Aug 21, 2017

Thieves Like Us




As a relatively subversive and iconoclastic ‘anti-Hollywood Hollywood’ auteur that sometimes took a relatively ‘nonchalant’ approach to the filmmaking process and was not afraid to completely rework and rewrite screenplays, come up with random endings on the spot while shooting (e.g. California Split), and allowed actors to improvise, Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville) certainly performed a grand yet considerably underappreciated artistically ironic feat with Thieves Like Us (1974), which happens to be both one of his greatest yet most conventional films. Indeed, aside from being a rare Altman film that is fairly faithful to its source material, the flick was made in the wake of the culturally revolutionary success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) when countless other filmmaker also attempted to capitalize off the prestige of the Great Depression era crime-drama as demonstrated by works including (but certainly not limited to) Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970), Martin Scorsese’s Corman-produced hack exploitation piece Boxcar Bertha (1972), and John Milius’ underrated directorial debut Dillinger (1973). While I rather like both Bonnie and Clyde and Milius’ somewhat exploitative Dillinger biopic, I have no qualms about admitting that I think Thieves Like Us is easily the greatest and most timeless of the films associated with this neo-retro counterculture subgenre and I say that as someone that would rather fuck Faye Dunaway’s half-rotten corpse than even so much as kiss Shelley Duvall’s fairly thin lips. Of course, the mostly unattractive cast of Altman’s film is one of the many things that makes it so great as a cinematic work that never falls into the ‘romantic myth’ that makes Bonnie and Clyde seem sometimes so phony, superficially propagandistic, and just plain insipidly Hollywood-esque. Adapted from relatively forgotten writer Edward Anderson’s 1937 crime novel of the same name, Altman’s film does a noble job recreating the atmosphere and cultural landscape of the decidedly destitute Great Depression era South to the point where it features no traditional score and instead cleverly relies on diegetic music and radio broadcasts to emphasize a pre-TV world when radio was still king. Naturally, as someone born in 1925, Altman had the distinguished advantage of remembering such a world when entire families had not yet collectively succumbed to the soft narcotizing lobotomy that is the idiotic box, which is quite apparent while watching the film. Thankfully, the film also does not feature contrived antiheroes like the Bogart-loving frog of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) aka Breathless that parrot the behavior of Hollywood movie stars, as it is set in a demystified world where even motion pictures do not even seem to exist (even though they did). In short, there is no glamour or crime fetishism in Altman’s stark yet strangely beauteous vision of the serenely scenic wasteland that was the 1930s American South. 



 Undoubtedly, the famous quote from John Huston’s classic film The Asphalt Jungle (1950) that “crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor” has arguably never been better expressed in a film than in Thieves Like Us where all-too-human flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities are depicted in a soundly sensitively expressed fashion to the point where the viewer cannot help but deeply sympathize with a goofy young hillbilly fugitive that once killed a man during a botched robbery. Adapted from the same name novel that acted as the source of Nicholas Ray’s classic They Live by Night (1949)—a film that Altman somewhat dubiously claimed to have never seen (in fact, Altman claimed that he began preproduction on his film before even realizing that Ray had already adapted the same novel)—the film even manages to be more tender and humanistic than its Hollywood Golden Age predecessor. Indeed, virtually every single character in the film, especially the lead and his lover, is a hapless loser with very bad luck to the point where the viewer can only assume they will meet a very tragic end.  Although featuring a glaringly mismatched trio of cross-generational fugitive bank robbers whose rather brazen behavior ultimately leads to their somewhat predictable demise, the film is first and foremost an almost shockingly touching love story about two goofy virginal misfit hicks that happen to fall in love at the most inconvenient of times in what is ultimately a decidedly doomed romance that should last a lifetime but only lasts what seems like a couple months. In terms of the sheer awkwardness of their short-lived romance, leads Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall bring a refreshingly singular chemistry that, despite their occasional petty verbal bickering, is pure of spirit and in stark contrast to the bloody violence that the film contains. As much as I appreciate Farley Granger as an actor, his portrayal of lead antihero ‘Bowie’ in Ray’s They Live by Night seems somewhat shallow and one-dimensional compared to fittingly gawky Carradine’s iconic performance in Altman’s film. Additionally, quite unlike Duvall, Cathy O'Donnell is just too effortlessly entrancing to portray a silly hick chick with a name like ‘Keechie.’ 



