At the turn of the last century a gambling gunfightercomes to a northwest mining townand uses his money to set up lavish brothels.
Robert Altman's fourth movie is perhaps his most perfect film, an expert and elegant deconstruction of American cinemaís primary myth - the Western - and a fitting elegy for the once noble genre fully two decades before Unforgiven.
Hot off MAS*H, the 45 year-old overnight success seized upon the rather shop-worn elements - the charismatic stranger, the tart with the heart, the lawless pioneer town - at the centre of Edmund Naughtonís simplistic source novel and fashioned something entirely new.
From the opening credits, when Warren Beatty's bowler-hatted hero slops through rain and mud to the fledgling settlement of Presbyterian Church, it is clear that we are far from the dustbowl vistas of Monument Valley. We are, in fact, north rather than west, the final frontier for the true American adventurer.
Filming on location just outside Vancouver, Altman decided to shoot in sequence, allowing his handcrafted timber town to grow in lockstep with the story, with a costumed crew becoming part of the community. The result is a uniquely organic production design, captured with all the detail of wood grain by Vilmos Zsigmond's 'daguerreotype' photography.
If Altman's approach represents a revolution, it is of a quiet, unassuming sort. Save for the whistling of arctic winds and the occasional acoustic lament from Leonard Cohen, there is no score. And the era's golden couple, Beatty and Julie Christie, both shed all vanity before inhabiting the title roles.
Indeed, newcomers hoping for fireworks may struggle to see what all the fuss is about; but just as trying to catch every line of Altman's signature overlapping dialogue is missing the point, it would be a mistake to strain too hard for sounds of greatness.
They say that great actors are never knowingly caught acting; Altman's best movies are similarly effortless - experiences to be lived in, rather than simply watched.