Most critics would posit the Robert Altman "Golden Age" as the years between 1970 to 1977. Generally, his '70s masterworks fell within that time frame, from the career-making M*A*S*H to McCabe and Mrs. Miller to The Long Goodbye to Nashville to 3 Women with a few definitively '70s curios sprinkled within -- Brewster McCloud, California Split, Images, Buffalo Bill, and Thieves Like Us.
I'd seen them all...except for Thieves Like Us, primarily due to the fact that it only exists on hard-to-find VHS at this point. And though I had found that VHS on numerous occasions, I repeatedly opted out in the hopes that it would one day be released on DVD or find its way to a revival house so I could view it properly rather than see Altman's widescreen compositions chopped up pan-and-scan style.
Well, the wait finally paid off. The New Beverly (one of L.A.'s last remaining revival houses) happened to have a decent print playing this weekend. It was a bit faded, though it's hard to tell how much because this is another one of those films, like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, where Altman was still "flashing" the negative to achieve that softened-focus, "old-timey" look. So, it could have been near-pristine for all I know. All I can say with assurance...lots and lots of browns. Mississippi backwoods browns.
In a nutshell, Thieves Like Us is Altman's take on the young, amoral lovers on the run genre made so popular at the time by Bonnie and Clyde ('67) and Badlands ('73) with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as said Depression-era lovers. In true Altman style, the storytelling is much more laid-back than either of those films, spending most of its time in the hideouts between bank robberies getting to know the characters beyond their guns. In fact, the first few robberies he shoots in a long shot outside the banks -- robbing the viewer of the goings-on inside.
But Altman's all about upturning genre conventions, and he does so repeatedly here by cranking down the tension where it would normally be (the bank robberies) and turning it up elsewhere -- a very funny pre-robbery rehearsal done with stacked chairs and local children as stand-ins for bank tellers and a completely random auto accident unrelated to a robbery or robbery getaway. In fact, there's more tension to a little kid running around with firecrackers in his pocket than any gunplay in the movie (Question: Is this where P.T. Anderson got his fireworks ideas for Boogie Nights and Hard Eight? Answer: Highly likely). Thieves also contains the most laid-back prison break-out I've ever seen -- Carradine actually manages to take a cat-nap in his jalopy smack in the middle of the proceedings.
Altman seems to know that waiting and cooling out between robberies is where the real drama is for these people. He uses wonderful character actors John Schuck and Bert Remsen to great effect as the colorful and more professional portion of the robbery crew before narrowing in on lovers Carradine and Duvall, both breathtaking in their naivete, much like Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands. For some reason, there's also lots and lots of Coca-Cola drinking in this movie, almost a bottle in every scene.
Hopefully, this movie gets a DVD release now that Altman has passed on. It's an important work in the Altman canon, smaller and quieter than his grand ensemble works (Nashville, M*A*S*H, Short Cuts), but worthy-viewing for Altman devotees and a fine addition to his "Golden Age."