 Admittedly, my initial interest in originally seeing Thieves Like Us was my love of the film’s title and how it inspired by both the classic New Order song of the same name and multinational synth-driven post-punk band of the same name. As absurdly shallow as that sounds, I knew I could count on both bands due to their cinephiliac tendencies (after all, Thieves Like Us tend to pillage great European cult films to make their ‘official’ music videos). After recently re-watching the film, I am pretty much convinced that it is Altman’s most immaculately directed and just downright all-around flawless flick, even if it is also one of his least sophisticated and artistically ambitious. Undoubtedly, the film owes a great deal of its foreboding pastoral pulchritude to French cinematographer Jean Bofferty (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, Alain Resnais’ Je t'aime, je t'aime), who Altman hired specifically due to his foreign background and lack of prejudice in terms of shooting in the ‘dreaded’ American South. Not unlike Dutch master cinematographer Robby Müller with films like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986), Bofferty demonstrates a keen appreciation for exotic rural American landscape that is simply nonexistent in most Hollywood films set in similar locations. Indeed, compared to the emphasis on the scenery in Thieves Like Us, Altman’s Nashville (1975)—a film that was also penned by Joan Tewkesbury—seems like it could have been filmed on a cheap Hollywood sound stage. Not unlike Stanley Kubrick’s underrated 18th-century epic Barry Lyndon (1975), Altman’s film rings quite true in terms of the era it depicts and never succumbs to unintentional kitsch or camp like so many Hollywood period pieces. Indeed, you might not exactly find the world depicted in Altman’s film to be terribly romantic in the superficial Bonnie and Clyde-esque sort of fashion, but you will be glad you experienced what is ultimately a pleasantly devastating depiction of that particular zeitgeist. 



 Beginning on a forebodingly rainy day in Mississippi with a slight sense of gleeful doom and gloom in the air, Thieves Like Us introduces two members of the eponymous trio with a fittingly anticlimactic prison escape that involves the characters carjacking a rather rotund and equally dimwitted pothead after a fairly mellow day of extra leisurely prisonside fishing. The youngest yet seemingly most intelligent and seemingly sane of the group, infectiously goofy yet incessantly glowering 23-year-old protagonist Bowie A. Bowers (Keith Carradine) was originally in prison for killing a store clerk during a botched robbery that ruined his entire life. Luckily for him (or rather unluckily as the film eventually reveals), Bowie has teamed up with two veteran middle-aged bank robbers named T-Dub ‘Three-toed’ Masefield (Bert Remsen) and Elmo ‘Chicamaw’ Mobley (John Schuck). While T-Dub is an almost disturbingly jolly unrepentant pervert with a fetish for underage female relatives and Chicamaw is an angry drunk and shameless slob, the only vice that Bowers really seems to suffer from is youth and the tragic naivety that oftentimes accompanies it. Although the only member of the gang that was actually convicted of murder, Bowie cannot really seem to stomach death and violence and thus naturally becomes disgusted when Chicamaw proves to be a rather trigger-happy gent when it comes to confronting cops and elderly bank clerks. In fact, Bowie is such a sensitive sweetheart with a hillbilly heart of gold that he spends his first night out of prison as a fugitive befriending a stray dog and sleeping with the yellow beast under a train track in a scene that really underscores that he is a lovable loner that the audience cannot help but happily root for.

