Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thieves Like Us (1974)

          Watching Robert Altman’s ’70s movies, I often get the sense of a director who believed his own hype—to say nothing of a critical community and a fan base determined to attribute every move Altman made with great significance. Perhaps because his work on M*A*S*H (1970) hit such a sweet spot of political satire, supporters seemed determined to describe each subsequent Altman film as proof of his genius. For instance, Thieves Like Us has long enjoyed a solid reputation as an insightful character piece about Depression-era crooks whose lives are filled with despair, ignorance, and longing. On the plus side, the movie does indeed fit that description. On the minus side, Thieves Like Us arrived midway through a long string of similar movies, all made in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). So, while Thieves Like Us is unquestionably made with more artistry than, say, the average Roger Corman-produced Bonnie and Clyde rip-off, the subject matter and themes are so familiar that it’s mystifying why people make a fuss over Thieves Like Us. Because, quite frankly, if the most noteworthy aspects of the picture are Altman’s atmospheric direction and the spirited acting of the quirky cast, Altman did atmosphere better in other films (especially 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller) and all of his pictures feature spirited acting by quirky casts. Oh, well.
          In any event, this beautifully shot but overlong and underwhelming drama follows three crooks who break out of a Mississippi prison and begin a bank-robbing spree. They are Bowie (Keith Carradine), a young romantic; Chicamaw (John Schuck), a hot-tempered thug; and T-Dub (Bert Remsen), an old coot with a big ego and a bad limp. Between jobs, the crooks try to build home lives, though everyone in the universe of these characters knows violent death is inevitable. Making the most of his time outside of jail, T-Dub inappropriately courts a much younger woman to whom he’s related. Meanwhile, Bowie romances Keechie (Shelley Duvall), the no-nonsense daughter of a fellow criminal. In his characteristically subversive fashion, Altman demonstrates only marginal interest in the actual criminality of his characters—most of the robberies happen off-camera, with Altman training his lens on cars and streets while the soundtrack features excerpts from old ’30s radio shows.
          This raises the inevitable question of why Altman bothered to make a movie about a subject he found boring, as well as the question of why it took three screenwriters (Altman, Joan Tewkesbury, Calder Willingham) to adapt Edward Anderson’s novel. And for that matter, why does a movie containing so little narrative material sprawl over 123 minutes? The answer to that last one, of course, is that Altman indulges himself on every level, letting scenes drag on endlessly and also including dozens of his signature slow zoom-in shots. That said, the performances are strange and vivid, with several Altman regulars (Carradine, Duvall, Schuck, Tom Skerritt) joined by Louise Fletcher and others. Each does something at least moderately interesting. Taken strictly on its story merits, Thieves Like Us is so threadbare that it’s best to accept the piece as an exercise in cinematic style. Whether you find the style infuriating or intoxicating will determine the sort of experience you have with Thieves Like Us.

Thieves Like Us: FUNKY


Will Errickson said...

Underwhelming indeed, and I'm one of those that loves most '70s Altman!

Peter L. Winkler said...

Nick Ray did it better. His first film, They Live by Night, was the first adaptation of Anderson's novel.