Monday, February 16, 2015

Thieves Like Us

Robert Altman's THIEVES LIKE US from 1974 is a true work of art; a painterly motion picture that will only marginally remind you of BONNIE AND CLYDE or any other Depression era gangster story aside from its setting and props (such as ubiquitous Coca Cola logos, even on penitentiary signs).  While there is some violence, inevitable in story of bank robbers outrunning the law, Altman is hardly interested in any overt stylization of bloodletting. In other words, business as usual for this most iconoclastic of directors. And if you're not tuned into his unique sensibilities, this movie is unlikely to inspire or engage you. It may in fact bore or even anger you.

Bowie (Keith Carradine) is a fresh faced, aw-shucks young man who has just broken away from a chain gang with partners Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen).  They begin a successful run of bank heists despite respective naivete, hot headedness, alcoholism, and gait problems. Eventually, Bowie meets Keechie (Shelley Duvall), daughter of a gas station attendant the men hole up with for a time. She's shy and not at all worldly. Maybe a little impressed with Bowie's seat of his pants lifestyle and recklessness. I saw shades of Sissy Spacek's Holly in BADLANDS.

It's funny what Altman chooses to focus upon. While central action elapses, others in the peripheries go about their business, like a little boy who goes to get a newspaper. The camera stays on and follows him longer than necessary, while a perhaps more-relevant-to-the-plot conversation continues in the kitchen.  Later, a prison warden shares an opulent lunch with his wife, discussing their next lavish meal and joking about needing more clothes. The director is far more interested in the margins, the life teeming away from the foreground. Even when his camera stays on the lead actors, sometimes we hear background dialogue (and noise) more prominently. This is a distraction, often a deal breaker for many viewers. Did Robert Altman have ADD, or was he just the Ultimate Observer?

I liked the near constant use of classic radio programs and advertisements on the soundtrack. Carefully selected of course to evoke any number of emotions and/or social winks. A repeated line from Romeo and Juliet is very effective during a scene Bowie and Keechie's intimacy.  The final moments of the film - a radio announcer describing the early stages of the Great Depression as folks slowly ascend a stairway in a train station - evoke a loneliness that to me was similar to the close of Altman's final picture, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.  You can manage some easy symbolism in that scene in THIEVES but what makes it effective and perfect is the mood, the emotions behind the imagery.

In THIEVES LIKE US, the sharp observation, fascinating moment to moment gazing and listening, is positively hypnotic. It's not about big moments: who else but Altman would shoot a bank robbery hold up from such an odd, high angle? Purposely not keying in on the "action." This movie is no more about bank robbers than THE LONG GOODBYE was about private detectives. I think Altman probably felt a kinship with Francis Ford Coppola when he said that he really didn't care about the mafia when he filmed THE GODFATHER.  And by then, what else could be said about Mob politics that hadn't already? Altman knew damn well that most stories had been told, and no one else told one quite like him.
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