Knight Scene Study

14 February 1995

Cowboy vs. Kid & Narrative vs. Style in McCabe and Mrs Miller

In his 1971 film McCabe and Mrs Miller, Robert Altman uses a seemingly inconsequential sequence involving two minor characters to tie together a variety of narrative and stylistic techniques which, taken together, both define the film as a Western, and subvert generic conventions. In the scene depicting the conflict between Cowboy and the Kid, Altman embraces the notion of the showdown between almost one-dimensional representations of good and evil, yet rejects the traditional victory of the honorable hero, a move which foreshadows the film's ultimate treatment of its protagonist. Altman also stresses in the sequence certain stylistic components which appear throughout the film, but perhaps are most pronounced in this particular scene, namely the strong use of vertical and lateral planes in the mise en scene, graphic matches, and unconventional camera work that employs simultaneous tracks and zooms. In an attQmpt to ~xamU;&is film as a product of the Hollywood studio system, an au-

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dience might at first be perplexed by Altman's decision to include the Cowboy/Kid scene in the film, since it does ostensibly little to further the plot or to develop any of the major characters. Yet were the scene entirely excised, the same audience might be left with a feeling that the film lacked an integrity necessary in anticipating, or accepting, the film's pessimistic end, which features the death of the protagonist. This is to say that while this ending is unconventional, the story line as a whole subscribes at least to the convention of preparing the audience for its outcome. The brief battle between Cowboy and the Kid, on(Some)narrative level, is a collapsing of the longer struggle between McCabe and Butler, one which flattens the complexities of each character and does away with the hide-and-seek, play-dead antics. The Cowboy fits the type ~~ of the clean, moral, disingenuous lead of earlier comic Westerns, who has not been tarnished by

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life on the frontier. Even his frolicking in the whorehouse seems more benign and innocent than

anyone else's. The Kid, by contrast, is an archetype of the villain who crosses the thin line between using one's wits and being outright dishonorable.
It is telling that Altman declines to

give a legitimate name to either character, as though they were mere generic characters playing a token role in, or almost outside of, a larger plot. The fierce defeat of Cowboy, a force of good, readies the audience to accept the death of the less pure and innocent but infinitely more complex McCabe who, although the film's apparent hero, gambles and runs a brothel. Butler, for his own part, seems as different from the Kid as McCabe is from Cowboy. Butler shares little or none of the Kid's naive but malicious desire for killing, nor does he behave dishonorably (at least no more dishonorably than the film's hero, which is as useful a measure as any))

other words, the playing out of pure good versus pure evil, with the latter victorious, works to debilitate the audience's hope for a comic ending in a struggle between the less good and the less evil. Relatedly, the sequence (framed by two scenes featuring only McCabe and Mrs Miller) does much damage to the construction of the pair's relationship. Although the issue of selling the property or "making a deal" was a contentious one, the scene immediately prior to the Cowboy /Kid sequence establishes a tone of tenderness and respect between the two which seemed to be struggling to emerge until then. That tenderness, however, operates within, and perhaps stems from, the ominous atmosphere that had taken over the brothel since Butler's arrival and cautions against a romantic conception of their relationship. The intangible ill-bod-

ing surrounding the community is only reified with the Cowboy's death, and any budding hopes of union between McCabe and Mrs Miller are shattered, indicating that the literal death of the good and innocent is commensurate with the metaphoric death of romantic idealism. The symbolism of allowing the demise of a character like Cowboy to represent the similar fate of McCabe and Mrs Miller seems at once to conform to and twist the "Western" canon. Altman gives us on the one hand the good prostitute of Stagecoach and baits the audience with suggesIThere could be drawn a parallel between Butler's contract killing and McCabe's indirect contract sex, and it is because of this parallel (and others) that I'm reluctant to paint Butler as less honorable than McCabe. McCabe does, after all, attempt to connive his way out of a fight, shoot at least one man in the back, and play dead to trick and kill his enemy.


