I am happy to present this feature's second Altman film, and the first not to hold the distinction of being the worst thing he ever made.
Robert Altman was good at many, many things, but one of his stocks in trade was the genre-bender: making a war movie, or a film noir, or a Western, and breaking just about all of the rules that one is supposed to follow.
Thanks to the Great Lord DVD, we've got another film out of that august tradition to contend with, the 1974 crime drama Thieves Like Us. Clearly financed as a cash-in on the six-year-old Bonnie and Clyde, it went someplace far different, trading in the earlier project's violence and New Wave-influenced flash for a languid study of character and space and society, a sleepy film about a motley collection of dim, but well-meaning failures. A perfect Altman film, in other words.
It usually does to begin at the beginning, and in the case of Thieves Like Us, the beginning is an epic long take that pans across most of 360° over the course of 2.5 minutes. In that time, we watch in thrilling real time as two men paddle a boat across a river and walk over to a third man in a waiting car. I kid - actually, it's quite effective, and coupled with the gently diffused cinematography, it gives exactly the sense of what the film is going to be for the next two hours: a gauzily poetic, summery sort of movie, summery in the sense that it feels much like the cinematic equivalent of lying in the shade on the hottest day of the year watching the world creep by.
Those men turn out to be escaped convicts, and that car eventually takes them to a hideout that will serve as their base of operations for a series of low-yield bank robberies. More importantly, it will lead the youngest and perhaps most nihilistic of the criminals, Bowie (Keith Carradine) to cross paths with Keechie (Shelley Duvall), an absent, confusing young woman. Love blooms, Bowie makes gestures towards reforming, et cetera.
The strength of the film is absolutely not in its story, but in it's mood and tone, and especially its setting. Generally, it is accurate to observe that Altman is a director well-suited to the feeling of place and time, and in Thives Like Us he recreates Mississippi in 1936 and '37 with more success than I have ever seen that era captured on film - indeed, Thives Like Us feels more like the late '30s than some films I've seen from the late '30s. Altman achieves this without calling any attention to himself, simply making the world full of detail in every corner. Two recurrent elements in particular: the thick-glassed Coca-Cola bottles of the era are everywhere; and you'd be surprised how important a tiny detail like this ends up being, but throughout the film, everyone refers to it as "coke," as in "You want a coke? Let's get a coke. Can I pay for this coke later?" I'm not weighing in on the great "Coke vs. Soda vs. Pop" war,* but it's worth pointing out that you don't hear the genericized trademark in the movies, like, ever. And in Mississippi in the 1930s, you most certainly would have. A tiny detail that matters a lot.
The other element is the radio. After Bowie, in fact, radios seem as though they might have the most lines of any character in the film. And they're not just noise - they're a damn Greek chorus, commenting on the action both sarcastically and sincerely (at the same time, in the case of the film's love scenes). And again, this fits the setting perfectly: it's the rural South, it's the Depression, what other access to the outside world do these people have? It makes sense that the radio is a force commenting on their lives, insofar as the radio is certainly an important element of how they understood the world they lived in.
Thus is setting; what of mood and tone? I hinted about that a bit earlier - languor and laziness and a general sleepy way of things. This is the least violent film about bank robbers that I've ever seen. One time, we follow an actual hit on a bank, but for the rest of the film it's just the convicts relaxing in their hideaway, or Bowie's idyll with Keechie. Under the director's steady guidance, this becomes almost hypnotic in its deliberately patient crawl. In fact, it calls to mind another crime film more concerned with the space between crimes, Terrence Malick's Badlands, and if the Altman film doesn't quite reach its predecessor's level of pure visual poetry, it nevertheless shares with it a celebration of quietude. This is a startlingly gentle film for Altman, and while he makes no attempt at Malick's humanism (the men in Thieves Like Us are unabashed morons, deserving not a hint of respect), he yet gives his characters space to enjoy peace.
This mood could never come about without the central love story, which puts the psychosexual tangle of Bonnie and Clyde to shame. A little bit to do with the script, and a bit to do with Carradine, and a whole hell of a lot to do with Duvall and her greatest director (the director, in fact, of her first five movies). Duvall is not classically beautiful. Fortunately, she is completely aware of this and comfortable about it, and so she makes herself, here and elsewhere, interesting. Which is, let us be completely honest, much more important. And in Thieves Like Us, she is not merely interesting. She is impossible to turn away from, a combination of sex and childishness and inhuman nymph.
The key scene in the film, holding no relationship to the plot whatsoever, occurs midway through, when Bowie watches Keetchie in the bath. It is frank and presumptively sexual, but not erotic in the least; when Duvall rises from the tub, she carries herself in such a way as to feel more like a nude in a classical painting than a naked lady. Sex is had, but sex is not what we see onscreen, anymore than we see violence during the reign of bank-robbing terror. It is almost as though Duvall is not of human flesh, but is rather some kind of spiritual force, and we see it in her face at every moment.
It's this spiritual element that makes the love story a true idyll, fitting it into the film's overall scheme of things. Sex is active and physical, but what goes on between those two lovers is just as gauzy as the rest of the film. "Lazy," I said earlier, and I'll say it again. But in the best possible way: the laziness of droning cicadas and a sluggish river and falling asleep outside. And this film was obscured by the fame of Bonnie and Clyde. Like hell. This is a film about quietude achieved and stolen away, not about morality and violence. Thieves Like Us is the story of a lazy Eden, and although Altman doesn't love his characters enough to leave them there, he just this once was willing to let his audience see that yes, it might be nice to visit for a time.