Thieves Like Us is an Altman picture that comes smack in the middle of some of his all-time greats – MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye precede it, and Nashville, 3 Women and A Wedding follow it. These all come from 1970 – 1978, and his prolificness is compounded when you consider that Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split and Buffalo Bill and The Indians also came out in this span.
The only one I haven’t seen of these is Buffalo Bill and The Indians, so that film notwithstanding, Thieves Like Us, released in 1974, is Altman’s weakest film of the bunch.
There’s the inevitable comparison to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and there’s also a whole lot of dustbowl-era types, ala Boxcar Bertha (1972) influence. Of course, Thieves Like Us, from an Edward Anderson novel of the same name, is not the same narrative as either of the aforementioned.
Bowie (Keith Carradine), Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen) break out of jail. Bowie is wide-eyed and innocent, despite being the only one doing time for murder. Chicamaw is drunk and aggressive, T-Dub is the crippled leader. They get right to doing what they (ie Chicamaw and T-Dub) do best: robbing banks. Along the way they run into Keechie (Altman discover Shelley Duvall) and Bowie is immediately infatuated. They fall in love, the law closes in, and tensions rise.
There are a few SPOILERS here, though none that should come as much of a surprise. Narratively, there are some major differences between Thieves Like Us (TLU) and Bonnie and Clyde. For one, Keechie is no Bonnie. She’s against Bowie’s criminal life and tries to get him to steer straight. Bowie for that matter is no Clyde. He’s certainly not impotent. And he’s the least enthusiastic about the bank jobs. TLU is therefore less of a ‘love and crime spree’ story than it is ‘love or crime spree’ story.
Perhaps one of the more notable comparison points is the ending. The closing of Penn’s film is famous. Bonnie and Clyde go out in a hail of slow-motion bullets. The camera cuts regularly and often looks at them from above. TLU features another violent ending, but with notable differences: the violence is off-screen, only one of the two is killed, and the camera fixes itself in a fairly neutral, eye-level and wide position.
Penn’s operatic, inflected ending is in direct opposition’s to Altman’s which only shows blood at the end as Bowie is carted out and his bloody hand drags on the ground. Altman’s (ending, not entire film) is less celebratory and also less judgmental.
Bonnie and Clyde is of course notable for, among other things, being one of a handful of films that really pushed aside the old Production Code and ushered in the MPAA ratings system. It’s on-screen violence, alongside language and starkness in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Moon is Blue, sexuality in Baby Doll and a small cluster of other films signaled to Hollywood that a new era was dawning. By 1970 the system was firmly entrenched and well on its way to the familiar G, PG, PG-13, R that we know today. TLU is the oddball film then that fits into a certain genre (or genres) that produced films that were at time intentionally at odds with the MPAA, and intentionally pushing the envelope, that doesn’t really push the boundaries. Inherent in the thief-protagonist, thriller/gangster genre is violence and change.
Look at Underworld (pre-Code) and Scarface (Code-era) in the earlier part of the century alongside Bonnie and Clyde. Scarface, in 1932, was made during the Production Code and, despite its on-screen text urging against violence, still glorified it. Underworld, in 1927, did much the opposite. There’s a strange parallel to be made here given the film at hand: Underworld aligns with Thieves Like Us as Scarface aligns with Bonnie and Clyde in terms of violence. But if we look at this in terms of pre-Code/MPAA versus post-Code/MPAA it should be Underworld and Bonnie and Clyde versus Scarface and Thieves Like Us.
So why is this important? Well for one, it points to a lesson learned in Hollywood. The Production Code was ineffective at its outset. Though it’s difficult to imagine that “maverick” Robert Altman conceding to a ratings system, perhaps TLU was made with an awareness of the power of the MPAA. Further, it points to a differing trend in filmmaking some 40 years later. The New Hollywood that was rising in the late 60s and into the 70s was more interested in form (and at times formal homage) than in fighting a battle for content, particularly as they were given relative carte blanche until the bubble burst with 1980’s Heaven’s Gate. TLU is a prime example of this. This isn’t a modern-day Haneke ‘offscreen violence to further a message’ style, as much as it is Altman’s idea of a Coca Cola-filled, naive countryside, complete with his trademark swooping zooms and rollicking Orson Welles as The Phantom radio-soundtrack. This is safe Robert Altman country, miles away from the despair of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and more closely aligned to the celebratory nature of Nashville (sans assassination). This is Altman that presupposes his later A Prairie Home Companion. Even though the final 10 minutes of TLU consist of two acts of violence, this is less cautionary tale as it is Butch Cassidy myth-making.