Thieves Like Us
Mississippi dreamin'

by Catherine Plumb

from Jump Cut, no. 2, 1974, pp. 5-6
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

Robert Altman’s latest film, THIEVES LIKE US, belongs to the current vogue of criminal couple movies. Of the three films in this genre now in release (Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS and Stephen Spielberg’s SUGARLAND EXPRESS complete the triad), THIEVES LIKE US is the one film to find its source in fiction. Its fragments have been lifted almost intact from a 1937 Edward Anderson novel of the same name, while the other two films derive from actual occurrences. Altman’s is also the one film of the three to get close to its characters, to infuse them with a life of their own. In BADLANDS, detachment springs from a conscious choice of the director and works a frightening, clinical magic; in SUGARLAND EXPRESS, it’s a matter of default and falls flat. Altman doesn't look at his characters, like Malick, as if he were discovering a new strain of virus, but he doesn't share Spielberg’s subtle contempt for them either. In SUGARLAND EXPRESS, the’ characters are fawned on like adorable puppies, their excesses indulged because of the pleasure they give.

In THIEVES LIKE US, the characters are not merely products of the American Dream; they're the dreamers who keep it going, as well. They're myth buyers, consumers who devour the Dream as if, at first, their identities and then their very lives depend upon the intake. In fact, for some of them, the price is just that steep. But there is a stubborn glow about these people that often eclipses their desperation and marks them as part of Altman’s growing collection of beautiful losers.

As in most of Altman’s previous films, the core of THIEVES LIKE US is firmly rooted in the director’s vision of a rotten American Dream. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER—released in 1971 and still the finest expression of that vision—established Altman’s reputation as a Hollywood director with the talent and impertinence to meddle with a precious American myth and explode it. THIEVES LIKE US, set in rural Mississippi in the midst of the Depression, is a reflection on that explosion—an examination, in fact, of the debris.

In MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, the Dream outgrew itself and took a few people down with it. One of the victims was a young, lanky wanderer played by Keith Carradine; one of the survivors, a skinny young widow--turned-whore played by Shelley Duvall. Carradine and Duvall reappear in THIEVES LIKE US as if they're part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, no longer on the periphery of the tale, but dead center. The awkwardly handsome Carradine plays Bowie Bowers, a 23 year-old escaped convict who pursues manhood and courts death as though he’s got all the time in the world. Duvall plays Keechie Mobley, Bowie’s Coke guzzling, doe eyed orphan of a girlfriend who, despite her fragile body, keeps a firmer grip on the Dream. Like virtually all of Altman’s heroines, Keechie is a born survivor. And like most of Altman’s heroes, Bowie is not. After serving seven years of a life sentence for murder, Bowie has a dream that’s a little harder to grasp, as if it’s lost its definition through disuse.

Carradine is an understated, yet surprisingly physical actor and his flagpole of a body suggests not so much a lack of food from Bowie’s years in prison as it does a lack of vital experience. Watching Carradine lope through his role, you half expect Bowie’s new found freedom to soften some of those crazy right angles, to pad his peculiarly adolescent frame. Bowie is the affable, passive partner, whether in crime (escaping from prison and robbing banks with his two fellow escapees) or in make believe marriage with Keechie. He’s the foil against which the others bounce their boredom and anger and fear. And if Bowie believes his life sentence is behind him, now that he’s escaped from prison, Altman sees it differently. And right from the start.

The opening sequence of THIEVES LIKE US, while recording the prison break, suggests that Bowie’s course has remain unchanged. Through the softly ironic cinematography of Jean Buffety, Bowie’s escape seems no more unnatural to the lush Mississippi landscape than would a flight of birds. The camera behaves like a dozing observer on a humid summer day, gently awakened at the film’s beginning by the hum of a motorized handcar transporting its anonymous, human cargo back to the prison farm at Parchman, Mississippi. With limpid, dew-like gaze, the camera follows the movement of the intruding vehicle as it moves from right to left, until the car finally disappears beyond a cluster of trees. As if looking for another sign of movement, now that sleep has been broken, the camera lazily pans further to the left, pausing to watch two figures row across a lake. The rowers reach the opposite shore, leave their boat, and nervously exchange bits of muffled dialogue. An automobile approaches, carrying two additional men. Suddenly the trap is sprung. Clothes are changed; anonymity thrown off; roles reversed. The driver is taken prisoner, and the three prisoners from Parchman are free.
Freshly sprung, the prisoners are animated and playful. With names suddenly discernable on a previously muted soundtrack and faces now framed in close ups, Bowie, Chickamaw, and T-Dubb seem the antithesis of anonymous prisoners lumped together on a handcar bound for prison. Yet, Altman’s manipulation of visual plastics here implies quite the opposite.