tions of a Stagecoach-like comic ending, but then takes this away when he presents the likable but flawed McCabe as a moral match to Cowboy, and kills both men, leaving the heroine to spend her days drugged and alone. On less complicated narrative levels, the sequence establishes the direct bodily threat to McCabe, irrespective of its symbolic effects on his relationship with Mrs Miller and the achievement of the American frontier dream. Before Cowboy's killing, the only ill will Butler directed at him was to "get on the bridge" before he got angry, which turned out to be only a half-serious threat. If Butler had been alone, perhaps the nature of the apprehension would have been different, as well. The random, dishonorable, sheer malicious nature of the Kid's attack on cowboy instills the fear that a hero's death can occur without a justifiable reason, and the Kid could have easily shot McCabe as a minor figure like Cowboy. This attitude grows stronger when considering the behavior of Sheehan who, too scared to act, stares numbly at the precipitous events leading to Cowboy's death. McCabe's community seems hopelessly devoid of heroes, or even men of bravery who can stand up to men like Butler, or even gun-toting children like the Kid. Only McCabe, "a leading member of the community," has any fortitude, and even he tries to back down. Cowboy's demise, then, suggests not only the fate of McCabe in particular, but of an entire community of men too innocent, stunned, or nice to object to injustice. This suggestion extends to the identity of the men as men, as well. When the two prostitutes joke about the diminutive size of Cowboy's genitals, they humble the man who considered himself virile enough to take all the women in the house. This matches the other men of the town who, amongst themselves, are strong and manly, but cower in front of ~ outsider like Butler, whose masculinity is apparent to all. When one of McCabe's friends reports on the arrival of Butler, nearly the first thing he mentions is the exceptional size of the killer. "He must be near seven feet tall." McCabe's reaction is to ask to speak with him, but Butler says "There's nothing to talk about" and that no deals can be made with him. The other prominent men in the film ~ (Sheehan, Sears, the Lawyer, Hollander) continually try to make deal, to talk their way into




or out of something with McCabe, but Butler refuses McCabe's offer to deal, preferring instead to


bargain with the arguably more masculine method of gunfighting.

Appropriately, Cowboy

first arrives in town during a funeral, signaling perhaps the obsolescence of himself and men like h;m. /

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On perhaps the lowest narrative level, the killing of Cowboy serves as an action se""-"--

quence, a tension-building series of events to hold the audience's attention. The previous moment of real tension in the film came during the confused bludgeoning of an insulted man, but the lighting was so dim and the justification so scant, the scene served only to show the effects of an isolated society coiled in upon itself. The introduction of foreign elements, particularly nefarious ones, helped to pick up one part of the plot, and though seemingly detached during the Cowboy /Kid sequence, build a greater sense of apprehension as the film neared its final conflict and conclusion.
In this way, ~s in several others,)...1cCabe and Mrs Miller can be read as a generic prod-

uct, albeit an exceptional one, of the Hollywood studio system, in that it conforms to a variety of conventions, including the appropriate episodes of tension and resolution placed strategically throughout the film. As such, the narrative of the film intertwines with its style.

Altman takes this convergence a step beyond most other genre films by engaging in a kind of stylistic foreshadowing that cues the audience to certain implicit and explicit aspects of subsequent narrative. For example, when Altman opens a scene with a ceramic jug sliding across ice, we have yet to have any idea what awaits cowboy, but the image creates, or hints at, a tension, an impending crisis. As the next graphically matches the Kid's face with the now-still bottle, we might infer that he is to a figure in the tension, and this is confirmed when the Kid fires again at the jug but the sound reverberates as we see Cowboy riding his horse towards the bridge. There is ~e in-':he narr~~wboy approa~ that might lead us to believe

conflict lies ahead, but Altman's use of graphic matching and unconventional shots such as one of the slipping jug, which eventually is shot into the water, pushes the reader to uneasiness 1\ This, combined with subtle elements of the narrative, such as the Kid's arguing that "The trick


is to make it float," cleverly prepare the audience for the Kid making the Cowboy float, an effect which stylistically matches the floating jug. Altman extends this foreshadowing further by assigning Cowboy, the Kid, and McCabe similar deaths. Cowboy is shot, falls into freezing water, and floats; the Kid is shot and fall s into water; McCabe is shot and freezes, covered in snow. Even Butler, who also is buried in snow, is graphically matched with a patch of black ice while Cowboy begins to sink underwater. Again, Altman presents these events in a style which overlaps with the narrative to give the film a remarkable cohesion. Similarly, Altman uses a similar track/zoom technique to

frame McCabe, Miller, and Butler at different moments, an effort that suggests shared qualities among the three, one of which might be a feeling of emptiness or despair. The track/zoom on Butler during the gunfight and the track to the extreme close-up of Mrs Miller's eye in the film's closing shot suggest differing kinds of hollow pain.
If Altman employs tracks and zooms to convey an aspect of a certain character, he also

uses lateral and vertical planes to frame his characters in their environments.

