Welcome to Beat the Algorithm — a recurring column dedicated to providing you with relevant and diverse streaming recommendations based on your favorite movies. Today, we’re recommending must-see classics as well as recent favorites to watch if you’re a fan of Robert Altman’s wintery 1971 Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
A tragedy of frontier capitalism, best washed down with a tall glass of whiskey and a raw egg, Robert Altman‘s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) tells of a gold-toothed gambler (Warren Beatty) and an enterprising sex worker (Julie Christie) who go into business in a remote mining town in the Pacific Northwest. Soon enough, a large corporation moves in on their land, pressuring the pair to think fast to save their burgeoning business.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a feather in the cap of the revisionist Western, an enigmatic genre mutation that persists to this day while its classical Hollywood counterpart remains six feet under. Masquerading under other, equally rebellious, names (the anti-Western, the post-Western, the neo-Western…) the subgenre is defined by its subversions of the sacred notion of strong, square-jawed men whose active heroics defend civilization from the surrounding lawlessness.
Revisionist Westerns will be having none of that, thank you very much. They set their sights instead on deliciously despondent moral ambiguity. These Westerns take a more somber approach towards the Old West’s hypermasculine myth-making, from the genocidal realities of American expansion to the perpetual violence of revenge-killings. Far from passive escapist entertainment, these are films dead-set on staring down the muddier corners of the human condition, asking the hard questions, and frequently leaving them dangling in the wind.
From snowy frontiers to rebellious iterations of an All-American genre, below you will find fourteen grizzled recommendations for fans (or intrigued future fans — watch it now on The Criterion Channel) of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
This article was co-written with Anna Swanson.
Track of the Cat (1954)
A snow-filled clearing dotted with frigid cow carcasses. A cougar, the unseen symbol of the predatory nature of man himself. And a far-flung family, fraying like old rope under the strain of inheritance and dominion. Track of the Cat is an unorthodox Western in the guise of a mid-century domestic drama. Character-driven with sparse locations, William A. Wellman’s film centers on the Bridges family, whose cattle have been attacked by a lone cougar under the cover of the first snowfall of winter. The family includes a domineering, puritanical mother (Beulah Bondi) a blind-drunk alcoholic father (Philip Tonge), and their four adult children. The pugnacious middle son, Curt (Robert Mitchum) sets out to dispatch the bloodthirsty creature with his saintly older brother Arthur (William Hopper).
When Arthur’s mauled body returns, strapped to the back of his horse, the family disintegrates further as questions of authority, betrayal, and control inevitably drive them apart. The intentions of the youngest, quietest brother (Tab Hunter) to marry and claim his share of the ranch only push the frantic family further over the edge. Snowy, tense, and zeroed in on the question of nobility’s place in frontier life, Track of the Cat is a despondent Western offering that, while certainly a product of its time, is a must for anyone looking to expand their understanding of what a 1950s Western can be.
Available on Flix Fling.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
The film might be named after Sterling Hayden’s gunslinger, but the real star of this Western is Joan Crawford. The actress plays Vienna, a saloon owner scapegoated for all the town wrongdoings by her nemesis Emma (Mercedes McCambridge). The two women have a palpable — read: sexually fraught and resentful — chemistry, each seeming to be powered by hatred of the other. Surprise, surprise, Crawford didn’t exactly get along with her female co-star off-screen. Who saw that coming? Ultimately, it might have actually worked out for the best, contributing to the competition between the characters. Either way, this is an electric film that knows Crawford, nice or not, is a legend. It’s her performance that takes the film from good to great and cements Johnny Guitar as an iconic Western offering.
Available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Epix, and Paramount+.
Day of the Outlaw (1959)
Featuring stunning black-and-white cinematography and barren, icy landscapes, Day of the Outlaw is a morally murky frontier tragedy. Our protagonist (lord help us) is Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan), a ruthless cattleman who helped carve out the small, aptly-named community of Bitters, Wyoming. Blaise doesn’t take kindly to the surrounding homesteaders who have a habit of propping up barbed wire fences to manage their livestock. Blaise’s patience has worn especially thin for Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), the mastermind behind the barbed wire and the husband of the woman Blaise loves (Tina Louise). Just as Blaise resolves to murder Hal, a band of outlaws (led by none other than Burl Ives) rolls into town.
