Thursday, 12 March 2015

THIEVES LIKE US - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Altman Dirty 30s Crime Classic on Kino-Lorber

Thieves Like Us (1974)
Dir. Robert Altman
Starring: Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, Bert Remsen,
Louise Fletcher, Tom Skerritt, Ann Latham, John Roper, Al Scott, Pam Warner

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Bowie, Chicamaw and T-Dub rob banks. There's nothing especially romantic, heroic or even mean-spiritedly psychotic about them. They're a mismatched trio, yet their very differences are what bind them as friends and colleagues. Set against the backdrop of the dirtiest days of the depression in Mississippi, much of their time is spent hanging out together; first in hiding after breaking out of prison, then lying low between bank heists.

Played respectively by Keith Carradine, John Schuck and Bert Remsen in Robert Altman's extraordinary Thieves Like Us, these men have doom written all over them. Chicamaw is good humoured enough, but his thirst for booze is unquenchable and under the influence, he's a mean drunk. Even when sober, he's a killer deep down and won't hesitate to blow anyone away who threatens his freedom to dally with dames, suck back the sauce and rob banks. T-Dub is the eldest of the trio and supposedly the brains, but he's a braggart and a simpleton with a weakness for platinum blondes.

Bowie has the most to lose. He's the youngest and most susceptible to falling in with the wrong crowd. It's what landed him a life sentence in the first place. With the potential to leave a life of crime behind him, he makes the only real choice he can. He keeps robbing banks. He doesn't really know what else to do anyway. Holdups are the only thing he's ever really known and he's also deeply loyal to his partners in crime.

There's a spot of hope for him though, when Bowie meets Keechie (Shelley Duval), a woman who loves him and will soon bear his child. We want them to find happiness together, but as a couple, they too have doom written all over them.

It's the depression, after all. We hear FDR going on at length on the radio about the "New Deal" and new beginnings for America, but we know it's all a smokescreen. Doom hangs over everyone, like the thick, heavy Mississippi humidity.

Thieves Like Us has always been my favourite Robert Altman picture from the 70s. It doesn't have the cool attitude of The Long Goodbye, nor the grimy grace and poeticism of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, nor the sardonic wit of M*A*S*H, nor the epic tragedy of Nashville and is thankfully bereft of Quintet's Essex the Seal Hunter. If anything, it comes closer to the kind of muted slice of life exemplified by the great California Split.

What I love most about the picture is Altman's attention to the monotony between bank jobs: the hanging around, the card games, the cold bottles of Coke and cigarettes Bowie shares with Keechie. The stick-ups themselves are not charged with the kind of mad kinetic drive of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde or the pulpy nastiness of John Milius's Dillinger, but they're so low key that they feel like a genuine profession. One of the guys drives, the other two do the stealing. For the most part, the robberies are without incident. In fact, they seem so laissez-faire that once things turn desperate and ugly, the violence is grim. It seems to explode when you least expect it and it's shocking - not in a Peckinpah orgy of violence, but seemingly as matter of fact as the robberies themselves.

The final robbery staged in the film is brilliantly covered by Altman. The cameras are perched above the action, taking advantage of the high ceilings and allowing the superb, almost matter-of-fact manner in which the men go about their business. It's a God shot so fraught with the kind of tension which spells impending disaster. If tension can feel heartbreaking, Altman has somehow managed to do it.

Altman was blessed with securing cinematographer Jean Boffety, who brought a hazy, grainy realism to the film. The daytime exteriors are, for lack of a better word, ugly: cloudy skies, endless mist, lots of rain, muddy roads, greenery to be sure, but always feeling like it's dripping with humidity. The night exteriors are pitch black, extremely contrasty between the big old Mississippi skies of dark grey and occasional flashes of light from a lone closed filling station or sleepy small town street lights or the occasional headlamps of another car. And when we find ourselves with the characters in the drab interiors, Boffety's lighting captures a kind of shabby, somber beauty.

One of the things about the movie that I absolutely love to death is the lack of a traditional score. In many scenes, radios are on constantly - kind of the way people keep televisions on these days. Of course, what we hear are the haunting tunes of the 30s, but best of all, old radio shows like "Crime Busters". In fact, much of this soundtrack is used less as source music, but in fact, becomes the score itself.

Altman takes us to a place that feels long ago and far away and yet, it also feels sadly familiar in a contemporary world where 99% of the population is becoming more poor and desperate. Along with his co-screenwriters Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham, he manages to retain the flavour of Edward Anderson's great novel on which the film is based, but what's even more extraordinary is how Anderson's punchy, yet unadorned straightforward prose jumps off the page and is captured, at least in spirit, through Altman's haunting mise-en-scene.

The relationship between Bowie and Keechie, especially within this context, does have a kind of vapid, almost desolate sense of romance: the inevitability of two young people finding each other in a place with no escape, falling into each other's arms because no other choices exist, is the only romance life can offer. Keechie is a good hearted soul, but she's plain, unmotivated and uneducated. Bowie might well be a handsome young fella, but he's only motivated to steal and his idea of scintillating repartee is when he asks Keechie what the state animal of Mississippi is and upon her answering with a guess, Bowie takes a swig of his Coke and quips, "It's a squashed dog in the road!"

Somehow, all the film's characters are little more than refuse - roadkill abandoned by a life and country infused with despair. It's a story of the forgotten ones. Those who merely existed and had no other choice but to survive in whatever way they could.

When Altman leaves us with the image of Keechie in a train station, patting her belly which contains Bowie's child, she announces in a voice that seems stripped of all emotion and she says of Bowie, "He didn't deserve to have no baby named after him."

Through our tears, we almost believe her.


Thieves Like Us is available on Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray and features a fine commentary by the late Robert Altman. The film looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray. The source has a bit of a battered feel to it, but the transfer impeccably captures cinematographer Boffety's genius in ways it hasn't looked since it was first screened on 35mm.

***NOTE*** The other film adaptation of Anderson's novel is Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night (made in 1947, but not released until 1950). It's a very different approach, but just as great as Altman's.