Thieves Like Us uses the template of a bank robber movie to represent moments from the American Depression. Each scene plays out with equal measure given to humor, pathos, eccentricity of character, the unpredictability of life, and the blundering work of getting through the day as a human being. It’s emblematic of Robert Altman’s human (and humane) universe. At the dinner table, a crook reads from the newspaper about his gang’s exploits while the lady of the house is henpecking at the children to chew their food and eat their vegetables, and when our anti-hero discovers they are wanted dead or alive, an eerie pall is cast over the table as the stoic woman relays what is for dessert.
In another passage, three hooligans staying at a boarding house plan out their robbery using the local kids and a disaffected moll as actors and a few upturned chairs to represent the teller’s booths, and in this scene-within-a-scene one of the robbers tries to frisk the beautiful girl as the children willingly engage in the fantasy world (one of them even plays a porter in blackface). The crooks have had a little too much to drink, and when the mock heist doesn’t go as well as planned, the gang member with the shortest fuse starts screaming at the kids and waving his gun threateningly.
Altman lingers on the long, slow Southern days of these dim-witted bank robbers, and even though none of them are presented as very smart, witty, or smooth, the simple fact that we spend a great deal of time quietly observing them endears them to the viewer in a strange way. We may not even like them, but as they babble through philosophy or complain about their clothes or dream of having lots of money as the New Deal promises better days ahead, we feel like we understand them in some small way.
The central thief, Bowie (Keith Carradine), is a convicted murderer, yet he’s not played as remotely amoral, but as a Coke-drinking country boy who drifts from one situation to the next, not thinking too much about what’s over the horizon until he meets an eccentric, sweet-tempered farm girl named Keechie (Shelley Duvall). They have a moment sitting out on the porch while he’s hiding away, and as they get to know each other, the dialogue revolves around such mundane topics as Coca-Cola and more flirtatious talk about how she knows how to shoot a gun and has a “really good grip.” When he holds out his hand asking her to prove it, she becomes all the more charming and mysterious. She smiles at him, her eyes cheerfully restless in that inimical Shelley Duvall way, and says, “Nah, I gotta go…” The shot is mostly played wide, as Carradine and Duvall sit in creaky rocking chairs, feeling like a slow courtship, and Altman lets it play out in real time. As the two of them get to know one another, they clumsily find their way into making love and forcing a kind of intimate dream world outside of the real world, as idyllic and fantastical as the radio programs they listen to (lots of old action serials and a Presidential address from F.D.R., all entertaining hokum).
Carradine is good looking and young and Duvall is appealingly strange and wan. During a scene where she emerges naked from the bath and climbs into bed with him, it’s sensual and odd, because it doesn’t play out with the predictable rhythm of a love scene. Altman understands that what makes Duvall attractive is her otherworldliness, and her dialogue rolls along like she’s visiting from another planet, only vaguely curious of the details in our world because she has other things to do. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman found an earthiness in Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, two stars transformed into character types. Thieves Like Us is all character. Altman shows sensitivity to these outsiders, without false sentiment or even commentary. He watches from the sidelines, with a taste for irony—if you linger on an Altman wide shot long enough, without punctuation marks for action, it all becomes a little funny. These bank robber movies all end the same way: badly for our heroes. And we know this going in, so spending two hours in the company of these delightfully strange birds is, in a word, affecting. The world of Thieves Like Us is beautiful and strange, in all its stunning everydayness.
The famous Altman soundscapes are well constructed here, with rich details being picked up during busy scenes like the one where a bunch of kids chase after a Coca-Cola truck for free soda while Bowie studies a bank for robbing, which has maybe three or four layers of action and sound happening within the frame. MGM doesn't go all out trying to clean up the print the way Warner Bros. did on their McCabe and Mrs. Miller DVD, but the results are passable, though it sometimes looks a little washed out.
The only special feature is a full-length audio commentary by Robert Altman, with minimal pauses and the right combination of anecdote and expression of his intentions. He shares stories about meeting Shelley Duvall for the first time and how he treated her rudely, thinking her kooky mannerisms were all an act. He gets specific about how he handled the violence in the film, as well as his fresh examination of Mississippi life. When he talks about how much Coca-Cola pushed itself on an unsuspecting populace, Altman really shows his acute sense of caustic humor, and that by relaying history as it was, it gets into a sort of brutal comedy. One soon realizes he's like Beckett in showing the absurd (with the guys sitting around talking, talking, and talking as if they were in Waiting For Godot), and that the entire idea of "absurd" is just representing life without bells and whistles. The absurd is closer to reality than most so-called onscreen reality, and that's something Altman clearly understands in his bones. Though one wishes there were a mini-documentary allowing Duvall and Carradine to reminisce about the production, Altman's commentary will suffice.
The late Robert Altman had a good run, with a handful of enduring classics for the ages and a dozen great films that would be the high water mark of another director's career. Thieves Like Us is a testament to that second-tier of Altman's work. It's appealing to say about an Altman film, "Yeah, it's just another one of those great movies he made." This one is a small masterpiece.