Honor Among Thieves?
Thieves Like Us directed by Robert Altman at the Savoy
WHAT WILL PROBABLY attract you the most about Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us are the surfaces of things, the lyric Mississippi atmosphere, the rural details, the moods and faces. These are only incidentals in a lot of films, but here they are pleasant enough to be the most important things, and also to remind us that the best function of art is often not that of probing "depths" but of making us understand and love shallow things, things of the surface.
The world depicted here is one that in the last ten or twelve years has been pretty well hammered out into familiar American mythology. It is a stock world of the Depression South; of country criminals who are romantic robin hoods, whether in moonshining or bank robbing; of green country just getting used to the presence of black topped roads and big new cars and cops and robber chases. It is a world which Bonnie and Clyde made famous, and Thieves often seems to lean too heavily on that earlier film, in scenes like the final, rather improbable shoot out at a motor court when the police fill the small frame cottage where the hero is holed up with about two or three minutes worth of solid lead. There is rather gratuitous use of slow motion here too, although Altman denies seeing any similarity to Arthur Penn's film, and says that he only shot what was in the book.
Thieves is not so much about its easy and obvious morals--we are all thieves; you can rob with a pen too; bankers, when robbed, even cheat on the insurance claims; depression and capitalism force us all to continually steal from one another in order to live--as about some regained, lyric beauty from the lost, mythical world it shows. (Mythical worlds always seem to be lost ones, too.) At least what it does best is this: not say anything but show at least the outline of this world of surface and detail, of atmosphere and appearance. And it is against the grain of the attractiveness of the depiction that all the faults of the film run. Whatever strength lies in its depiction is not the result of digging down into social conditions or individual motives, but simply in piling up these lyric surfaces.
By surface and atmosphere I partly mean the Mississippi spring greenery, the driving rain, twilight haze, and old screen doors through which cinematographer Jean Boffety aims his camera. But also I mean the views director Robert Altman gives us of Bowie and Keetchie, the central pair of lovers, views which are confined to a few conversations, a love scene or two, and above all the faces of actors Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, which are as beautiful in their simplicity and awkwardness as the country around them is in all its rural roughness. Both give excellent performances, but Duvall particularly makes a sparse role tease us with suggestions of a character fuller than the one we actually meet. These are simple people, whose interest is not in their complexity or in any hidden resources of character, as much as in the directness and intensity with which they face and feel life. We need to get to know them more gradually to appreciate them.
AND AS THE REAL strength of the film I also mean all the details of its setting: the Coca Cola bottles and signs which constitute an almost obtrusive motif, an old gas station suggesting Walker Evans, the motor courts where these thieves live between banks, the jokes they tell, the contemporary radio programs on the sound track. But for these details to make out the world fully, they require a more extensive, exhaustive treatment than they are given, and less of the obvious hand in their choice. They need the scope of a novel, the fullness of Faulkner. Like the characters, each detail appears too much in isolation, and we never, by full presence or by effective suggestion, get anything like a film Yoknapatawpha.
The details too often come embedded in crude ironies: The Gangbusters radio show on the sound track while the gang sits in front of a bank planning a heist, the repeated close-ups of a quilt where the lovers first make love and on which the dead Bowie is finally carried out. Most objectionable is the embarrassing instance when a radio production of Romeo and Juliet is played during Bowie and Keetchie's first rendezvous and each of the three times they make love the voice of the narrator illogically returns with the same "Thus did Romeo and Juliet consummate their first interview by falling madly in love with each other."
The same feeling of incompleteness extends from the depiction of the world and the characters to the story itself. Bowie leaves his young lover one morning and shows up down the road in inexplicable possession of a sheriff's uniform and fake warrant to procure the release from prison of one of the gang.
BUT MORE THAN holes in the story, there is a sense of how much of the real lives of outlaws is absent, and how much of the society which is inseparable from their crimes. The gang encounters law-abiding citizens only accidentally, as when Bowie rams his new car into another vehicle, or in the course of the robberies which seem to be just strung out one after another.
And these robbers rarely seem to experience fear. They come and go freely in the streets, apparently without fear of detection. They glory in their own notoriety, gleefully reading newspaper accounts of their own exploits, a la Bonnie and Clyde, or hearing their names on the radio. They are not especially good at their jobs, and never seem to plan anything except at the curbside in front of the bank. But the law is incredibly incompetent, and it takes a series of the most human weaknesses--one of the robbers foolishly getting married under his real name, a friend of the gang selling out Bowie to get leniency for her imprisoned husband--to bring about their ends. Robbery here is a profession like any other, but more subject to the weaknesses of love and personal necessity, more professionally proud than other professions, because it gets in your blood, makes you rob finally not for cash but for further notoriety. Robbers never know when to stop.
This is what happens to the young hero Bowie, and there is supposed to be a conflict between his obligation/affection towards the gang and that towards Keetchie. For all the liberties he has taken to meet the necessities of the time he has somehow failed in his most essential role, as breadwinner, by getting himself killed. And some measure of Keetchie's ruefulness about it is indicated in a fine touch at the end, when she sits in a railroad station and tells the woman beside her that her husband died of consumption.
Keetchie's is the only real aspect of the tragedy which we see. There is no sense of the whole society suffering together from its need to perpetually exploit itself, because very little of the whole society is shown. To be sure, the thieves are a little society in themselves, but we never see the people who are really robbed, the people behind the bankers who, for instance, are presumably losing their money in bank closures about this time.
On balance, Thieves is as fundamentally flawed as Robert Alt man's films usually are, but also tremendously attractive. It appeals to what is called either the spirit or the guts, depending on your persuasion. In his combination of bungle and dream, Altman is as American as any director, and it may take people who are not Americans to appreciate him best, as it did for Faulkner in the first part of his career. Surely the world of Thieves is unmistakeably American; it is only too bad there is not more of it.