Thieves Like Us (1974): Robert Altman’s Iconic Feature, Starring Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall

In Thieves Like Us (1974), one of his best and most iconic features, Robert Altman continues to experiment with the conventions of Hollywood’s genre films.

Thieves Like Us
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This film could be seen as his response to and commentary on Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (949) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us is neither nostalgic nor mythic; there is no attempt to glorify the criminal protagonist as a hero. And unlike They Live by Night, which uses the stylistic of film noir, it is neither sad nor depressing, using instead irony with some comic relief.

Shifting the locale to Mississippi, it is a tale of three bank robbers, set against the context of Depression America. The film abounds with icons of popular culture, the most important of which is Coca Cola. In almost every scene, there is a bottle of Coke; even the State Penitentiary has advertisement signs. Altman suggests Coke was one of the few unifying objects in an increasingly diversified society. The drink was affordable by every class, and, being new, appealed to everyone. But drinking Coca Cola (and, by the same token, going to the movies, or listening to the radio) establishes only a superficial equality among the different classes. Coca Cola, and pop culture in general, thus function as opium to the masses, diverting the masses’ attention from their real class interests.

The male camaraderie in Thieves Like Us is also superficial, created under circumstantial pressures, rather than genuine need for sharing interests. The three criminals are so different that their attempt to create an a camaraderie is bound to fail. The protagonist is Bowie (Keith Carradine), a 23 year old man, whose father had died when he was young. Joining a carnival, he began his criminal career at sixteen when he participated in a holdup, for which he served seven years in prison. When the film begins, Bowie converses in the most natural way with a dog. “Do you belong to someone, or are you a thief like me” pointing out the meaning of the title (we are all thieves). A loner, Bowie is unable to abide by society’s norms, but also unable to create a meaningful bond with the bank robbers or with Keechie (Shelley Duvall), the girl he falls in love with. Keechie is a kindred (lonely) soul who, unlike Bonnie, lacks the looks or glamour; she is a plain, ordinary girl, a victim of society.

Bowie is a (born) loser, but he is a good kid, driven into crime by circumstances; he is neither a countercultural rebel nor a crazed killer. “It was him or me,” Bowie explains to Keechie the motivation for a murder based on self-defence. He still maintains his simplicity and straightforward approach. In fact, initially he can’t rob a bank because “he doesn’t know how.” Not committed to crime as a way of life, he would like to conform to society’s rules. He is an outsider who, given the choice, would like to become an insider, reform and go straight. At heart, Bowie is a romantic fool, a gentleman, addressing Keechie as Miss. He is surprised she has had no men in her life: “You never had one, even to walk you to church” “You think I should” she asks.

The romance is first love for both. When he gives her a watch, she doesn’t even know how to wear it. Their passion is consummated during a radio broadcast of the “most celebrated love story.” As they make love, we hear the line from Romeo and Juliet, “thus did Romeo and Juliet consummate their first interview by falling madly in love with each other.” It’s an ironic comment: Both are products of mass culture, reflected in radio soaps. “You are not supposed to do it so often,” she says, and it’s clear she has read it in a confessional magazine. They are grown-up children, who continue to talk like children. “Do you like me a whole lot” she asks. Driving to an isolated house, where they will enact out marriage, sharing a household together (similar to They Live by Night and Rebel Without A Cause), Keechie listens to “American Housewives Commercial for Refrigerator, Queen of Kitchen” on the radio.

By contrast, Bowie’s two mates are outsiders, professional criminals. An aging robber, T-Dub (Bert Remsen) is reckless, boasting about his track record, “this will be my 36th bank robbery.” Chicamaw (John Schuck), the third partner, is a heavy-drinker and near psychopath who takes pleasure at rehearsing robberies with Lula and Mattie’s children. Bowie is not part of it, observing Chicamaw’s games from his room, thus becoming a self-reflexive viewer of his own activities.