The commandeered Model A that grudgingly carries the escapees to-ward freedom, rattling and sputtering out its indignation, moves in the same direction as the handcar that opened the sequence—not literally back to the prison farm, but from right to left. Although a common de-vice for creating tension within a shot, the right to left movement also serves Altman thematically. By paralleling the path of the first car, the camera suggests that Bowie and his friends, in their flight to freedom, are merely exchanging one form of prison for another. By repeating the right to left movement at various points in the film, each repetition signaling a key event or scene that propels Bowie forward, Altman prepares you for doom. And that preparation is essential. THIEVES LIKE US is not concerned with single acts of heroism or isolated instances of death: it has no need to shock. Its events grow organically from tone and texture and fall into sad, inevitable place.

Anderson’s book evokes a sense of doom, as well, but primarily through the mouths of its characters. Written in the middle of the Depression, the novel lacks the wry, affectionate humor and visual grace endemic to Altman’s style. When Anderson tries for atmosphere directly, his tone is labored and dry. Altman’s film, on the other hand, virtually floats along.
Buffety’s moist cinematography generates the look of a thirties period piece, to be sure, but doesn't stop there. Like a silent conspirator in league with the elements, the camera bridges the gap between one shower and the next, soaking the film in a liquid, suffocating softness. It’s a texture richly suited to the suggestion of unchecked vegetation, of overripe dreams and decay, and it is reinforced by the conflict between a verdant landscape and the increasingly muted and somber colors in which Altman shrouds his characters.

Yet sobriety—a key to the Anderson novel—is not the spirit that moves THIEVES LIKE US. Visually, Altman achieves a sense of wasteland through an almost perverse excess of water. Aurally, he gets it with humor. Working in collaboration with Calder Willingham and Joan Twinberry, Altman has devised a delightfully mischievous screenplay that relaxes the severity of Anderson’s dialogue while preserving major portions of it. The jocularity running through THIEVES LIKE US doesn't counter the book’s bleak naturalism but gently supports it like a friendly, lumpy cushion. For example, there’s an ongoing joke in the film between Bowie and Keechie, a silly riddle to which she never has the answer. “What’s the Mississippi State Animal?” Bowie might ask, or Flower, or Tree. The answer: a Squashed Dog in the Road; a Weed; a Telephone Pole. Anonymous, barren images like these suggest not the state of Mississippi, but a state of desperation.

The critical complaints waged against the film’s extensive use of thirties radio programs on its soundtrack echo the objections made to the film’s elemental cinematography: pure artifice, period recreation for its own sake. Nonsense! One of the film’s primary characters—its antagonist, really—is the Radio. For just as Altman’s characters are myth buyers, the Radio functions here as myth barker, hawking its American Dream of love songs and glamour and Norge Home Appliances to people who can't afford the price. The use of Radio works logically and naturalistically throughout most of THIEVES LIKE US to create often brutally funny and sometimes merely pathetic contrasts between the illusions to which the characters cling and the banal reality of their lives.

For example, one marvelously quiet sequence catches Mattie (T-Dubb’s sister-in-law, played by Louise Fletcher, with whom the trio holes up for awhile), hair in pin curls, methodically washing her dinner dishes and listening to “The Shadow” while two of her three guests play cops and robbers with her children. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” the radio croons, as the third gangster, Bowie, steps into the kitchen and offers to dry the dishes.

The banality of the bank robberies is underscored in the same manner. Although three holdups occur, only one is actually shown. During the first two, we wait outside with the driver of the get-away car listening to “Gangbusters” or “Seabiscuit.” During the third robbery, which results in a shooting, the bank radio is tuned to President Franklin Roosevelt addressing the American people on the subjects of prosperity and security.

Once, however, Altman briefly loses control of the device. During a love scene between Bowie and Keechie, a serialized version of Romeo and Juliet plays in the background. As the two young lovers fumble through their first attempts at sex, the radio host comments, “Thus did Romeo and Juliet consummate their first interview by falling madly in love with each other.” The line is repeated—divorced, in fact, from the logical progression of the broadcast—each time Bowie and Keechie make love in the scene. A single use of the line would have sufficed to poke fun at the archetypes Altman sets up here—and later destroys—and would have been consistent with the film’s use of Radio before and after the scene. Instead, the radio becomes an outsider, addressing you directly rather than through the lives of the characters, calling attention to its own considered cleverness. It’s an amusing moment, but one not funny enough to compensate for the dramatic imbalance it creates.

