Release Date(s)1974 (November 25, 2014)
Studio(s)United Artists (Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: C
- Extras Grade: C-
Thieves Like Us is an odd duck, even in a film canon as eccentric as master director Robert Altman’s. The movie follows a trio of jailbirds played by Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen and John Schuck on a spree of bank robberies through Depression-era Mississippi. While bank robberies sound exciting, and some of the film’s marketing collateral entices with the impression of a Bonnie and Clyde-type barn burner, the story here, such as it is, focuses almost solely on the smaller moments and peripheral relationships that comprise the robbers’ lives on the run. Nearly all of the action and gravitas is off screen, and we only see a single uneventful robbery, 90 minutes into the two-hour runtime. When one of Carradine’s partners is gunned down we hear about it after the fact it on the radio (and just barely; the reception is only good enough to catch bits and pieces of the newscast!). We know from the radio and newspapers the robbers read aloud that they’ve become notorious to the public at large, but they never interact with anyone outside their small circle so we don’t know what that public actually thinks or feels about them and all they express to each other is petty jealousy over who gets the most ink and attention.
It’s not at all surprising that Altman would take a circuitous approach to a story, and in many respects it’s admirable that the director had the stones to fight that hard against audience (and studio) expectations. While a central tenet of the Altman legend is that he was often wronged by bungling studio executives who didn’t know how to categorize and therefore market his films effectively (undoubtedly true of McCabe and Mrs. Miller,The Long Goodbye, Nashville and many others), I actually feel for the studio with this one. To coin a phrase, there’s not a lot of there there with Thieves. The problem with working around the fringes of a storyline as Altman almost invariably does, is that when the center doesn’t develop natural gravity it just keeps spinning out farther and farther with no discernible story or obvious point that emerges to pull it together into a cohesive whole of any kind.
The movie’s most successful with screwball humor, but while the characters are sometimes endearing and all well played (Bert Remsen is colorful and funny as he is in other Altman films, and Shelley Duvall is strangely appealing) there’s just not much emotion or personality for the audience to invest in. For all the screen time spent depicting life on the run, there really isn’t anything in particular about that the film really seems to want to say. At the end it appears that Louise Fletcher’s Mattie has ratted out Carradine’s Bowie, or is at least complicit in his death by not warning him he’s about to be surrounded by the cops, but the movie doesn’t really say anything of note about betrayal or family ties either. As Altman’s moving camera so often does you feel like you’re observing these things happening in an organic way, and is certainly as cinematically adept as you’d expect, but it really doesn’t make you feel anything for or about what’s onscreen.
Altman was nothing as a filmmaker if not incredibly prolific throughout his long career. Following 1973’s The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us was one of two films he directed in 1974 (the other is the excellent and vastly underrated California Split which I hope to see on Blu-ray and review here one day), and during the shoot reportedly sent screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville, TN to scout locations for a project that ended up being shelved. However, the notes she took became the basis for 1975’s Nashville, the artistic high-water mark of Altman’s towering work from the early 1970’s.
While I am painting a portrait of a kind of stay busy “tweener” of a movie sandwiched between superior Altman projects, a coda to Thieves Like Us is revealed in its obvious influence on substantial films that came after it. I defy anyone who sees this to not be reminded insistently of two other screwball comedies, Raising Arizona and especially O Brother, Where Art Thou. Methinks the Coens are huge fans of this era of Altman’s career; in my eyes both Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski pay winking homage to The Long Goodbye as well.
Kino Lorber has done a nice job with the HD image quality here. After a rough credit sequence (often the case with credits optically overlaid onto film back in the day) it settles in with very natural film-like detail and depth, and solid blacks that provide a nice foundation for the imagery. Grain is present and alive, but not distracting or overly noisy-looking. The colors, and flesh tones especially, are saturated impressively but natural and appealing. Just a hint of diffusion that I suspect is present in the original elements lends a period feel to the authentic-feeling rural locations. The mono sound is not artsy by any stretch, but is clear and intelligibly rendered with both dialog and the songs and stories pouring from the radio throughout the movie’s runtime.
Extras are comprised of the original trailer, and an observational, but somewhat sedate commentary from Altman obviously from the DVD era since the great director passed away in 2006. The trailer is actually a hilarious mess, taking the 30 seconds of action in the movie and trying to make something with apparent mass appeal of it!
Thieves Like Us is definitely an acquired taste that probably best serves obsessive Altman completists (like me), whereas most casual viewers would be put off by the slow pace and nearly complete lack of drama. Kino Lorber has done a respectable job with this Blu-ray, which is film-like with clear dialog and gets the job done.
- Shane Buettner