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THIEVES LIKE US(director/writer: Robert Altman; screenwriters: Calder Willingham/Joan Tewkesbury/based on the novel by Edward Anderson; cinematographer: Jean Bouffety; editor: Lou Lombardo; cast: Keith Carradine (Bowie), Shelley Duvall (Keechie), John Schuck (Chicamaw), Bert Remsen (T-Dub), Louise Fletcher (Mattie), Ann Latham (Lula), Tom Skerritt (Dee Mobley), Louise Fletcher (Mattie), John Roper (Jasbo); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jerry Bick; MGM Home Entertainment; 1974)
“Captivating remake of Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Three misfit white lifer trustee convicts–Bowie (Keith Carradine), Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remson)– escape from a Mississippi prison farm by kidnapping a taxi driver (John Roper) during the Depression and go on a bank-robbing spree. Chicamaw is part Indian and can become surly, who declares he likes three things about living–women, drinking and robbing banks. T-Dub is the mastermind of the gang, who has a bum leg. Later on in the story, when on-the-lam with a big reward posted for his arrest, is so carried away with lust over a young beautician (Ann Latham) with burnt-blonde hair that he gives his real name on the license when he marries her. The 23-year-old Bowie was convicted at 16 of a grocery stickup murder that his friends talked him into as a means of getting easy money, while the two others are career bank robbers in their forties because they don’t think they are capable of doing anything else. They are pictured as not the swiftest heist team to ever hit the road, but dumbly proud of the attention they receive in the newspapers. Bowie is depicted as an innocent who once again falls in with the wrong crowd (the same reason for his crime as a youth) and then falls for the ordinary looking, gawky, uneducated farm girl Keechie (Shelley Duvall), who makes him feel important and wants him to be loyal to her and not the gang. They are both at odds with a world that seems uncaring and cold, and don’t know how to deal with it. Their doomed lower-class romance is laced with ironical bitter-sweet truths, and becomes the heart of the film.

It paints a grim picture of America during the Depression, as there are constant radio broadcasts about the New Deal and its promises of restoring hope for a downtrodden America. The small-time robbers receive newspaper celebrity status and are made into mythical figures as they ape the big-time gangsters from such radio serials as Gangbusters, from the popular pulp detective magazines and comic strips. The outlaws come into money after many successful holdups of small-town banks in Mississippi and then each of them fouls up as they go on their own, and the law catches up with each of them in an unmerciful way.

The Robert Altman (“Nashville”/”McCabe & Mrs. Miller “/” M*A*S*H”) film about doomed outlaws is a captivating remake of Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (49) and again is based on the 1937 novel by Edward Anderson. The excellent screenplay is turned in by Calder Willingham, Joan Tewkesbury and Altman. It excels in capturing in detail the period atmosphere and in an intelligent way it conveys how the hapless but somewhat likable outsider convicts self-destruct not because of society but because they shoot for an exceptional life that they envision through their pop culture experiences and shun a conventional life they were probably most suited for by nature.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”