 The day after the gang's less than great escape from prison, Bowie arrives at the home of an alcoholic gas station owner named Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt) where he first meets the girl he will fall in love with. The teenage daughter of Dee and ‘second cousin’ of Chicamaw, Keechie (Shelley Duvall) is anything but a charming cutie but, like the protagonist, she is a goofy and gawky redneck dork and thus they make for quite the ideal couple. Indeed, Bowie and Keechie become in many ways the ‘perfect couple,’ but unfortunately fate intervenes and puts a swift brutal end to the heterodoxically heartwarming romance.  At first, Bowie is too shy and inexperienced to properly flirt with Keechie and instead grills her about whether or not she has a ‘fella.’  Notably, Bowie is so obviously infatuated with Keechie that he seems sincerely shocked when she denies having a beau.  Luckily for Bowie, he not only eventually becomes Keechie's fella, but also her first fella as she is a naive virgin that seems like she spent way too much time in a Southern Baptist Sunday school.



 When Bowie rhetorically asks the stray dog at the beginning of the film, “You belong to someone? You’re just a thief like me,” he probably reveals more about himself verbally than at any other time in the film, so it is only tragically fitting that when he decides that he wants to “belong” to Keechie and quit being a thief that he is literally shot down in a most gruesome fashion as if the gods where punishing him for overcoming some sort of ugly archetype that he was never really meant to be.  Had he had a more privileged upbringing, Bowie might have grown up to become a community college professor or accountant, but instead he reluctantly embraced a world of crime. Unlike his psychopathic goofballs partners T-Dub and Chicamaw, who do not really seem to understand him in any innate or meaningful way, Bowie actually seems to have the capacity to go straight and lead a relatively normal life. In fact, he seems to desperately long to become thoroughly domesticated and eventually start a family, especially after falling in love with Keechie, but being a fugitive makes it an impossible task. In fact, when Bowie is injured in a car accident, Chicamaw makes their situation seemingly infinitely worse by murdering two cops in cold blood so that they can flee the scene before being recognized as fugitive bank robbers. Somewhat ironically, it is also this same car wreck that leads to Bowie falling in love, as Keechie nurses him back to health when he is injured and eventually joins him in bed where the two new lovebirds demonstrate their keen attraction towards one another by making love no less than two times that night.  Indeed, before they even kiss, Keechie demonstrates with the great sensitivity that she treats Bowie's wounds that she loves him.


 While Bowie parts ways with his partners after the car accident and buys a secluded cabin for him and Keechie to live in, he is counting on one more big bank robbery score so that he and his beloved can flee the United States to start a new life in Mexico. While the bank robbery goes relatively smoothly aside from Chicamaw impulsively murdering a bank clerk, T-Dub is subsequently killed by the cops while waiting in a parked for his wife outside a seedy motel that he just bought.  Additionally, Chicamaw is caught and imprisoned, thus leaving Bowie to fend for himself in a world where he has next to nil friends. Unfortunately, Bowie makes the ultimately fatal mistake of hiding out at a small cabin owned by T-Dub’s supremely cunty sister-in-law ‘Mattie’ (Louise Fletcher), who has a fiercely frigid demeanor as if she has not had a good fuck in well over a decade. Angered by the fact that T-Dub married her underage daughter Lula and holding a perversely petty grudge against the protagonist because he once dared to positively compare her to his mother, Mattie ultimately betrays Bowie and even has him setup to be brutally murdered by the Texas Rangers even though she knows that Keechie is pregnant with his unborn child. Indeed, after an successful attempt to spring Chickamaw from prison, only to kick his partner out of the car and force him to fend for himself in prison garb in the middle of the country when he becomes extremely belligerent, Bowie comes home to an ambush that involves about a dozen Texas Rangers unloading hundreds of bullets on him when he unwittingly enters cabin where he believes his beloved Keechie is waiting for him.  Indeed, Bowie becomes the completely unsuspecting victim of an extra deadly trap as a result of a bitter blonde bitch wanting to get even with him over some imaginary wrong.