As one of several imbalances in the film, this moment of self-congratulation is among the least disturbing. A major problem’ in plot is created, for example, by the sudden, unexplained appearance of a bench warrant in Bowie’s hands, a paper that serves as Chickamaw’s passport to free-dom late in the film. The impact of its subsequent revocation (Bowie’s desertion of Chickamaw after the second prison break) is diluted. Yet this is a pivotal point in the film. An entire scene seems to be missing at another point by which we could have measured for ourselves distortions of the press which are merely implied. A reference to marijuana as “pot”—whether or not its use in the rural South during the Depression can be documented—is dislocating in a period setting. And, finally, there is the predictable indictment of Keechie-as-Woman.

Yet, THIEVES LIKE US remains a haunting and disquieting film and suffers little diffusion from what seems a plethora of gangster-couple movies in our midst. It entertains defects, but its strengths far outweigh them. And one of those strengths lies in characterization: the people who inhabit THIEVES LIKE US grow. Not in a universal or tragic sense, and not in a way that might save them. Some become more foolish; some more enraged; some become old before their time. But they change—like people you live with—gradually, naturally, at times almost imperceptibly. And, because they change, they live.

If Altman’s insistence on perverting Keechie’s archetype is a bit jarring, I suspect it’s because he goes to great lengths to preserve the other archetypes in THIEVES LIKE US. For example, T-Dubb, the leader of Bowie’s gang, fits the comic mold of cuckold though he doesn't live long enough to be cuckolded in the film. Played by Bert Remsen, he seems a far older man than the 44 year old desperado described in the accounts of his prison break. With greasy gray hair and halting gait, he leches after and marries Mattie’s young sister, a beautician whose limited knowledge of the spectrum is liquefied on a weekly basis and applied to her head. T-Dubb chases youth as though, like his wife, it were for sale. He cuts his hair and dyes it a shoe polish black and insists the grotesque disguise is necessary to elude the Law. In fact, it’s a feeble attempt to elude old age. In both cases, of course, it fails. T-Dubb is the first to die.

The character of Chickamaw, though not as richly drawn as T-Dubb, dates back in film to at least 1916 and HOMUNCULUS. Played menacingly by John Schuck, Chickamaw is a huge, brooding monster of a man denied love. In the film, he hides behind jokes and whiskey and robbing banks until the silent rage that fills him erupts. The most frightening image in THIEVES LIKE US is not found in its robberies or even in its deaths, but in the striped figure of Chickamaw, the escaped prisoner standing alone on a country road, unable to contain his wrath or comprehend his desertion.

In the world THIEVES LIKE US recreates, a peculiarly anonymous title is reserved for members of any group society wants to collar: children, for example, or servants; prisoners, even dogs. And rolled around on the tongues of the people closest to him, Bowie’s name invariably becomes “boy” . Indeed, like T-Dubb and Chickamaw, Bowie is waging a losing battle with anonymity. When calling his name, whether in rage or anguish or fun, his friends seem to be addressing not Bowie Bowers, but a faceless, nameless form, an idea that might be personified by anyone. Yet, these are the people from whom Bowie seeks definition—his criminal pals on one hand, Keechie and domesticity on the other. Almost through a process of elimination (T-Dubb’s death and Bowie’s desertion of the raving Chickamaw), Bowie returns to the one shelter left him, the cabin he shares with Keechie. Altman’s shelters, however, unfailingly collapse on those who need them most.

Keechie survives not only Bowie’s death, but the overt hostility Altman generally displays toward his female characters—at least, until the end of the film. Keechie stands as the one Altman heroine who is not crazed, sex-starved, or repulsively submissive; she isn't a whore and she’s not a double-crosser. But she is a woman—if only a whisper of one when we know her—and for Altman that means she’s a survivor. In the Anderson novel, the Romeo and Juliet analogy reaches its logical conclusion: Bowie and Keechie die together. In the film, only Bowie is killed.

Yet, survival in a world heavy with corruption carries with it an element of guilt, a concept to which Altman reverts in THIEVES LIKE US almost as an afterthought. The final frames of the film virtually burst with a sudden indictment of Keechie. Her stark, black dress, her severely coiffed hair and rigid self-composure as she tells her quiet lies and swigs her Coke bear such a striking resemblance to Mattie (the woman who betrays Bowie to the Law) that Keechie instantly becomes a marked woman. It’s as though, by drawing the visual parallel to Mattie, Altman were warning you, you, “Watch that one. She’s trouble.” In fact, she is not. She’s frightened and bored and if she’s guilty of anything, it’s of maintaining a persistence of vision, of keeping a firmer grip on a vapid dream even as it collapses on Bowie. And if Keechie still has her Coke—well, Mrs. Miller had her opium and the townspeople of Presbyterian Church their religion. To the survivors goes the Dream, then, from one generation to the next.


Thieves Like Us and the love scene

by Virginia Wright Wexman

from Jump Cut, no. 2, 1974, p. 7.

