Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
There's very little middle ground with Robert Altman; critics either love his movies or hate them. His 1974 Thieves Like Us is considered a masterpiece by some and a bore by others. As is almost always the case, Altman's characters are a fascinating collection of unusual personalities and his production generates a thoroughly convincing period atmosphere. And the film is worth seeing just to appreciate the wonderfully eccentric actress Shelley Duvall. But viewers expecting a taut story may be disappointed, as Altman seems uninterested in the thematic tension of Edward Anderson's Depression-era crime novel.
Bank robber T-Dub Masefield (Bert Remsen) springs his partner Chicamaw (John Schuck) from a prison farm along with convicted murderer Bowie Bowers (Keith Carradine), a relative innocent who has been in jail from the age of 14. The trio hides out with T-Dub's sister Mattie (Louise Fletcher) and sometimes with Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), a crooked gas station owner. Mobley's daughter Keechie (Shelley Duvall) takes a shine to Bowie and doesn't seem to mind his life of crime. The three fugitives rob several banks and are planning bigger capers; T-Dub takes up with the rather young Lula (Ann Latham) while the 'half breed' Chicamaw becomes bitter because he has no female companionship. Chicamaw murders two lawmen while freeing Bowie from a car crash. Keechie nurses Bowie and they become lovers. Bowie's partners are soon resentful of the young couple's commitment to one another. The rewards placed on the three are a temptation for the people with whom they hide ... friends and relatives alike.
The story of Thieves Like Us has inspired several filmmakers, most notably Nicholas Ray in his superb debut picture They Live by Night. That 1949 show starred Farley Granger and Kathy O'Donnell as star-crossed lover-fugitives "who were never properly introduced to the world." Other rural-bandit Romeo and Juliet movies followed, most noticeably Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy. Arthur Penn's more recent 1967 hit Bonnie & Clyde started a welcome trend toward more accurate period art direction in American movies. Thieves Like Us evokes the same 1930s Depression era, with F.D.R. on the radio and Coca-Cola selling for 5 cents. Robert Altman's long-lens shooting style adds a distancing effect, a kind of visual commentary on the past. Altman also keeps our emotional involvement in Anderson's story at an equal remove.
Nicholas Ray simplified the tale of Keechie and Bowie but Altman prefers to set his characters adrift in events that are never more than half-explained. The characterizations remain vivid. T-Dub and Chicamaw are entertaining eccentrics who can turn murderous without much provocation. As nobody in the film seems particularly concerned about being caught or betrayed to the law, it's difficult to become worked up over their eventual fates. It's a toss-up to decide whether the characters are shallow, or if Altman simply refuses to impose filmic judgments on them. Chicamaw seems bitter about being a half-breed Indian and not having a woman of his own, but the film doesn't identify these tensions as the root cause of his frequent violence.
The source book definitely had a social statement to make, with its story of the relative innocents Keechie and Bowie victimized by a society that unfairly labels them as mad-dog fugitives. The script by Calder Willingham and Joan Tewkesbury lets them be what they are. Keechie is the ignorant daughter of a crooked mechanic and Bowie is a teen murderer who no longer cares who he might kill. Instead of being traumatized by Chicamaw's cold-blooded slayings or angry that the media are exaggerating his menace, Bowie just shrugs his shoulders. It's no big deal.
The heart of Thieves Like Us is Altman's greatest discovery, Shelley Duvall. Awkward, ungainly and nobody's idea of a beauty, the endearing Duvall nevertheless projects a full range of emotions. Her Keechie becomes a loyal companion to Bowie, rebelling only when he reneges on his promise to abandon his bank-robbing habits. The latter part of the film and its wrenching climax are all Keechie's; she even overcomes the woefully under-directed moment when Mattie tells her she's going to have a baby.
Altman underscores his characters with a constant chorus of authentic Depression-era radio shows. Some of the songs comment on the proceedings while descriptions of the dashing serial hero in a radio drama counterpoint the actions of our less-noble robbers. This radio accompaniment is much smoother than the sarcastic loudspeaker announcements in Altman's M*A*S*H. Droll humor also prevails, as T-Dub and Chicamaw constantly throw smart remarks at each other. T-Dub jokes and kids while he aggressively molests Lula. Bowie seeks to cheer up Keechie with a series of lame jokes: "What's the Mississippi state tree? A telephone pole."
When the band of bank robbers eventually falls apart, it's like a bad joke without a punch line. To repay Chicamaw for saving him after the car accident, Bowie returns the favor by busting his buddy out of a prison farm. The sequence is almost comic in form. Chicamaw needlessly murders Al Scott's annoying prison warden. After risking so much to free his comrade, Bowie ditches Chicamaw on the road, because he insults Keechie.
Edward Anderson envisioned Keechie and Bowie as martyrs of an unfeeling society. Nicholas Ray also played the finale as high tragedy, emphasizing Mattie's Judas-like betrayal. The unhappy woman turns in the desperate Bowie and the pregnant Keechie in the hope of freeing her own husband from prison. Inexplicably, Altman leaves Mattie's motivation unexplained. Bowie disappears into a shack and is killed off-screen; Keechie screams in shock as Mattie restrains her from interfering with the faceless posse. We feel Keechie's anguish but little else. It's as if Altman wanted to exclude all elements that might interfere with Keechie's subjective experience.
MGM/Fox's DVD of Thieves Like Us presents Altman's eccentric mood piece in a beautiful enhanced transfer. Jean Boffety's handsome, hazy photography finds good compositions in all of those telephoto master shots, and the film's sound design is so interesting that we don't notice the absence of a conventional music score.
The one extra is a full-length commentary from the late director, recorded in 1996. It has few revelations and many silent passages. Watching the film again, Altman praises his cameraman and talks forever about the place of Coca-Cola in the film, but has little to say about Shelley Duvall. Altman likes Thieves Like Us quite a bit; he made it for United Artists, which rejected his script for Nashville. That film ended up being a big hit while Thieves Like Us did next to no business. The general run poster shows a comic bank robbery scene that looks like a bad take on Bonnie and Clyde.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thieves Like Us rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary with director Robert Altman
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 25, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson