Filmmakers are an intrepid, brazen breed of human beings. Tell them something cannot or should not be done, and they’ll go ahead and do it anyways. In the case of the 1974 film Thieves Like Us, someone must have told Robert Altman, “Why make a movie adaptation of a book that’s already been turned into one of the greatest films ever?” For Thieves Like Us shares the same source material as Nicholas Ray’s beautiful, overlooked 1949 classic They Live By Night, and when I say They Live By Night is one of the best films ever, I’m not exaggerating–to my mind, it really is. Both films are adapted from the 40s pulp crime novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson.* I think I can be excused in coming into the movie with an obvious bias, almost positive Thieves Like Us would pale in comparison to one of my favorite films.
Generally, classics can’t be improved upon, and I’d say cinema history adequately proves this. The Manchurian Candidate, for example, was a phenomenal film back when Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey, Janet Leigh (from Psycho), and Angela Lansbury** all made it. Then, in 2004, Jonathan Demme, Liev Schreiber, Vera Farmiga, Meryl Streep, and Denzel Washington all got together to remake it. You’d think with an all-star cast, a big name director, and great source material it’d make for a great film. Instead, it was a piece of cinematic trash. It didn’t just pale in comparison to the classic, it frankly just paled of its own accord.
Not so with Thieves Like Us. According to IMDB, Robert Altman had not even seen They Live By Night when he decided to make the picture. I’m guessing he watched it at some point, but his viewing of it didn’t overtly affect his version of the story. One big difference would be that Nicholas Ray’s film is tightly plotted, whereas Altman tells the same story but it’s half an hour longer, meaning he loosens the reins and lets the film play out at an ambling clip.
The difference owed something to the respective eras the films were made. In the forties, a reel of film could fit around 10-12 minutes of the movie, and so the longer it was, the more reels the studio would have to produce and send to different theaters, so cheaper movies had little choice but to be as short as possible. Also, filmgoers expected movies to be fast paced, especially film noirs. In the 70s though, largely from the import of European films by directors like Godard, Truffaut and Antonioni, America came to accept slower and longer films, and the work of many filmmakers from that period reflected that, such as Francis Ford Coppola, John Shlesinger, Sidney Lumet, and Robert Altman. After glancing at a handful of viewer reviews of Thieves Like Us, I saw people’s main complaint was that it was too slow, which I think says something about our time, as if we’ve reverted back to wanting speed at all times.
The story of Thieves Like Us involves a motley group of misfits escaping their prison sentences and meeting up in rural shacks to plan out their next robberies. If this sounds like a generic heist film, I’ll go ahead and tell you it’s not. Like the Nicholas Ray film, this isn’t about slick bank heists like you’d see in the Ocean’s 11 series, nor is it about charming, likeable robbers like with Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. It’s actually about a rather sad group of individuals whom the graces of society plainly overlooked. None act like they’ve received a decent education or had a decent meal in years. The story has a definite Faulkner quality to it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the author of the novel was inspired by Faulkner’s Light in August, with which Thieves Like Us contains many similarities.
The other reason why I’d say that this isn’t your run of the mill heist film is because, after about the first half hour, it’s not a heist film at all. Do you remember how Hitchcock misleads the viewer into thinking Vertigo is a ghost story, or that Psycho is a heist movie, or that The Birds is a romance? Thieves Like Us pulls a similar hat trick. You think you’re in for a crime thriller, and then Altmen pulls out a surprisingly affecting love story.
I’d say the merit of the story itself is that it tells a love story that’s more convincing than most straight-forward romance films I can think of. With a majority of movie romances, it always seems like two individuals who look like models get together after seeing inner-beauty somehow in each other, then fall in love, have a minor tiff, and get married at the end. What these movies inevitably gloss over or entirely exclude is the stage of the relationship where everything’s about awkward glances and missteps and shyness. This movie focuses on the awkward early stages, and because of that, it makes their love more believable.
The two lovers are Bowie and Keechie, played by Keith Carradine (son of John Carradine, brother to David and Robert) and Shelley Duvall. Both are superb in this film. Bowie is the gang’s innocent member, the one who urges them not to kill, only to steal. Crime movies always need a character like this. Audiences I think enjoy crime movies and even root for the criminals so long as innocent citizens aren’t hurt in the process. For instance, think of The Godfather where all of the people who are killed are somehow involved with dirty dealings with the mob (except the poor horse, of course).
