Thieves Like Us
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Produced by Jerry Bick; directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Joan Tewksbury and Robert Altman; based on a novel by Edward Anderson; cinematography by Jean Boffety; edited by Lou Lombardo; sound by Don H. Mathews; art direction by Marty Wunderlich; costume design by Polly Platt; starring Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall. John Schuck, Bert Remsen, and Louise Fletcher. Blue Ray, color, 123 min. 1974. A Kino Lorber release.

Altman was a visionary, an iconoclast, and a Hollywood outsider who made such first-rate films as M*A*S*H (1970), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001), and great ones like McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975). He had his failures—the pretentious Quintet (1979) and egregious Prêt-à-Porter (1994) among others—but Altman produced a substantial body of film that compared favorably with the work of illustrious contemporaries like Scorsese, Coppola, and the late John Cassavetes.

In most of his films, Altman emphasized behavior rather than plot and exposition, used a great deal of improvisation, and packed his films with dazzling and intricate aural effects and striking images. Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974) is based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 Depression novel of the same name. Anderson’s fluently written novel centers on three desperate, doomed convicts who have no other purpose in life but to rob banks. Two film versions of the novel were made—Nicholas Ray’s lyrical and powerful film noir They Live By Night (1949), and Altman’s less expressive and romantic, much more understated and naturalistic film.

Although Altman’s film is stylistically different than Ray’s, it’s built around the same narrative as the Ray film. Three escaped convicts: Bowie (Keith Carradine), a sweet, Coke-drinking twenty-three-year-old country boy in prison for murder; the alcoholic, raging Chicamaw (John Schuck); and the older, crippled, veteran bank robber T- Dub (Bert Remsen); all three actors were part of Altman’s stock company. Bowie, the film’s central figure, projects innocence and doesn’t seem amoral, but he also displays little compunction or guilt about robbing, or even killing, with the other two. All three robbers are fairly dim, lacking in self-awareness, and are far from articulate. They are given to telling bad jokes and idle fantasizing about becoming doctors and baseball pitchers. Bowie, in fact, owns a baseball glove that he carries to give him comfort. At moments, they express a desire for domesticity, but their only real option is the criminal life. From the beginning, one always feels these three men who demonstrate a primal loyalty to each other are inexorably doomed.

Altman depicts their actions from a distance without any sentimentality and without ever making moral judgments or offering detailed psychological portraits. He also does not explain away their criminal behavior as a product of Depression-era poverty or as caused by the constricted nature of the small, bare Mississippi towns (looking a bit like Walker Evans photos) where the film takes place. The three bank robbers are viewed neither as victims of pernicious capitalism nor as social outlaws, but just as ordinary people who commit crimes and interact with other people who accept their actions with utter equanimity.

Keechie (Shelley Duvall) and Bowie (Keith Carradine) on the road.

Altman doesn’t allow us to get too close to any of the central characters, though Carradine’s lean, amiable Bowie elicits some sympathy. T-Dub is killed and Chicamaw is arrested off screen. In the midst of an ominous silence, the police use multiple rounds of bullets to kill Bowie, but we never see him die on screen.

The film spends a great deal of time with the bank robbers holed up in the home of T-Dub’s commanding, pragmatic sister-in-law Mattie (a strong performance by Louise Fletcher). Nothing much happens, except for a lot of desultory conversation and their avid reading of headlines about their exploits, while Mattie nags her two children (who are devoid of even a touch of Hollywood charm) to chew their food and eat their vegetables. There is one terrifying scene that breaks from the film’s quotidian tone when a drunk, bleary-eyed Chicamaw insists on play-acting a bank robbery using his fellow criminals and Mattie’s small children in the game. He explodes in a murderous rage when the kids lose interest.

Thieves Like Us is a film with long takes and little action. Altman’s camera closely observes the growing love affair between Bowie, who has been injured in a traffic accident, and Keechie (Shelley Duvall), a naive, doelike girl whose drunken father owns the gas station where Bowie takes refuge. They are physically and temperamentally well matched and, as she nurses him, the relationship slowly develops. Their connection is composed of long silences and sexually suggestive small talk about different gun grips. Their sexual attraction is apparent and utterly natural as they awkwardly find their way to making love. For a brief time, the two of them are able to create a kind of peaceful cocoon where Bowie doesn’t have to worry about being captured, especially when hiding out in a rustic cabin while their radio continually plays action serials and FDR speeches.

Mattie (Louise Fletcher) restraining a hysterical Keechie.

Thieves Like Us doesn’t contain a musical score, but the radio is used as background throughout the film. Nobody seems to be listening to the programs. Sometimes a show like Gang Busters plays while they rob a bank, and a production of Romeo and Juliet can be heard when Keechie and Bowie have sex, but in the main the programs don’t comment on the action.

With Thieves Like Us, Altman has made an atmospherically rich film, both in its detailed evocation of rural settings and its use of shifts in weather—sunlight, thunder, rain, and darkness. The film also displays his characteristic use of overlapping dialogue, barely heard murmuring, and scenes where the frame is packed with foreground and background action.

Altman liked to parody and subvert Hollywood genre conventions. In Thieves Like Us, he mutes the violence, which is an integral part of films with similar narratives like Bonnie and Clyde, and undermines the tension that genre chase sequences normally create by treating them in a casual, leisurely manner.

The film’s final scene sees a pregnant Keechie looking to escape by train for Fort Worth. She’s viewed in slow motion climbing the station stairs, unsure of what direction her life is going. Keechie is a survivor, but with little sign of understanding what she has been through. Altman offers no simple closure, but Keechie goes on, as if she is on automatic pilot, with little likelihood that she will ever take charge of her life.

Thieves Like Us is a bit flatter and more muted than Altman’s best work. But even in this small film, I’m struck by the originality and truth of his vision. 

Leonard Quart is author or co-author of several books on film.

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 Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3, Summer 2015