 In the end in a scene that is set at least a couple months after Bowie’s brutal murder, Keechie is depicted sitting at a train station as she waits for a ride to Fort Worth, Texas. Notably, Keechie states to a woman (played by the film’s screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury) sitting beside her in regard to her pregnancy, “I think it’ll be a boy. Well, I hope it is. But if it is, he sure will not be named after his daddy, God rest his soul. He crossed me up once too often, lying. He doesn’t deserve to have no baby named after him.” Aside from speaking fairly coldly and harshly about her dead one-true-love, Keechie lies to the woman and claims that Bowie was a victim of “consumption” and then consumes another Coke, thus revealing her abject embarrassment in regard to the ultra-violent extermination of her beloved. Notably, in a scene earlier in the film where he unwittingly foretells his own legacy, Bowie remarks to Keechie, “Chicamaw was telling me about that lawyer friend of his in Mexico. Hawkins. He didn’t believe much in that heaven or hell stuff. Said the only way a man lived on was through his children.” Indeed, Bowie may be dead, but his infamous legacy and his great love for Keechie lives on in via his unborn child, even if the mother of said unborn child seems to be attempting to erase his memory.  Of course, Bowie's words can also be seen as a sort of warning against the ungodly crime against nature known as miscegenation, as a half-breed that looks and acts nothing like you does not carry on your legacy and might as well be the spawn of a stranger.  Racial purity aside, Bowie and his buddies are indubitably authentic examples of the ‘white negro’ archetype and not the phony sort that Hebraic proto-hipster Norman Mailer romanticized about.

Undoubtedly, Baltimore sage H.L. Mencken—a German-American not unlike Altman that seemed to detest WASP lumpenproles—might as well have been describing his opinion of the protagonists of Thieves Like Us when he wrote in his autobiography Happy Day (1940) that, “. . . a great many anthropoid blacks from the South have come to town since the city dole began to rise above what they could hope to earn at home, and soon or late some effort may be made to chase them back. But if that time ever comes the uprising will probably be led, not by native Baltimoreans, but by the Anglo-Saxon baboons from the West Virginia mountains who have flocked in for the same reason, and are now competing with the blacks for the poorer sort of jobs.”  Of course, Altman's film demonstrates that the auteur had slightly more empathy for hicks and hillbillies, especially when once considers that Mencken once wrote, “It requires a conscious effort for me to pump up any genuine sympathy for the downtrodden, and in the end I usually conclude that they have their own follies and incapacities to thank for their trouble.”



 In terms of its depiction of ‘coup de foudre,’ especially of a less idealized and more realistic sort, Thieves Like Us really has no contemporaries and makes the lawless love affair between the improbably attractive titular antiheros portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde seem as emotionally and erotically counterfeit as a feminist fuck flick featuring a bunch of sub-attractive girls with blue hair and tacky tattoos. The film also has the distinction of being, aside from Dušan Makavejev’s The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), the world’s longest (anti)Coke commercial as a surprisingly iconic flick set in a world where the sickeningly sugary beverage seems to have replaced water and where ads for the soda have taken the place of political sloganeering (indeed, in Altman's film the Coca-Cola logo is to the 1930s U.S. what the swastika was to German during the same era). Admittedly, I certainly had the irrational desire to drink a Coke and then rob a bank after seeing the film.

 Of course, one of the most brilliant aspects of the film is its seamlessly interweaving of relatively lighthearted and touching subjects like youthful innocence and virginal awkwardness with senseless brutality and death as is especially personified by tragic antihero Bowie, who just never had a chance in terms of accomplishing the relatively small goal of starting a family and living a normal life. Notably, even Altman—a somewhat cynical auteur that always preferred to depict a harsh reality over some sort of feel-good banality—found the ending of Edward Anderson’s source novel where Keechie also dies to be such a downer that he opted to change it, or as he explained to David Thompson in Altman on Altman (2006), “In the novel, she dies in the shoot-out at the cabin. The only change I made was that I had her live and put that little coda in the railway station, saying that she survived and went off, pregnant, into the world. It just seemed to me that to kill them both was too brutal of an ending, and I wanted the sense that something from these people continued on.” 