The Kid, inter-

sected by bright horizontal beams conflicts with the Cowboy's setting of vertical ropes. For the first moments of their interaction, we see only laterally-bound Kid and vertically-bordered Cowboy, each centered in frame, and are clued that the two will fall into conflict. When the Kid enters Cowboy's space, he competes for primacy over the center of the frame and the vertical plane. The tension increases, until Cowboy is shot, and we see him for an instant framed with a diagonal rope cutting across his face. Three shots later, Cowboy floats in a muddled mass of water, ice, and leather, free of lines and planes. The Kid, meanwhile, remains as he has been, framed in the right angles of the bridge. The manipulation of planes and graphic matches occurs throughout the film, but it is in the Cowboy/Kid sequence that Altman unites narrative and stylistic strains to produce a work ~ that defies and accepts generic convention. McCabe and Mrs Miller portrays a relatively hopeA

less picture of a community that has lost touch with bravery and surrendered honor as an appropriate means of dealing with a misanthropic world. While many other Western/Frontier





films end more optimistically, Altman does operate in the generic framework which his predecessors created. Narrative issues of honor, violence, and isolated life permeate the film, as do images of the frontier, violence, and death, each of which can be seen, in varying forms, in

other Westerns. But by allowing a scene ~ such as the Cowboy/Kid sequence-which only minor characters, and does not advance plot or character development-Altman against generic convention and towards a naturalistic worl9:.view.

involves works






This is excellent

work on every count.





Knight Scene Notes


14 February 1995

McCabe and Mrs Miller Altman, 1971

Scene notes on Cowboy /Kid sequence, with emphasis on vertical and horizontal bars (such as bannisters, ropes, and railings) and graphic matches, especially in the center of the frame.

A= M=

Action in shot. Mise en scene, shot properties, etc.


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McCabe and Mrs Miller in study with soft yellow light. Drapes and bar form vertical lines.

Cut to Cowboy sequence. Shot 1 Action: Cowboy's horse brought, from right to left. Person waving white cloth

near center of frame, in background. Mise en scene: House and bridge make heavy vertical lines. A snow covered post rises where Mrs Miller stood in the previous scene. Brown and white are the dominant colors. Brown house, white snow.Vertical post in center of frame. Shot 2 A: Whores exit doorframe, with cowboy. Say goodbye. "Bye honey." M: Medium shot. Back of cowboy, front of women. Cowboy framed in door frame, as he is in the ropes of the bridge, later. Shot 3 A: Kisses. M: Medium close, kisses. Shot 4 A: Cowboy says, "Say byeto Mrs Miller." Dog bays in center frame. M: Same. Vertical post in center. Shot 5 A: Four whores. Ida: "Be carefuL" M: Medium shot. Ida on edge of frame. Shot 6 A: Cowboy getting onto on horse, rides away. Women shout things like, "Come back." Shorty enters left foreground. M: Long shot. House is tall, linear. Tall beams, horizontal lines of clapboards. Come back. Shot 7 A: Ida says bye. Shorty scurries into house. M: Same as above. Shot 8 A: Ida calling after cowboy. Dog baying. M: Long shot. Door frame in center; Ida in line with its edge. Shot 9 A: Bearded man looks at Ida and dog. Eats. Walks toward center of frame.

M: Medium of bearded guy, eating walking off frame. Stands next to post on porch. As he moves, we hear jug sliding across ice (before the visual cut). As he reaches center of frame, cut to jug sliding across ice, positioned exactly where Bearded Man stood. Audio of jug sliding.

Shot 10

A: Cut to jug sliding. M: Dominant colors stil brown and white (of jug and ice). Jug matches Bearded Man's position. Track in on spinning jug. Jug shot at, missed.

Shot 11

A: Kid with gun, looking (apparently) at jug. M: Railings of porch, bold yellow, and horizontal.

Shot 12 Shot 13



A: Kid. Horizontal railing. Kid says, "Wasn't trying to hit it." Cut.

Cowboy vs Kid


14 February 1995

M: Kid in center, his face right where jug was. Shot 14 A: Kid says, "Trick is to make it float." M: Reverse shot. Back, medium long view of Kid and Breed. Shot 15 Shot 16 A: Front shot. Kid and Breed. Kid shoots gun. A: Cowboy riding in, left to right. Body in center of frame, where jug and Kid were. Shot echoes. Dog barking. M: Track right. Brown and white coat on cowboy. Shot 17 Action: Kid reloads.

M: Medium long shot of Kid and Breed. A vertical post, which Breed leans on, separates the two. A diagonal rope crosses the Kid. Shot 18 A: Cowboy walks onto bridge. M: Long shot. Ropes on bridge form vertical lines which frame Cowboy. Shot 19 A: Kid shooting. M: Medium shot. Shot 20 A: Jug. Ice breaks. M: Same as previous shots of jug. Shot 21 Shot 22 Shot 23 Shot 24 Shot 25 A: Kid, as before. A: Jug. Ice breaks. A: Kid, as before. A: Jug. Ice breaks. A: Cowboy says, "Hold it sonny." M: Medium shot. Shot 26 A: Kid and Breed. Kid says, "What?" performs slick holstering of weapon. M: Medium long shot. Shot 27 A: Cowboy says, "Hold target practice. I don't wanna get shot." M: Medium long shot. Bright sky over shoulders. Shot 28 A: Kid says, "Get off bridge, saddletramp." M: Long shot. POV of Cowboy. Shot 29 A: Breed's reaction; Butler pulls back curtain, peers out, and moves cigar with lips. M: Wide close-up of Breed, then zoom and track to Butler, pulling curtain. Butler is framed within window panes. Shot 30 A: Cowboy says, I wanna buy some socks. M: Long (crane?) shot of two on bridge, from reverse angle behind Kid. Shelter in background form vertical graphic complement to bridge planes. Shot 31 A: Cowboy saysa, Wore them down at the whore house. It's quite a place. M: Medium shot of Cowboy. Kid Starts walking forward.

