, my dear Mrs. Miller, I've not only built you your gooseberry ranch. I've paid for a bathhouse I don't need. I've paid for transportation. I've paid for towels and linens and enema bags. I've paid for things them chippies of yours don't even know how to use, but I have not sold a full bottle of whiskey in here today, and that's a fact!
Mrs. Miller: And that, my dear Mr. McCabe, is 'cause every geezer in this town was takin' a bath in your bathhouse, or havin' it off with a girl in your whorehouse.
McCabe: Well, I ain't seen none of that money. And what my books tell me I need most of all right now is money.
Mrs. Miller: (She delivered the bathhouse-whorehouse proceeds to him, and he was impressed) Whorehouse and bathhouse money for the first week. We're a little short on the bath money 'cause of the first-night's rush, but I'll see it doesn't happen again. (She inspected his ledger) Well, I'm not surprised you don't know how much money you've got and how much you ain't. You've got your credit column on a different page from your debits.
McCabe: Hey, I'll thank ya to keep your little nose out of things you don't understand.

Then, after showing off her rapid top-of-the-head math calculations, and for the sake of the business, she reprimanded him for thinking 'small' - and also implied that a woman of her class and caliber belonged elsewhere, in San Francisco:

You think small 'cause you're afraid to think big. I'm tellin' ya, you have to spend money to make money. You want to spend the rest of your life shufflin' cards in this dump? Fine! I don't!...There's gonna come a time when I go to me home in Frisco - in San Francisco - and buy me a legitimate boarding house. But right now, I don't want no small-timer screwing up me business.

He left in a huff, slammed the door, and muttered to himself: "Money and pain. Pain."

One evening during the Christmas season, a fist-fight brawl erupted outdoors over an insulting comment made about Bart's male-order bride wife Ida: "Hey, hon. You work at Mrs. Miller's?" While Bart defended her honor, he fell backwards, "busted open" his head on a rock - suffered a fractured skull, and would soon linger and die. It was the first indication of violence and death in the town. The altercation in the street was witnessed by the occupants of a fancy surrey carriage driving through, holding two newly-arrived polite business representatives from the robber-baron monopoly, the M.H. Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company:

  • Eugene Sears (Michael Murphy), wearing an expensive seal-skin coat
  • Ernest "Ernie" Hollander (Antony Holland), a dignified elderly, white-haired gentleman

A belching McCabe was tying one on before planning to appear in Mrs. Miller's bordello parlor where a birthday-cake party celebration was in progress for Birdie.

Sears introduced himself to the drunken, de-romanticized McCabe as they entered his saloon. McCabe rudely responded: "I'm Roebuck. Who's watchin' the store? Ha, ha." Sears proceeded to express his company's financial interest in the local zinc "mining deposits" and then offered to buy McCabe another drink. McCabe non-chalantly said he didn't care what they did: "You want to buy up the zinc, go ahead. I don't own any goddamn zinc mines." McCabe felt compelled to tell another vulgar frog joke - a prophesy of how the Eagle (domineering big business) would consume the Frog (the little guy):

Hey, you boys know about the frog that got ate by the eagle? There's this big old eagle, he swooped down and gobbled up this little frog, see. And the little frog is inside the eagle, and they're way up in the air, and the frog is workin' his way back in the eagle, and he's workin' his way back. And he looked out the eagle's ass, and he says: 'Hey, eagle!' He says: 'Oh!,' he says, 'How high up are we?' And the eagle says: 'Well, we're up about a mile, two miles.' And - and the frog says, he says: 'Well, uh, you wouldn't s--t me now, would ya?'

After hearing the inappropriate, crude joke and politely grinning, the two emissaries cornered McCabe and made a corporate offer for his successful holdings in the fledgling, muddy frontier mining town: "Buy out all your holdings here in Presbyterian Church." They proposed a substantial sum of no more than $5,500 dollars. Due to his lucky success and association with Mrs. Miller, McCabe had become wildly successful with his saloon (House of Fortune), bathhouse and whorehouse (with classy prostitutes brought in from Seattle), but he had also become arrogant and over-reaching.

McCabe immediately rejected the offer: "Well, that, uh, ain't high enough, is it?" Sears mentioned that Sheehan's smaller competing business had already agreed to $1,600 dollars for the sale of his enterprises ("His hotel, his livery stable, the whole works"). McCabe made an obscene observation: "Well, uh, you certainly got f--ked there, didn't you?" Sears tried to steer the conversation back to rationality: "We were empowered to work with you because we were led to believe that you were the town's leading citizen, a man of good common sense, if you know what I mean." McCabe continued to be rude and repeated the frog joke he had offered to Sheehan months earlier, followed by a very cocky, contemptuous rejection:

I got better offers than that from Monkey Ward. So now, if you boys want to talk business with me, what you gotta do is you got to get your offer way up there in the air, where it belongs.

After McCabe walked away to play a "no-limit" game of cards, Hollander could only respond by calling him "a real smart-ass."

During the joyful party in the bordello, the secretly-addicted Mrs. Miller left the downstairs festivities to find "quiet time" comfort and peace upstairs in her private bedroom - she brought out a concealed tray of paraphernalia and a pipe to smoke opium. Carrying a bouquet of flowers to present to her after taking a hot bath and applying bay rum perfume, McCabe eagerly climbed Constance's second-floor stairs and knocked on her outer bedroom door, interrupting her preparations. After letting him in, he strutted, bragged and boasted about his recent, hard-bargaining financial confrontation with the fat-cats:

A couple of gimpers come in the saloon tonight and offered to buy me out. My whole spread...Oh, uh, it's Harrison Shaughnessy, somethin' like that. Offered me $5,500 hundred dollars... T'ain't bad, eh, Mrs. Miller? And I played it just smart as a possum. I give 'em a 'no,' and I went right on about my business. I turned 'em down flat as a pancake. See, what's gonna happen is, they-they gonna come back with a better offer.

