Thieves Like Us is the last film in Robert Altman's peak decade of the 1970s to receive a DVD release. Who knows why it took so long? MGM certainly wasn't sitting on it in order to gather supplements for a deluxe package; the only bonus feature on this disc is a dry Altman commentary recorded in 1997. But this underrated masterpiece is worth owning, no matter how belated the release and how paltry the fanfare surrounding it.
In the late '60s and early '70s, the Hollywood film industry spun a number of variations on the doomed-lovers-on-the-run-from-the-law scenario. There was the romantically violent spin (Bonnie & Clyde), the poetically atmospheric spin (Badlands) and the cinÃ©ma-vÃ©ritÃ© spin (The Honeymoon Killers), the latter of which aimed to present no spin at all. But Altman's movie about boyish Keith Carradine trying to break free from a criminal gang and falling in love with gangly Shelley Duvall in 1930s Mississippi trumps them all. Only Terrence Malick's Badlands comes close in its transcendence. As in Altman's best films, the crime story (and love story) are the surface-bound launching pad for what the director really wants to say.
Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, Thieves Like Us is a brutally honest reflection and a complete encapsulation of an era, in this case Depression-stricken America in the dusty and drab South. Like the source material it's based on ' Edward Anderson's classic novel of the same name ' as well as McCabe and Nashville, Thieves Like Us ends tragically, the sorrowful conclusion an inevitability. But the getting there is beautiful, warm and contagiously joyous, with the viewer falling in love with the two lead characters at the same pace they're falling in love with each other.
When Altman started shooting Thieves Like Us, Anderson's book had already been filmed 26 years earlier by Nicholas Ray, who renamed his masterful and oppressively grim adaptation They Live by Night. Watching Altman's version, I thought it wouldn't be surprising if he'd never seen Ray's terse take on the story, since the tone is so drastically different. (The commentary confirms that, indeed, Altman still had not seen They Live by Night at the time he recorded the track.)
In a brief comparison of the two films in his book The Films of Nicholas Ray, Time Out critic Geoff Andrew called Thieves Like Us 'arguably the most tender and touching of the iconoclastic Altman's experiments with genre.â?� Where Ray's film gets immediately to the point (and the romance), the half-hour-longer Thieves Like Us is full of rich nuance and delightfully evocative meanderings that provide a more three-dimensional portrait, not only of Carradine's Bowie and Duvall's Keechie, but also partners-in-crime Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen).
Altman generously leaves in more than we need to know about his characters, and we know them better because of it; we see them getting haircuts, taking naps and throwing dead rats at each other in jest. A scene early on, which has no connection to sequences around it, shows Bowie corralling a stray dog underneath the railroad tracks, taking it under his wing and spooning it as he would a lover, only hinting at the eternal loneliness he feels in a world he can't escape. T-Dub's character is established by his fastidious tracking of every bank he robs, as much a brag-worthy validation of his manhood as a box score or penis size might be for someone else. And in one of the best scenes in the entire Altman canon, the robbers stage a mock hold-up with some half-scared, half-compliant children, showing their inability to stop living the myth.
Altman's attention to detail doesn't stop with his characterizations; it's all over the ambience as well. Few directors of the period ' or, let's face it, ever ' really exploited filmic sound design the way he did. He understood that a film's audio palette could encompass more than dialogue and an incidental score. In Thieves Like Us, the awkward gaps in the first lengthy conversation between Bowie and Keechie are punctuated by the creaking of Keechie's rocking chair. Altman's signature multitracked, overlapping dialogue is in top form here, particularly at a dinner scene in which Louise Fletcher (forever immortalized as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) harangues her kids while T-Dub proudly quotes a newspaper article about his latest exploits.
But Altman's most stunning innovation is his employment of period radio serials, news and advertisements, sprinkled as a motif like the intermittent announcements in M*A*S*H and the campaign-bus bullhorn in Nashville. With their references to the New Deal and lynch mobs, the news clips illustrate the reality of the time, while the gangster radio serials exemplify the mythology the movie's antiheroes embrace as their reality. Even the beautiful sex scene between Bowie and Keechie is undercut ' repeated three times, even! ' by a clip from a radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet. How fitting for a director who jump-started his career in radio and, in full-circle karma, ended it with A Prairie Home Companion, an elegy to radio.
Thieves Like Us won't convert many of Altman's detractors. His characters, particularly the brutish Chicamaw and the lecherous T-Dub, are crude, sexist alpha males who feel women are always good for a friendly fondle or slap on the ass. If you're one to perpetuate the fallacy that Altman was a misogynist just because some of his characters happened to be (Filmsnobs.com even trademarked the term 'Altman Misogynyâ?� in its review of Popeye), then Thieves Like Us isn't the film to knock you out of that PC fantasy world. But for those still absorbing Altman's storied career with an open mind, Thieves Like Us is absolutely essential.