Cowboy vs Kid


14 February 1995

Shot 32

A: Kid says, Take off yer boots and show me. Kid walks down bridge. M: Medium long of Kid. Takes lower place on bridge than Cowboy. Cut to cowboy when Kid reaches center of frame. Subsequent shots look slightly down at Kid, slightly up at Cowboy, to approximate POV (at least with the angle).

Shot 33

A: Cowboy says, You must be joshing me. M: Medium shot.

Shot 34

A: Kid says something like, "Take off yer boots, you egg sucker!" Hear and see Butler coming out in background (fairly shallow focus obscures much of the bg.) M: Wide close-up of Kid.

Shot 35

A: Butler and Breed observe. M: Diagonal line (wood beam) across Breed. Post rises vertically in left frame.

Shot 36

A: Crowd (Sheehan, et al.) gathers, medium long. Sheehan and other, with M: Medium long shot. Post in background between Sheehan and other observer, centered. Snow-topped post matched to previous shot.

Shot 37

A: Two on bridge. M: Reverse angle, duplicate of previous long shot.

Shot 38

A: Kid, staring. M: Medium long shot.

Shot 39

A: Cowboy says, I ain't gonna do that. Turn around. M: Medium long shot.

Shot 40

A: Kid says, What you wearing that gun for? M: Medium close-up of kid. Cut on dialogue.

Shot 41

A: Cowboy says, "Nothing." Holds onto rope. M: Medium long.

Shot 42

A: Kid says, "Makes no sense." M: Medium long. Lower half of Sheehan obscured but visible over left shoulder of Kid.

Shot 43

A: Cowboy says, It's a Colt. M: Medium long

Shot 44

A: Kid says, Them's good guns. M: Medium long.

Shot 45

A: Cowboy says, I can't shoot real good. M: Close-up. Bright sky over right shoulder, dark trees over left.

Shot 46

A: Kid says, Lemme see it. M: Close-up.

Shot 47

A: Cowboy loses smile.

Cowboy vs Kid


14 February 1995

M: Close-up. Shot 48 A: Butler and Breed. M: Medium long shot. Shot 49 A: Sheehan and others look on. M: Horizontal lines of railing. Shot 50 A: Kid says, Maybe I can fix it. M: Close-up. Shot 51 A: Cowboy says, OK. M: Close-up. Shot 52 A: Two on bridge. M: Kid in center of frame. Long shot. Crane. Shot 53 A: Kid draws, fires. M: Medium of Kid. Kid in center of frame. Shot 54 A: First gun shot. M: Medium of cowboy, getting shot and reeling. Curved rope across face as shot. Different angle than previous shots (from left side of bridge). Shot 55 A: Second gun shot. Cowboy falls over bridge. M: Extreme long, crane shot of cowboy falling. Track, zoom in as falls, and splashes. Black ice in center of frame, Cowboy slightly to left. Shot from different angle than previous extreme long shot. Shot 56 A: Sheehan reacts. M: Medium long shot. Sheehan in center frame. Splash still sounding. Shot 57 A: Cowboy floating. floater. long. M: Long shot. No vertical and horizontal lines, just jumbled up mess. Shot 58 A: Kid reacts. M: Close-up of Kid. Shot 59 A: Kid walks away. M: Medium long. Shot 60 A: Cowboy floating. M: Long shot. Left of center. Shot 61 A: Butler turns and walks away (left to right). Sheehan approaches, stares. M: Dirty fur coat of Butler matches with black ice in previous shot. As he crosses iced vertical post, camera reframes on Sheehan, walking right to left. Medium close of Sheehan. Vertical lines of panes frame him. Cut when he's in center of frame. Shot 62 A: Cowboy floating.

Cowboy vs Kid


14 February 1995

M: Long shot. Apparently Sheehan's POV. Shot 63 A: Sheehan continues to stare. In center of two men behind him. M: Medium close. Pan left. Shot 64 A: Cowboy floating. M: Sheehan's POV, long shot.

Cut to Mrs Miller and McCabe. In room.

Cowboy vs Kid


14 February 1995

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