If Nicholas Ray’s 1948’s masterful film noir They Live By Night was the true cinematic template for the “doomed lovers on the run” subgenre of films that eventually led to Arthur Penn’s revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, then Robert Altman’s Thieves Likes Us brings it all back full circle. By adopting the Bonnie and Clyde standard of the time that was the employment of period detail, authentic locations, and, when necessary, graphic violence, Altman’s film utilizes the same 1937 Edward Anderson novel that was the source material for Ray’s film and gives the audience what the Norman Rockwell-inspired, George Gross-rendered one-sheet poster promises. But the film ends on a note of brusque cynicism which slyly deprives the audience of a traditional resolution and, in true Altman fashion, upends the genre’s conventions.
Thieves Like Us, also the title of the Anderson novel, begins much like Ray’s film and, in fact, doesn’t much divert from its plot during its entire running time. After bathing in a beautifully lazy, unbroken shot across a Mississippi work farm, courtesy of French cinematographer, Jean Boffety, we see prisoners Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Chicamaw (John Schuck, delivering his final performance in an Altman film) steal away to an adjacent field to meet T-Dub (a terrific Bert Remsen) who has rooked an unwitting hick taxi driver in aiding in the escape of the two. From there, the trio hides out with alcoholic garage owner, Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), and his daughter, Keechie (Shelley Duvall in her first above-the-title role) before moving on the the home of Maddie (Louise Fletcher), the wife of T-Dub’s incarcerated brother. While on the run and convalescing after a car accident turns into a deadly confrontation with police, Bowie falls in love with Keechie and she reciprocates in such a fashion that their union can’t be met with anything but doomed and tragic consequences.
From a ten thousand-foot view, there isn’t anything detectable to distinguish Altman and Ray’s different treatments of the material from each other. Sure, Altman’s film is more committed to the Depression-era period of the novel and neither film keeps Anderson’s nihilistic ending but, on first blush, Thieves Like Us is just a seemingly more relaxed and softer roll through the same territory as They Live By Night. But there comes a time in Altman’s film that the focus on the women characters becomes sharper and causes the film to shift away from a film about boys at play and towards a film about, to paraphrase my wife, how women will do whatever necessary to achieve a sense of normalcy, regardless of what that might look like. First, we see this in Keechie. Bored but resigned to her fate, Bowie gives Keechie someone other than her drunken father to look after and mother. Bowie’s murder rap, as explained by him, doesn’t seem all that just so Keechie goes with him out of a blend of genuine affection, boredom, and hope for a better life than her present one which Altman paints as desperately terminal.
It should be noted that Shelley Duvall is so real and so natural as Keechie that you can feel true romantic tension build between her and Keith Carradine during their silent moments together early in the film. They talk like actual people and respond in kind. When Bowie remarks that she’s cut a great deal of her hair off, she smiles, looks to the ground, and says “I dunno” in a manner that is so genuine and sweet, it recalls deep, buried memories of the awkwardness and shyness of first love. This is in diametric opposition to the way the characters are played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in Ray’s film, faultlessly walking a fine line between love-sick, smitten pups and hard-edged, damaged souls. In specific contrast to Granger, Carradine’s Bowie is a sweet-faced greenhorn, only slightly more streetwise than his ill-fated cowboy character in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Duvall’s Keechie is at once more naive and tougher than O’Donnell and her anguish at the end of the film is told in spades as Altman trains his slow motion camera not on the gory details of the police ambush that kills Bowie, but on her face as she watches it unfold, held back in a quasi-embrace by Maddie, the true driving force of the second half of the film.
In They Live By Night, Maddie’s character (played with gusto by Helen Craig) is spitting fire from the get-go, making her prime turncoat material. But Fletcher’s interpretation of the role is closer in spirit to Julie Christie’s Constance Miller; a woman who can see far more clearly than any of the men around her and will cut her losses as quick as breathing when she must. At no time in the film would any of the men suspect that Maddie would double-cross them for her own gain. And, honestly, neither would the audience. If one were to go into Thieves Like Us completely cold, Fletcher would seem like a harried but big-hearted good sport. She’s far more focused on the details of running a home and distracting her children from the awful details of her houseguests by ensuring her son knows to use his roll as a pusher at dinner time. But with her life in virtual ruin as it contains both a husband in prison and rugrats she can scarcely control, Fletcher exudes the quietest of strengths in a role that is by turns tough, honest, and canny. Slowly emerging in the second third of the film, Fletcher’s presence permeates the final act and, by the time the credits roll, more than a little of her character will have imprinted itself on Duvall’s Keechie’s. Keep a stiff upper lip and believe the stories you have to tell yourself to keep moving forward.
One has to wonder how much of this specific focus came at the hand of Joan Tewkesbury who, along with Altman and Calder Willingham, adapted Anderson’s novel for the screen. Instead of keeping Ray’s ending where Keechie reads the tragic love note that was written by Bowie just before he is killed in an ambush, and likewise jettisoning Anderson’s ending where the both of them are killed in the same event, Thieves Like Us presses a more tragic point about the very human cost and the actual wreckage that occurs to those in the orbit of criminals. It explicitly deals with the unfortunate shame and social baggage that (mostly) women have to tote around with them due to the careless and thoughtless actions of the men in their life. Not coincidentally, this theme would likewise emerge in Nashville, Altman’s next feature which was also penned by Tewkesbury.
Additionally, the connection between Thieves Like Us and Nashville is also clear due to their strong usage of pop iconography and corporate branding across the American landscape. Thieves Like Us shows the radio tying the country together in a way that previous mediums could not and by synching the diagetic music and dialogue from the radio dramas with the action on screen, Altman suggests an emerging correlation between real life and shared entertainment while also displaying a savvy focus on cultural mass marketing that is beginning to take root. Where prison gates are used as literal ad space for Coca-Cola, the almost outsized presence of that product in Thieves Like Us predates the Goo-Goo Clusters that will eventually underwrite the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville where the country crooners on the radio will no longer be selling Rinso Detergent, but Hal Phillip Walker’s goofy, untenable brand of populism.
Thieves Like Us was part of a cycle that came in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, itself as much a film about the then contemporary change in America as it was a biopic of Depression-era criminals. But where Bonnie and Clyde pops, Thieves Like Us simmers letting the individual ingredients stew and causing the material to cook into something else entirely. It never feels like Altman’s players are wearing stuff from the wardrobe department as is the case in Martin Scorsese’s underrated but undeniably budget-hampered Boxcar Bertha nor are things quite as clean as in the other Corman-produced films cut from the same cloth, such as Bloody Mama and, later, The Lady in Red. By letting us slowly wade into the world of Thieves Like Us, Altman rewards us by reminding us that the quiet details of real-life feel much more piercing than the grand sweep of Hollywood dramaturgy.
Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night is a true beauty with a well-deserved, unimpeachable reputation as a film that is as hard-edged a piece of business that you can find. It’s a film that talks tough, moves fast, and kisses tragic. Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us isn’t nearly as well known but it operates in the same, languid style as his adaptation of The Long Goodbye. It’s a film that speaks softly, takes its time, and ultimately reveals itself to be positively ruthless.