THIEVES LIKE US

 (Robert Altman, USA, 1974) 123 minutes

THIEVES LIKE US

Director: Robert Altman
Producer: Jerry Bick
Screenplay: Calder Willingham
  Joan Tewkesbury, Robert Altman
Cinematography: Jean Boffety
Editor: Lou Lombardo
Keith Carradine (Bowie)
Shelley Duvall (Keechie)
John Schuck (Chicamaw)
Bert Remsen (T-Dub)
Louise Fletcher (Mattie)

Reviews and notes

Thieves Like Us has never gotten its due as one of Altmans finest directorial efforts. Two reasons spring to mind: The film followed Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde, another seminal work about bank-robbing outlaws, and it was lodged in the middle of the era's greatest creative winning streak, when Altman turned out M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville in the space of five years. But Thieves Like Us stands up to any one of them, because it plays to Altman's strengths for upending genre expectations and evoking a specific era so rigorously that it hardly feels staged at all. Remove all the crime-movie trappings — and there aren't that many, once Altman gets through with them — and the film would still endure for its surface alone, capturing the Depression-era South with brushstrokes of language, décor, and radio-plays on the soundtrack.
- Scott Tobias, The AV Club, 25 April 2007.


Robert Altman's recent movies (M*A*S"H, McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye) are like model kits. Each one comes in little pieces, some of which are lovingly and intricately fashioned! Each is made to scale for a specific genre: the service comedy, the western, the private-eye melodrama. Altman encloses no instructions, though. That is the challenge and the catch, and accounts in part for the appeal his films exercise for many critics. It is not that Altman movies are open-ended so much as that they are any-ended. They can be assembled in many ways and require only a little critical extrapolation (any standard brand will do) to hold them together.

Thieves Like Us would be filed under the subheading "On the Road: Crime and Aimless Kids." That has been a flourishing category ever since the success of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, but Thieves Like Us has an even more direct ancestor. It is a remake of Nicholas Ray's excellent They Live by Night (1947), which, along with Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once, set the model in the first place. As usual, Altman supplies not an answer but an alternative to the styles and conventions of the genre.

Altman omits what is expectable in movies of this sort and includes the scenes that other film makers have left out. Bowie (Keith Carradine) is a young con who busts out of prison with a couple of older buddies (John Schuck, Bert Remsen) into the grim realities of the Depression South. Because it comes naturally to them and because they figure it to be no more antisocial than starvation; the trio start to rob small-town banks. They do it with matter-of-fact efficiency; and Altman treats them in the same even way. He is not concerned with the mechanics of the heist but the social sub-currents beneath it. Almost anyone else would have included a lot of stick-'em-up scenes and hairbreadth getaway sequences, but Altman concentrates on portraying the glowering emptiness that daily confronts the robbers. He is especially good at rendering the sort of foggy existential desperation that surrounds his characters and lies at the core of the doomed affair between Bowie and a rather vacant girl called Keechie (Shelley Duvall). They meet with the impact and inevitability of an old tire and a rut in the road.

The sound track is filled with the sweet melodrama of old radio programs like Gangbusters, which Altman uses both to locate Bowie, Keechie and their pals in popular mythology and as an ironic counterpoint to lives that are too pressingly real. He gets fair, subdued performances from his cast and in addition admirably captures the poor rural South. Shot in muted autumnal tones, the film seems overcast, sad and dense with a kind of elemental menace.

In many ways, Thieves Like Us is Altman's best work yet, his most stringent and evocative. Yet there is still a kind of glibness and disorder that seems initially like unfettered invention and builds only to a dead end. Altman's basic stylistic concept is to use all the conventions of the genre at hand, then play directly against them. It is a clever ploy, but it is not enough to make one care when violent destiny finally comes crashing down on the brash, fragile lives portrayed in this movie. There is a consistent aloofness in all of Altman's work as well as a casualness and vagueness about ideas. The suspicion is that whatever interpretation one might bring to Thieves Like Us, Altman would agree with it.
- Jay Cocks, Time, 4 March 1974.



Restoration:

The AVC encoded image presentation sustains original cinematographic intent, delivering a muted, period-minded color palette with secure skintones. Fine detail is acceptable for a softly photographed effort, bringing out the best in close-ups, and location particulars remain in view, offering secure distances. Grain is present with noisy qualities, and blacks provide decent delineation. Print includes a few rough patches and some speckling.

The sound mix doesn't have much heavy lifting, as most of the track is contained to silences and radio recordings. Dialogue exchanges do reveal limitation as passions erupt. Radio "scoring" is clean and inviting, supporting the action as intended. Atmospherics are generally alert with small town life and rural passages. Violent eruptions, including gunshots, retain snap.
- adapted from Bru-ray.com, 13 December 2014.

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