Most of the robberies are not shown on screen: The camera keeps the viewers outside the banks, at a distance. The only robbery shown is the last one, shot from a high angle. As they are forced to kill a teller, President Roosevelt delivers a radio speech about the importance of security and peace and the government’s commitment to these values.

Bowie’s strong need to belong first drives him to his male friends, though unlike Bonnie, the gang does not function as a surrogate family. He then switches his emotional involvement to Keechie, trying to establish a household with her, which turns out to be a futile effort as well. Coming back from the robbery, Keechie charges: “You lied to me, liar. It was me or them. You took them.” The two groups can’t coexist in harmony; he drifts back and forth. At this point, he belongs to the male group out of obligation. But now it’s too late to establish a union with Keechie.

The revelatory ending lends significance to the narrative and the film’s approach. Arriving at the Grapes Motor Hotel, Bowie and Keechie are greeted by children who play with firecracks. The film uses children the way that many Westerns (High Noon) have: they play with fire, foretelling the audience a bloody and dangerous scene is soon to follow. She’s in bed, and he voices his dreams about a better future, living in a farm. Mattie (Louise Fletcher), T-Dub’s sister-in-law, betrays Bowie, causing his death. Standing behind a screen door, Keechie watches how Bowie gets mowed down. She is drinking Coca Cola and her screaming is shown in slow motion. The film draws a parallel between the police shooting the shack to pieces (in a long sequence) and Keechie smashing the Coke bottle; the windows and the glass bottle are shattered to smithereens.

Both They Live by Night and Bonnie and Clyde end with the death of their protagonists, but here Altman is also innovative. Bowie’s is not an heroic or ritualistic death (as in Bonnie and Clyde), he is reduced to a body bag.

In the final scene, the pregnant Keechie is at the train station. While waiting, the evangelist Father Coughlin delivers an impassioned Resurrection speech to farmers and laborers about the need to bear burden in silence. Keeche has no money and no ticket, and while bearing her grief within her, she talks to a woman seated next to her (who drinks Coke). “The child will not be named after his father,” she says, assuring that Bowie’s death is not going to be mythologized. This stands in sharp opposition to endings in which the protagonists march into history (Young Mr. Lincoln) or myth (Bonnie and Clyde). Later, Keechie merges with the masses who climb up the staircase; she is now an ordinary woman, one of a large and faceless crowd.

Thieves Like Us offers a realistic feel of the Southern countryside during the Depression: the dreary gas stations, the churches, the Exchange bank, the Grapes Motor Motel. However, the narrative’s most innovative element is its soundtrack and the way it interrelates with the story. The radio is playing all the time. At times, the characters themselves listen to the radio: There are long montages which show every member pursuing his interests while listening to the radio. In fact, Bowie is so distracted by the radio that he has a car accident. The second, and more interesting, use is when the radio provides ironic commentary on the protagonists. For example, when Bowie first meets Keechie, the radio plays a “Firestone” commercial. And when the three rob a bank, the radio plays “Gangbusters,” a popular show in the l930s. When the couple makes love, Altman uses a soap-opera version of Romeo and Juliet. In this sense, the protagonists are never alone; the radio is always on.

The film stands out in its clarity of vision and controlled artistic execution. Its style is relaxed and casual, in sharp departure from that of Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. The film is successful in both telling a story and commenting on it, by distancing the characters from their actions, and by distancing the viewers from the characters. In Thieves Like Us, the protagonists possess self-reflexivity, whereas in Badlands they show little awareness of what they are doing. With the exception of Paper Moon, all the aforementioned films employed similar strategies: distancing viewers from the narratives.

The notable Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris described Thieves Like Us as “another carefully composed exercise in chilling disenchantment,” a strategy that might have accounted for their failure at the box-office–unlike the enormous success of Bonnie and Clyde, which encouraged audiences to identify with its two chic heroes.

Of the five aforementioned films, Badlands is the most self-conscious, though Thieves Like Us is the most original, narratively and stylistically.