Dark, lurid, and unapologetically brutal, few “Westerns in a blizzard” are this blunt and stripped of romance. The final Western directed by the genre master André De Toth, Day of the Outlaw is a sparse and wholly unforgettable experience.
Available on Tubi.
One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
One day, someone will make an amazing movie about the making of One-Eyed Jacks. The film’s winding path to the big screen crossed ways with the likes of Rod Serling, Sam Peckinpah, and Stanley Kubrick. But ultimately, two weeks prior to the start of production, the project was orphaned into the lap of its star: Marlon Brando. One-Eyed Jacks is the only film Brando ever directed. And depending on who you ask, this was either a damned shame or a narrowly dodged bullet. Paramount almost certainly sides with the latter assessment (in the end they had to wrestle control of the film away from the understandably inexperienced Brando). But for anyone with, oh we don’t know, eyes, it’s clear that Brando, the director, is an immense talent.
Fleeing from the law after a bank robbery gone wrong in Mexico, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) seizes the opportunity to sacrifice his younger partner Rio (Brando) to the fuzz. Captured and betrayed, Rio spends five agonizing years in prison, escaping with one clear, furious purpose: to find and kill his former mentor. When he finally tracks Dad down he’s surprised to find his degenerate partner has been elected sheriff of Monterey, reformed and happy with a new, bright-eyed family. Sullen, scoundrel-filled, and melancholically uncertain about the line between the goodies and the baddies, One-Eyed Jacks is an essential revisionist Western that helped pave the way for unromantic fare like McCabe & Mrs. Miller. VistaVIsion never looked so good.
Available on Amazon Prime, Tubi, Pluto TV, Hoopla, Plex, and Classix.
The Great Silence (1968)
If you like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, we’re willing to bet you have a fondness for snowy Westerns. And Westerns don’t get much snowier than this. The Sergio Corbucci-helmed Spaghetti Western follows a mute gunslinger (the titular “Great Silence”) as he defends a group of outlaws against merciless bounty hunters. The Great Silence was conceived as a political allegory inspired by the deaths of revolutionaries Malcolm X and Che Guevara and is highly regarded for how it subverts the expected narrative beats of a Western and the traditional roles of women within the genre. So if the conventional Western isn’t up your alley, look no further for a film that isn’t afraid to shake things up.
Available on Hoopla and Film Movement Plus.
Released the same year as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Klute is likewise known for having a sex worker lead character who is confident and complicated. Jane Fonda’s Bree, a New York City call girl, is more than able to hold her own alongside Donald Sutherland’s titular detective. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoia trilogy, the film tracks the investigation into the disappearance of one of Bree’s clients. But it’s not all surveillance and mystery. Throughout the film, we see Bree wrestle with her feelings and her doubts. Fonda, it should be noted, is excellent, approaching her character with care and empathy (she won an Oscar for the performance). Like Julie Christie, the politically-minded Fonda takes a character that could have been flattened and provides her with nuance and resilience even while battling her own fears.
Available on HBO Max and Hoopla.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Released one year after McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Jeremiah Johnson tells the tale of the titular war-veteran-turned-hermit (Robert Redford). Jeremiah wants nothing more than to disappear into the woods, despite having zero skills to actually survive in the wilderness. To achieve his dream he must find — read: steal — a piece of land to build a house. But this quest isn’t quite a grizzled, solitary process.
Jeremiah makes friends, relies on others, and for all his supposed war-weariness, traipses head-long into conflict with the local indigenous tribes, willfully violating their tenuous trust. Directed by the great Sydney Pollack, Jeremiah Johnson is a despondent rejection of the romantic myth of rugged individualism and the foolish dream that you can abdicate from the culture that bore you. We’d also be remiss to omit the fact that this film has a recurring theme song with expository lyrics, a.k.a. the mark of a damn fine movie.
Available on HBO Max.