If the amorous idealists of Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin were “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” then the ideology-free lovers at the heart of Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us are merely children of the latter, beholden to consumerist instructions and products of the incessant radio which rarely leaves the film’s soundtrack. As Bowie (Keith Carradine) strolls up to the modest body shop owned by Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), he asks if he can have a Coke. “That’ll be a nickel,” Mobley says. Bowie, somewhat dejected, closes the fridge and says, “That’s all right; I already had one today.” Everything comes at a price in Altman’s world, but this isn’t simply another version of the mythologizing tactics that saw Bonnie Parker emulating the flappers from Gold Diggers of 1933 in Bonnie and Clyde. Altman refuses to romanticize his characters’ impressionable innocence, but nor is he resolute to assert cultural impregnability either. Instead, Altman’s emphasis lies in locating the specificities of historical time and understanding how socially constructed mythologies come to proliferate in the first place.
Nothing better epitomizes this than a recurring radio broadcast of Romeo & Juliet when Bowie and Keechie (Shelley Duvall) first have sex, which seems to be playing on some sort of loop, as the same declaration of “consummation” is repeated three times throughout the course of the scene. If the scene grows wearisome, not just from the repetition, but also from the nearly insufferable sexual innocence of the two adult characters, it’s because Altman insists that these characters are largely incapable of reconciling their carnal passions, either violent or sexual, with the narratives, whether local or institutional, that consistently pervade their space. And indeed, the radio is an inextricable component in this equation. Note how the film remains focused on Bowie outside the bank during an early robbery, as the radio advertises a nameless product. Across the street from Bowie, three black men sit on some steps adjacent to the bank. These men are doubles for Bowie, Chicamaw (John Schuck), and T-Dub (Bert Remsen), but of course Altman’s camera can only show them in passing, as mere components of the mise-en-scène, as a narrative unfulfilled by the demands of historical (and cinematic) importance.
Much like Badlands, Thieves Like Us is a revisionist work seeking to unmap Bonnie and Clyde’s determination to romanticize criminality as tragedy, a film where a slow-motion coda featuring a hail of gunfire and bloodshed is meant for both for viewer lament and elation. For Altman specifically, such a notion dangerously enshrines mythological desire, especially since Bonnie Parker, with her mini skirt and beret, became a fashion icon shortly after the film’s release. By contrast, Duvall’s Keechie often looks disheveled, modest, and without haute couture bearings. Even when Altman shows her naked, it’s non-sexual and distant, with her clumsily putting her clothes on after sex.
The same could be said for the film’s violence, which consistently happens off screen, but perpetually with an eye toward the cinematic freedoms enabled by the removal of the production code during the late 1960s. Bowie’s body might be riddled with bullets at the end of the film, but Altman remains focused on Keechie’s horrified reaction, tellingly filmed in slow motion. Altman slows down time to relish a character’s subjectivity, to better express the incomprehension being felt. Such a decision must be read in direct contrast to Bonnie and Clyde, since director Arthur Penn’s use of slow motion is solely to better sear the film’s violent end into the psyches of viewer imaginations. In other words, the violence in Penn’s film isn’t from a particular perspective and is witnessed by no one; it cannot be rooted in character trauma.
Altman utterly reviles such a premise, no better understood than through this sequence and the film’s final scene, in which Keechie waits to board a train. The men in her Mississippi-bound life dead, she’s looking to escape to Fort Worth, though irresolute about what that might entail. When told the train ride will be nine hours, Keechie replies, “That’s a long time.” The irony, if almost too on the nose, is that Keechie lacks any capacity for placing her life into a larger context, such that she has no recognition of her surrounding culture’s ceaseless determination to expand time through tall tales of criminal rebellion. Yet Keechie’s access to understanding myth necessarily remains at a distance, because as a woman, she has been historically removed from its production. Herein lies the implications of Keechie’s survival, changed from the novel on which the film is based. For Altman, Keechie’s survival of Bowie’s death is most significant, since her slow-motion march up the steps of the train station, in the film’s final shot, is a progressive solution to Penn’s supposedly liberating, operatic violence.
Kino has taken admirable strides to give the film a pristine Blu-ray presentation and, aside from some minor carelessness with removing print scratches and maintaining color consistency throughout, they’ve largely succeeded. Robert Altman’s aesthetic isn’t very saturated to begin with, so the transfer might look deceptively soft to anyone unfamiliar with his work. There’s a notable improvement in color and clarity from the previous DVD, especially in reds and greens, though by no means is this a definitive presentation, primarily because Kino refuses to scour every frame to remove debris, such that scratches and imperfections remain the most prominent issue. The DTS-HD sound mix is the greatest improvement, offering dialogue and especially the sparse use of music with a clarity unattained by the film’s previous DVD releases.
Identical to the 2007 MGM DVD, this new Blu-ray release features a 1997 commentary from Altman, whose emphasis lies not in explicating his own intent, but providing background on the film’s production. As such, he explains his relationship to Mississippi and using local actors for several of the roles, as well as his approach to filming sequences using merely a few takes. There are moments when he slips into defending some choices in the film, like the nudity and violence, but he remains largely detached from explaining his film’s significance either to the novel, Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, or Bonnie and Clyde. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer.
Thieves Like Us is one of several recent essential Robert Altman films to get a Blu-ray treatment, and this one looks mighty fine, but because Kino has refused to properly supplement the disc, you’ll be just fine hanging onto your 2007 MGM DVD.