The Stranger Song: Leonard Cohen and McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Robert Altman’s 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a western quite unlike any other. It has in fact been described as an anti-western. Gone are the heroic, alpha-male and defenseless female archetypes, the numerous and gratuitous gunfights and the proud American spirit. In their stead is a quiet, moody and subtle depiction of frontier life on the cusp of a changing America. The film effectively debunks the myth of America's 'old west' and presents characters and situations that are nuanced and resonant; men who are weak, women who are guarded, violence that is random and senseless, and pillars of American society that are corrupt. Altman’s style, especially in the 70’s, is unmistakably distinct - the overlapping conversations, the gorgeously hazy cinematography, and the meandering nature of the film all lend it an entirely authentic and human quality.

A fan of Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Altman brilliantly chose three songs from the LP to serve as the film’s soundtrack. The rest of the film's music is diegetic, either performed by a citizen of the film’s fictional town of Presbyterian Church (who offhandedly toys with a ukulele or fiddle, adding a humorously ironic score to the casual conversations in Sheehan’s bar), or by a player piano in the brothel.

But the three Cohen songs, “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and Winter Lady,” work in perfect harmony with the film and allow Cohen to play the part of an invisible, informal narrator, filling in the blanks left by the naturalistic, show-don’t-tell, style of the film. As nothing much is offered by the film’s dialogue in the way of back-stories, motivations and desires, it is left to Cohen and his songs. And as McCabe and Mrs. Miller swoon across with the film’s patient, meditative narrative, a larger picture emerges, like pieces of a puzzle falling into place.

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