 While antihero Bowie surely dies a brutal senseless death in the end via covert firing squad, there is certainly something morbidly romantic about it in the sense that the character more or less perished at a true highpoint of his life as a young man that had just fallen in love and impregnated his beloved not long after losing virginity, so it should be no surprise that the film briefly alludes to Romeo and Juliet.  Indeed, while he never gets to experience the joys that come with being a father or grandfather, he is spared the pain of growing old, seeing loved ones die, and experiencing the sort of degenerative poor health that accompanies old age. In a sense, Bowie realizes George Bernard Shaw's goal, “The greatest thing in life is to die young but delay it as long as possible,” as he lives just long enough to spread his seed and sire an heir in between running an infamous, albeit only semi-successful, bank robbing operation. Indeed, science demonstrates that the point of life is to reproduce and in that sense Bowie’s life finds true meaning in the end, thus making Thieves Like Us one of Altman’s least nihilistic films. Indeed, compared to Altman’s previous classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) where the eponymous dies a rather lonely death alone in the cold bitter snow while his literal whore lover is somewhere else staring into space while high on morphine, the film is a strangely joyous celebration of life and love, albeit set it in a quasi-apocalyptic era of abject misery and poverty. 



 Although I find many of her opinions on film to be patently absurd and reveal that she was a pretty big Americentric philistine for a highly celebrated NYC Jewish intellectual, Pauline Kael—Altman’s greatest and most shameless fan-girl—wrote a fairly insightful review of the film in the February 4, 1974 issue of The New Yorker where she argued, “In other Altman films, there is always something that people can complain about; they ask, ‘What’s that there for?’ In THIEVES LIKE US, there’s nothing to stumble over. It’s a serenely simple film—contained and complete.” In fact, the laid back pace and tone of the film was intentional, or as Altman once explained himself to David Thompson, “I don’t know if you can do this kind of stuff today, taking your time and being so leisurely about it. I don’t know if you could really do it then. But THIEVES had the pace that I think was exactly what it required. If I shot it today, I don’t think I’d have the courage to do it.” Undoubtedly, Kael pays her greatest compliment to the film at the very end of her review where she somewhat soundly argues in regard to the true distinctly American cultural prowess of the film, “For the last two years now, friends of mine have been shouting that Altman must do THE WILD PALMS or AS I LAY DYING; they’ve been convinced that he is the man to bring Faulkner to the screen. Maybe he knew it all along, and maybe he was smart enough to know that he could do it best by using someone else’s material for his text […] But THIEVES LIKE US is HIS Faulkner novel.” Of course, the great irony is that, despite the filmmaker’s incessant stupid and stereotypical anti-American remarks during his relatively long life as a hopeless generic liberal democrat type, Altman is responsible for creating one of the most timeless pieces of hearty and organic celluloid Americana.  Indeed, while the film surely benefited from its foreign frog cinematographer, Thieves Like Us could have only been directed by an authentic American just as cinematic works as diverse as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997) could have only been been directed by yanks (even if the latter film is largely inspired by a sort of anti-Europid post-Yiddish psychosis).


Commercially speaking, Altman's film was, not surprisingly, an abject failure, though apparently it was at least partly the result of the studio’s lack of promotion, or as star John Schuck once stated, “THIEVES was a picture that was so non-mainstream that the studio had no idea how to promote it. They treated it like a bank-robbery movie, which it isn’t, of course […] But it was released and went in a few weeks.” Apparently, Altman was rather protective of his film to the point of shouting down talkative audience members during screenings, or as screenwriter and sometimes filmmaker Buck Henry (Heaven Can Wait, First Family) revealed with the following somewhat humorous anecdote, “I met Bob in Cannes. He and Kathryn said, ‘Come to a screening of THIEVES.’ We went to the screening and he went nuts because people were still milling around and talking when the film started. He stood up and yelled, ‘Goddammit, you fucking people. Will you sit down!’ Scared the hell out of them—they did.”

