Is McCabe & Mrs. Miller a film about Gentrification?

Photo courtesy of IMDb.com

Robert Altman’s classic film McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of the best anti-Hollywood, anti-hero pieces from the 1970’s, a decade which perfected the anti-hero genre. I believe, however, that the film may have been a foreshadowing of something that, almost 50 years later, is sweeping through the communities all over the world, displacing residents, and ruining small businesses. I’m talking about “gentrification.”

When we first meet John McCabe, he is a lone rider, stalking through the wilderness to the haunting sounds of Leonard Cohen on the guitar. Shrouded in mystery, the residents of the mining town are apprehensive when McCabe arrives and sets up shop, dealing poker at Pat Sheehans inn. It doesn’t take long before we realize that McCabe is a shrewd operator with his sights set on setting up shop in the town and making money. McCabe sets up a gambling saloon along with a makeshift brothel of tents. In a town full of men, miners, McCabe knows his customers wants and needs. For this reason, his business quickly takes off. At the same time, we see that John McCabe is not a cold hearted businessman looking for a quick score. With his business thriving he also contributes to his fellow townsfolk and the town starts to boom.

The arrival of Mrs. Miller, a beautiful & icy cold Julie Christie, throws a slight wrench into McCabe’s plans. Being a professional and successful ‘Madam’, Mrs. Miller immediately thrusts herself into McCabe’s operation and makes herself a partner. McCabe now has to cope with not only a strong and determined woman but one that he is very attracted to. The two small business tycoons end up falling for each other and for a short while they are blissfully in love and enjoying their booming business, albeit a very unsavory business, but this is the Wild West.

The film changes dramatically when two representatives from the ‘Sears’ company show up looking to buy out McCabe and take over his very successful business. It’s hard to watch this scene and not think of the thousands of small businesses around the world that have been bullied into selling or shutting down by big corporate entities. Wild West type bullying comes in the form of three assassins descending on the town to take care of John McCabe and it ends as you would imagine it but it still is relevant to today’s bullying of small business. The modern day John McCabe feels the passive-aggressive bullying from corporations & cannot stand up to them in a dramatic shoot out in the snow. Instead it’s just another ‘For Sale’ sign in the window where a small business that was vital to a community used to be.

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