When, in the opening of the 1971 western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a lone horseman wades through snowdrifts to arrive in a small town consisting of a few shacks full of hostile and suspicious people, Robert Altman is filming not just a quintessential scene from the genre in which he's working but also the primal scene of his own work. Warren Beatty's McCabe -- a poetic gambler with a reputation -- incarnates Altman's favored type: a lost soul adrift in a soulless community (the South of the 1930s in Thieves Like Us and Kansas City; the show-business worlds of The Long Goodbye, Nashville, and The Player; or the urban wilderness of Short Cuts.)
At the same time, this film -- generally considered one of the director's best -- is elevated by the continuing strength of the western genre, whose archetypal images of gunmen in nascent townships are perfect for this theme. Indeed, many of the genre's best entries, from John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) through to McCabe, incorporate images of cities under construction into their narratives. McCabe gets bonus points for Julie Christie's blunt Mrs. Miller, a whorehouse madam of rare strength, and Vilmos Zsigmond's famously smoky cinematography.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller screens Friday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. at the CineClub, 100 Potrero (at Division), S.F. Admission is free (reservations required); call 864-2026. Also Saturday, Jan. 30, at 2, 4:30, 7:15, and 9:45 p.m. at the Red Vic, 1727 Haight (at Clayton), S.F. Admission is $6; call 668-3994.