She was dismayed by his ignorant and flippant refusal of corporate business interests, deflated his ego, and snapped back that he may have just signed his death warrant: "I should have known....You turned down Harrison Shaughnessy. You know who they are?...Well, you just better hope they come back. They'd as soon put a bullet in your back as look at ya." She hinted that McCabe was clearly out of his league.

As they talked, Sears and Hollander paid a call to the bordello and made a new, increased and more generous offer:

We appreciate you wanting to take a strong position on this thing. In fact, we admire it...Well, what we'd like to do is, we'd like to make a new approach....You remember our offer this evening?... Well, it was $5,500 hundred dollars... Well, Ernie and I think we can get the company to come up with another $750 dollars. That would make it $6,250. Of course, we'd have to have an immediate answer on that.

McCabe foolishly, stubbornly, and inexplicably turned Sears down a second time - with a resolute, negative response. (Meanwhile upstairs, reclined on her bed, Mrs. Miller was deliriously inhaling opium pipe smoke, instead of aiding McCabe.) Hollander attempted to persuade McCabe with reason and then with increased pressure, but McCabe was still full of himself. He deflected them one more time, to impress himself, Constance, the two businessmen, and others who might be listening in. He suggested another serious bargaining session at breakfast the next day, to seriously consider over double their offered price:

Hollander: You've done a wonderful job here. You've built up a beautiful little business in no time at all. Here we are, ready to give you a substantial gain in capital - an offer from one of the most solid companies in the United States. And you say no. Well, uh, frankly, I don't understand. Uh, I guess I don't have to tell you that, uh, some of our people are going to be quite concerned, you know what I mean.
McCabe: Well, the way I feel about this is that you gentlemen come up here, and you, uh, you want a man in my position to sell off his property. And, uh, I think there's got to be a good reason. Now, uh, I would think that a pretty good reason would be $14,000, $15,000 dollars, but, uh, why don't you gentlemen come on over to my place tomorrow morning for breakfast, and we'll just talk about it. Uh, say about 8:00 o'clock?

To sweeten the deal, he called over Blanche and Birdie to provide the two businessmen with a choice of a drink or a visit "upstairs" - generously adding: "Everything's on me," although the gentlemen ducked out for dinner instead.

McCabe returned to Mrs. Miller's locked bedroom door (as she was airing out the smell of smoke before allowing him entry). He confidently asserted and assured her that he was in complete control of the negotiations as he undressed. She was blissfully high and glittery-eyed, awaiting him in bed with a smile:

McCabe: When you get yourself in a gamblin' situation, you got to know when the other fellow's bluffin'. Didn't I tell you them two tempers'd come back to me? What? I told you that. See, once in a while, if you could just learn to trust me, Constance, everything gonna be a lot easier. You'll find that out.
Mrs. Miller: How high do you think they'll go?
McCabe: Well, tomorrow mornin' at breakfast is gonna tell the tale.

Before sex, the mercenary Constance playfully insisted that she first had to be paid her $5 dollar fee. Cooly reminding him that he was being treated like any regular customer, he deferred to her. On her terms, she would continue to hold him at a distance, at his expense.

During dinner in the saloon, Hollander was fed up and easily convinced Sears to leave town with him, and to give up on their "goddamn snipe hunt" to reason with the ignorant, foolish, and "impossible" McCabe who had little cunning or intelligence ("he hasn't the brains"). They departed Presbyterian Church with no interest in increasing their offer or speaking to him further.

The next morning, Smalley alerted McCabe to the fact that the two gentlemen had left the previous evening: "Ah, you handled them beautifully. They knew they weren't dealin' with no tinhorn."

A funeral was held for the deceased Bartley Cole attended by many of the townsfolk. After a prayer, the fiddler accompanied the singing of the hymn song "Asleep in Jesus" led by the prostitutes. Although in attendance, the aloof Rev. Elliott was not directing the service. Mrs. Miller made eye contact with the widow Ida, whowas undoubtedly left with no other option but to join her coterie. At the same time, making his entrance into town was an ominous stranger, known as Cowboy (Keith Carradine in his film debut).

McCabe was ready to defend himself and confronted the young potentially-threatening dude, who revealed that he had only come to be a customer at Mrs. Miller's classy whorehouse:

Well, I heard you had the fanciest whorehouse in the whole territory up here. Gee, it's been so long since I had a piece of ass.

Shortly later, when asked which whore he fancied, the wide-eyed, sweet-faced gleeful and horny town visitor replied: "Aw, hell, don't make no difference. I gotta have ya all."

The delivery of mail brought a new petticoat ordered by Mrs. Miller, who then offered it to a very skittish Ida. She also provided sexual advice and coached her to be the next recruited brothel prostitute. Ida was worried that her vagina was too small to have sex with the burly and rough miners. Mrs. Miller explained how Ida's marital and prostitute sexual duties/identities were one and the same:

Ida: It just hurts so much. I guess maybe I'm small?
Mrs. Miller: Nah, ya just gotta learn to relax, that's all...Ya gotta take your mind off it, think of somethin' else. Look at a wall. Count the roses in the wallpaper...See, the thing is, it don't mean nothin'. You never know, ya might even get to like it. I mean, ya managed it with Bart, didn't ya? Hey?...
Ida: Oh, but with him, I had to. It was my duty.
Mrs. Miller: ...It weren't your duty, either. You did it to pay for your bed and board. You do this to pay for your bed and board, too, only you get to keep a little extra for yourself, and you don't have to ask nobody for nothin', which is more honest, to my mind. Don't worry. You're gonna do just fine here.

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