Due to ease of access, I’ll be covering 1974 and 1975 before 1973.
Robert Altman, bless his soul, has probably done more to review and rekindle American genre cinema than any other American director. He was, in his own less radical but no less effective or warped way, a Godard of the American vernacular, which means both that he released films like he woke up in the morning and that his knowledge of cinema history was prismatic and unencumbered by the mortality of mere humans. Remember, he was older than many of his American New Wave counterparts, and his awareness of the past was more fully grown than even Scorsese’s, a far more famous filmmaker but not necessarily a better one. If you put a gun to my head, Robert Altman would probably be my favorite director at work since the 1970s (Terrence Malick is the only other possibility).
Yet who remembers Thieves Like Us? It isn’t Altman’s lost masterpiece of anything, but it is phenomenally active cinema with a sticky, sweaty lexicon for Southern depression and the emptiness of the 1930s. I would take, on any given day, Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, his sideways tilt of the Western genre, The Long Goodbye, his indictment of hard-boiled noir, Nashville, his masterpiece of country-western theater, and 3 Women, his dissection and reversal of New Hollywood psychological horror, Bergman’s Persona, and of course Westerns again. But that doesn’t excuse the near impossibility to hear Thieves Like Us being discussed at all in film circuits these days. Maybe Altman, monstrously productive in his day, sabotaged himself by releasing too many films, but again, Thieves deserves a reputation.
More than any Altman film, Thieves Like Us is a work of place, and the identity of place, more than it is a story per-se. It is, if a story, the myth of a location, that of the American South, and specifically Mississippi, and a re-reading of sorts of the perennial New Wave favorite Bonnie and Clyde with all of the deliberate sexuality and fire-starting provocateur angles moved out of the way for a far grungier, pointedly emptier effort about large, wide frames that swallow humans up. It is not, instead, a work of action and reaction within frames, as was Bonnie and Clyde, but a work of stillness and stagnancy as thick as the dirty Mississippi River itself.
Although it is a violently dirty film, it is not a showpiece for dirt; it feels altogether mundane in a deliberate, conspicuous way, like a refutation of Bonnie and Clyde that intentionally exposes the boredom and everyday mundanity of a criminal life in the Depression. Fitting, as Altman was rather openly critical of the New Wave and its sometimes easy sparks of life designed more to draw eyes than to provoke the heart or the mind. Altman is very much an intertextual response to Bonnie and Clyde and the New Wave, a treatise on the tomfoolery of the idea of recognizing the vivaciousness of on-the-run criminal activity and hard times. To Altman, the asides of callow, craven emptiness in Bonnie and Clyde were but petty attempts to create superficial depth to an otherwise sweat-dripping action-heavy tale. He overstates the claim, sure, but he is onto something about Bonnie’s too self-aware mythologizing and romanticism. He makes sure that Thieves is a work of dripping molasses and sewage, categorizing criminal life as a series of waiting games interrupted by occasional, unsatisfying heists just to survive another day (the camera moves a lot, but notice how the film’s big bank robbery is presented in a cordoned off, stagnant Ozu diorama with no movement whatsoever). The “thrill of the heist” is a foreign enigma, or a recalcitrant enemy, in this film.
It is a film about waiting, essentially, with characters as detached as the central anti-detective of The Long Goodbye, a man who solved a crime not out of a sense of duty or justice or life energy, but out of a the slight stinging sensation that he had been disturbed from his slumber of feeding his cat, and that he would rather be left alone. Or, perhaps, solved a crime out of a screenwriter’s conviction for him to do so, and at every turn, we see him as willfully ignorant and listless and divested as humanly possible, Altman’s intentional challenge to all those noir films where the hero is as cruel and uncaring as possible and the film still asks us to assume the hero is worthwhile. The heroes of Thieves aren’t nearly so vile and humanless, but they are no more effective at doing the things that “movie characters” are supposed to do.
Speaking of which, Altman’s film isn’t angry at those characters per-se; he enjoys them with equal portions of empathy and pugnacious belligerence, as well as mocking bitters. A little sugar and spice then, and nothing here is as willfully obtuse as The Long Goodbye or 3 Women, even if the film is as sensuous. Following a collection of welterweight criminals (the main one played by Keith Carradine) while one falls for an outsider played by Shelley Duvall who frowns on their actions, it is a film where the characters seem not evil but arbitrary and threatened, like they were in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. There, the wintry world was always ready to disturb and engulf the humans at every turn, and the same can be said of the perpetually wet, humid forests of Mississippi. Or, if Mississippi’s weapon isn’t the raw earth, it is the archetypes of gangster lifestyle it bubbles forth and tempts its characters with. Even if Altman doesn’t hate the characters, he also places them within the archetypes of that location, exploring how they sacrifice their own humanity to mold themselves to the types they, and their environment, value.
Essentially, it isn’t Bonnie and Clyde then so much as an episodic comic odyssey about Bonnie and Clyde imitators (Badlands ring a bell?) who approach the staggering and sinuous life of crime with difficulty in even the smallest gestures. Altman was adapting Edward Andersson’s novel of the same name – previously directed to the screen without the scabrous satire by Nicholas Ray as They Live By Night – but he chooses to de-emphasize the caustic romance of that film in favor of little moments of irony. The criminals argue over drawing straws for their roles, only to forget the act entirely. They practice the robbery in the living room with their children and it all goes awry. Their adventures are not enlivened by spur-of-the-moment provocation and lightning, nor are they desperate in their romantic suffering. They are slight, mundane actions, arguably not even actions per-se, that Altman ties together with minimal emphasis on anything but the down-time.
With Jean Boffety (a French New Wave hop-scotcher making one of his precious few trips to America) in tow as cinematographer, as well as Polly Platt working intentionally stuffy costumes, and Don H Matthews birthing some vivacious sound design, the crew plays with irony and artifice throughout. The two main romantic innocents, Carradine and Duvall, fancy themselves in clothes that hang over their lanky, wanton frames like they are children playing dress up in their parents’ clothes (and Duvall and Carradine give wonderfully artificial performances, hushing their awkward lines like children playing out their idea of what adult life entails).
Aural irony abounds – the first rat-a-tat tommy guns we hear turn out to be the vocals of a child playing with fire crackers. Altman characterizes his protagonists as not meaningfully different from that boy; children in costumes playing with toys, or sheep in the clothing of wolves, attempting to take control of an identity and a location that don’t much want anything to do with them in the first place. In a soaking wet finale, Shelley Duvall’s character is left with nothing but her addiction to Coca-Cola, the iconographic pop cultural product du jour around this time, to retain the sanity dripping away from her like so much Southern molasses trickling into a swamp. That is Altman’s cinema in a nutshell: people living their lives by the product, by the icon, or by the fictional image, and people dying by it too.