As good as Carradine is, Shelley Duvall is better. In an interview with Pauline Kael I read, Kael lamented that Shelley Duvall was not given a best actress award for her role, and I’d have to agree she should have got one. Her character is one who no one has paid much attention to, especially men. At one point in the movie, it’s mentioned that the newspaper has printed up a wanted poster for her that features her photo from high school, implying, tragically, that no one since then has even bothered to photograph her. Shelley Duvall inhabits this sad character fully.
I think Duvall herself was overlooked as an actress. For instance, she was the funniest character in Annie Hall if you ask me, and yet no one thinks of her when they think of that movie. Also, I remember reading that during the filming of The Shining, Kubrick was so disappointed with her acting that he actually cut out whole pages of the original script so that he’d have to film her less. Stanley’s a guy I usually agree with, but I’ll have to say he made a poor choice in downgrading Duvall.
I realize now that this review is going on for a long time, but I’d like to take a moment and write about Robert Altman’s style in this. His approach is very unique in this film, and for that reason I’d highly recommend it to aspiring filmmakers or to writers. As I said before, the slowness of the film throws off a lot of people. My guess is people watched it expecting it to get exciting once they started their crime spree, but they’re disappointed. That’s because the film’s pace is consistent. It doesn’t go from a slow dramatic scene to a high adrenaline action sequence like so many of today’s films. Instead, the action scenes are executed with the same slow precision of the rest of the film. This makes the entire film seem whole and consistent, instead of jerking the viewer around like a rollercoaster on the fritz. Altman’s films utilize the opposite technique of Scorsese. In Scorsese’s case, he keeps the dramatic scenes quick and punchy, so they’re consistent with the violent scenes.
In Thieves Like Us, the beautiful opening scene sets the pace for the rest of the film. It’s a long, slow tracking shot of the bucolic countryside, first following a group of prisoners on a railroad car, then people on a rowboat approaching the shore. The shot itself reminded me of something out of a Truffaut or Tarkovsky film, not something from an American movie.
The other reason why I’d recommend Thieves Like Us is that it incorporates music and dialogue from the radio into the film itself. This technique was later used in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train as well as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Imagine a sort of magic radio that accompanies your every mood, or what you happen to be doing at the moment and that’s what you have here. For instance, while the gang are on a crime spree, the radio plays a sportscaster talking about the winning streak of the famous racehorse sea-biscuit. This isn’t just a novelty though, but explains to the viewer how the characters were influenced into turning to crime. Talk of money was everywhere, and if a lucky horse could make thousands, why not a plucy group of bank robbers? One of the funniest scenes involves Duvall and Carradine consummating their love while a radio drama of Romeo and Juliet plays in the background.
To wrap up this lengthy review, I’d have to say that, considering how everyone and his uncle have seen crime flicks like The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, and Pulp Fiction, it’s a shame that so many have overlooked both Thieves Like Us and They Live By Night. Speaking of Bonnie and Clyde, a lot of people have remarked how Thieves Like Us seems to be too much like Bonnie and Clyde, but I’d disagreee. They’re alike insofar as both involves bandits in love, but otherwise are hardly similar. For example, when you see Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, you inevitably see Hollywood actors who both look like models. With Thieves Like Us, you see characters that are all too real.
By the way, if anyone who reads this has seen both They Live By Night and Thieves Like Us, write in the comments box which one you think is better. I’d ultimately have to go with They Live By Night, but that owes largely to my prejudice of loving films from the 40s.
*I don’t understand why the studios thought They Live By Night was a better title than Thieves Like Us. For one, it can be easily confused with the Barbara Stanwyck film Clash By Night, the Bogart film They Drive By Night, the war movie They Raid By Night, the Anthony Mann film He Walked By Night, and Sherlock Holmes: Terror By Night, all of which came out in the 40s except for Clash By Night which was ’52. I’d like to make a movie about me viewing movies, called He Watched By Night.
**Most people know her as her role in Murder She Wrote, or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and will be surprised by the incredibly dark role she takes on here.
—-If you’re looking for something to read, check out my book A Rapturous Occasion.
If you liked this article on Thieves Like Us, you might like my movie review of Carnal Knowledge.