Thieves Like Us (1974) dir. Robert Altman

7/11 @ Harvard Film Archive


Several films into the post-MASH commercial drift he finally (albeit briefly) arrested with Nashville the following year (1975), Robert Altman took a stab at a trope close to the hearts of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls cabal of auteurs: the romance of the outlaw (cf. Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, inter less obvious alia). Unsurprisingly, his stab is an oblique one, more redolent of jokey ressentiment than elegiac rhapsody or counterculture myth-making. Laconically, even sort of dopily, entertaining on its surface, but packed full of its filmmaker’s favorite subtexts, Thieves Like Us screens tonight at the HFA as part of its comprehensive Altman retrospective.

The film’s set-up is straightforward, even if its setting seems to be sinking into the damp earth beneath it. We begin within an Altmanian murk of dirty drizzle and cloudy dialogue. Deep South Depression-era felon Bowie (a rangy and affable Keith Carradine) breaks out of a Mississippi Delta prison with a pair of older cons (John Schuck and Bert Remsen, both delightfully demented) and the three embark upon a highly lucrative string of bank heists. The fugitives track their rising social profiles and tend to their respective vices as they stuff a succession of suitcases with lucre. But when Bowie’s ambivalence about life on the lam combines with radio-fiddling distraction, a deadly car accident ensues (media kills!) and the trio’s fortunes enter into terminal decline. His falling in love and pantomiming a normal life with Keechie (the ever-sweet, ever-strange Shelley Duvall) doesn’t help matters much either, serving mostly to hasten the fate slated for small-time thieves like him—a fate spared the big bad banks, among other wolves.

But rather than point fingers, Altman holds up mirrors. They’re all over the movie, not least in the kudzu-like proliferation of Coke bottles—there’s even more Coke here, I think, than Dr. Pepper in The Last Picture Show—and some reflect differently, more damagingly, than others. Celebrity is a crude distortion, but so, in Altman’s simulation of 1936 America, is economy—or even, once it has attained a sufficiently rarefied degree of abstraction, society itself. As the “mass” in mass media grew ever-more massive during the early decades of the last century, its amplifying power to create celebrity, by fixing on personalities and projecting phony, funhouse versions of them on a screen fashioned from its own captivated audience—you could even call it the “social fabric,” a confederation of subjectivities stitched together from eye to ear—affected every sphere of public life.

Thieves like Us mordantly acknowledges this then-novel reality in a number of ways, most prominently in the running, killing joke of the outlaws eagerly anticipating (and then critiquing) newspaper coverage of their crimes, and in the regular incorporation of radio broadcasts—original programs like The Shadow (who famously purported to know what evil lurks within the hearts of men), hammy readings of the classics (Romeo & Juliet, affixing the imprimatur of grade A culture to Bowie’s first night with Keechie), fireside chats with FDR; and finally, pointedly, the strident fulminations of notorious home-grown Catholic fascist Father Coughlin, who provides a blaring accompaniment to the slow-motion ascension of passengers up a staircase to board the Fort Worth Sleeper.

Cinema’s position in the hierarchy of time- and self-sucking enchantments may no longer be as dominant as it was in 1974, but it’s had a hell of a ride as ringleader, and—as Altman knew as well as anyone (cf. The Player to see him spell it out)—its preternatural ability to redistribute wealth from reality to spectacle ensures film’s ongoing prominence in the fraternal order of thieves.

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