In 1583, Sir Philip Sidney faulted the plays of his time for putting comic scenes into their tragedies. In his view, the playwrights

“thrust in the clown by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency nor discretion, so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor the right sportfulness, is by their mongrel tragicomedy obtained.”

He was speaking of dramatists who flouted the tradition of unmitigated high seriousness established in classical Greek tragedy by including scenes of comic relief enacted by low, clownish characters in their tragedies. Being completely under the spell of ancient Greek drama and the theories of Aristotle concerning unity of plot, Sidney did not realize that the inclusion of these comic scenes actually added to the impact of Elizabethan tragedies. Instead of playing on a narrow range of emotions as the Greeks had done, the Elizabethan playwrights, most notably Shakespeare, aimed at a fresh, distinctive effect by appealing to a wider range of feeling in their audience—laughter and affection as well as pity and terror and the like—which were all subsumed into a tragic catharsis at the end.

In the twentieth century we have passed beyond even this departure from Aristotelian norms. The clown is not only thrust into our tragedies, he is often cast in the role of the tragic hero. This phenomenon is most striking in the case of film, the most popular storytelling art of our time. The emotional intensity of movies like LA STRADA, BONNIE AND CLYDE, and PIERROT LE FOU centers on protagonists who are at once farcical and sublime. In such films, the main characters may be buffoonish and laugh-able, but we never doubt that a tragic fate lies in store for them. Instead of feeling amused, affectionately indulgent, compassionate and fearful at various moments throughout the action as in Elizabethan drama, we are now asked to respond with all these emotions at the same time. These new stories are not tragicomedies but true tragic forms which include a pronounced comic strain throughout. In spite of all the low humor in LA STRADA, BONNIE AND CLYDE, and PIERROT LE FOU, we never expect the characters whom we like and admire to find comic fulfillment, and the inevitable downfall of each inspires us with the tragic emotions of pity and terror.

Robert Altman’s ability to blend comic and tragic elements in a single episode is masterfully displayed in his construction of the first major love scene in his newest film, THIEVES LIKE US. Though many features of this scene make us laugh at the two awkward, countrified young lovers, Bowie and Keechie, we are also encouraged to sympathize strongly with them and to see them as heading toward an inevitable tragic doom.
Altman heightens the audience’s amusement at the naive phrases and gestures of Bowie and Keechie’s lovemaking by self-consciously playing them against a popularized radio dramatization of Romeo and Juliet. “Thus did Romeo and Juliet consummate their first interview by falling madly in love,” announces the radio narrator as we see the two depression-era lovers grope toward one another on the bed. The same comment is repeated verbatim twice as Bowie and Keechie re-enact their initial sexual encounter.

We may laugh at the humor in a scene like this, but at a deeper level the Romeo and Juliet radio program provides more than just an amusing contrast to the story of ignorant country people. Altman has subtitled his film “A Romance,” and we understand by this point that it is a tragic romance, like the one devised by Shakespeare five hundred years ago. Bowie is a hunted man, wanted by the police “dead or alive,” and just prior to the love scene he has been involved in the shooting of two lawmen. The love between Bowie and Keechie is doomed from the outset just as surely as the love of Romeo and Juliet is. In addition to its comic function, the radio broadcast gives the love scene a feeling of poignancy by continually reminding us of this parallel. Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, who play the two young lovers, project such attractive openness and likeability that, in spite of Altman’s gentle mockery, we can't help caring deeply about what will inevitably happen to them. Their very awkwardness is endearing, since it comes as such a welcome change from the plastic slickness of other Hollywood personalities. Both seem completely natural, and their innocent charm is especially appropriate here, for this love scene is one which transpires between a young girl who has never “had a fella” and a boy who has been locked away in jail from the time he was sixteen—and presumably has never had a girl.

Altman plays up our feelings of sympathetic involvement with Carradine and Duvall by photographing them in soft light, using gently flowing tracking shots. We share the lovers’ sense of newness in each of their three sexual encounters by viewing each one from a different angle: the first from the foot of the bed and the last two from either side. While the radio announcer’s repetitive comments present these acts of copulation as simply more of the same thing, Altman’s visual strategy gives us a more subjective view of the lovemaking as it is experienced by Bowie and Keechie themselves.

Thus, despite its surface comedy, the scene inspires us with strong feelings of tenderness and compassion toward the young lovers and a tragic apprehension about the inevitable doom that awaits them. The aesthetic merit of THIEVES LIKE US derives from its daringly eclectic blend of comic and tragic elements. We may find ourselves laughing at many points during the lovemaking episode, but the sequence as a whole draws on a wide range of emotions to achieve an ultimately tragic impact. Altman’s extraordinary ability to integrate these normally disparate feelings in a single scene is a key factor in his artistry, an artistry which easily justifies his pre-eminence among American directors.