Notably, out of all the books that I have read about Altman featuring remarks from his friends and associates, Buck Henry's handful of remarks in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009) by Mitchell Zuckoff proved to be some of the most unflattering. Indeed, it seems that Henry thought Altman was somewhat of a phony megalomaniac that hypocritically vomited leftist platitudes while ruling as a virtual Dionysian god under his own filmmaking dictatorship, or as quite kosher The Graduate screenwriter explained, “In the back of my head I was always aware that he could turn on a dime if someone said something that really irritated him or had an opinion that didn't make him laugh. I think he had very strict rules of behavior—I would imagine having something to do with his childhood. His rage against the establishment was one or two parts bullshit. Everybody kissed Bob's ass. They realized that he was an important filmmaker—regarded as that around the world. He liked the feeling of being really angry.”  If Henry is to believed, it seems that Altman modeled the mean-spirited and belligerent dipsomaniac character Chicamaw played by Schuck after himself.  Undoubtedly the least sympathetic of the three titular bank robbers, Chicamaw is a loathsome fat pig and unrepentant copkiller whose aberrant actions ultimately inspire the police to be more proactive in their murderous manhunt.  Of course, Altman became a filmmaker instead of a career criminal and it can probably be argued that his negative personal qualities almost certainly benefited him as a cinematic artist, hence a Hollywood film as gloriously morally ambiguous as Thieves Like Us.



Arguably the most understatedly romantic film crime flick ever made, Thieves Like Us is a real shocker in that it actually dares to trade-in the ‘romantic myth’ of glamorous Depression Era gangsterdom for the inordinate wholesomeness of unspoiled young love in a hopeless world where organic beauty and sensitivity are seen as dire vulnerabilities that one just cannot afford to have.  Of course, Altman's heartening depiction of young love seems all the more unlikely when one considers he was a lifelong lady's man that was married no less than three times and was known to be both emotionally and physically abusive with women, especially when he was drunk.  In short, Altman was the complete opposite of the film's terminally romantically shy antihero Bowie, thus demonstrating the filmmaker's artistic integrity as man that was willing to give a certain degree of touching humanity to a virginal bank-robber that he had seemingly nothing in common with.  Of course, Altman also deserves respect for making a romantic leading lady out of someone as hypnotically homely and anti-voluptuous as Shelley Duvall (in fact, Altman accentuates her particularly preternatural face in a scene where she stares meekly into a distorted mirror).

Undoubtedly, James Joyce's famous phrase, “sentimentality is unearned emotion” certainly does not pertain to Thieves Like Us as it is a cinematic work that forces the viewer to submit to the good, bad, and ugly of human existence and it ultimately ends on an almost crushingly unsentimental note that reminds one of the singular coldness of the so-called fairer sex.  Surely, if you do not let yourself be completely consumed by the film's characters and their hermetic world of crime and relatively wholesome carnality, you will get little out of it as the flick was certainly not directed by a carny showman that gets a kick out of leading armies of philistines by their noses with cheap visual gimmicks and kitschy melodrama, hence its relative lack of popularity among the masses.  Surely, if there is any film that demonstrates in a sort of metapolitical fashion that Mencken—a truly American Nietzschean that was also no fan of FDR's so-called New Deal—was right when he wrote, “Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven,” it is indubitably Altman's tender yet tough tribute to one of America's least flattering eras. To mention Mencken one more time, I think it is safe to say that he might as well have been talking about Thieves Like Us and Altman's oeuvre in general when he wrote, “Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.”



-Ty E

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