Hollywood cinema in the 70s allowed ample opportunity to challenge what traditions and orthodoxy that still lingered from the days of the studio era especially genre. The genius of Altman was not his maverick status as film maker; that seems more like an indistinct category invented by some critics at the time so that they could try and account for his unwillingness to play ball with the studios and their obsessive need to control the creative process. The genius of Altman was his daring and fearless approach to genre film making, making films that were not only fiercely anti-genre, but films that literally turned the genre on its head, stripping away any kind of compromise and refusing in any way what so ever to live up to audience expectations. One of the pleasures of genre has always remained with the audience in that they were in large part assured of certain elements, archetypes and conventions being repeated constantly so that satisfaction was derived from formulaic reinforcement of something which was deeply familiar, and strangely entertaining.
However, no such notion exists within many of the genre films made by Altman in the 70s including his examination of the gangster/crime genre in the shape of ‘Thieves Like Us’, one of the most unglamorous and realistic examples of the genre to have emerged from a decade that seemed to want to celebrate disillusionment and despair in equal measures. Altman’s gangster film is unfairly positioned in the shadow of the precursor to all contemporary gangster films, ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, and it has never been able to elevate itself out of hiding since its release, but a single viewing of the film is likely to persuade any audience member or fan of the genre to question why Altman’s unromantic masterpiece has been criminally neglected and passed over for an over sexed, hip and brash film like Penn’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’. Even though it is difficult to take anything away from the historical significance and importance of a film like ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, it seems when a canon of gangster/crime films is drawn upon by certain film publications, ‘Thieves Like Us’ is somewhat absent and barely registers a mention.
Altman's film is a remake of Nicholas Ray's 'They Drive By Night', a 1950s fatalistic crime noir, and stars the overlooked David Carradine in the main role as an escaped convict and bank robber; Bowie, who falls for a shy and reluctant girl called Keechie (Shelley Duval). To make us live and breath the space in which these characters inhabit, in virtually every scene, especially the interior ones in a domestic setting, Altman chooses to foreground the radio as not just a prop used to emphasise period detail but more importantly, to suggest how the glamorisation of crime was something championed and perpetuated by the mass media. Chicamaw (John Schuck) is one of the more violently inclined members of the notorious gang and his repeated obssession with attracting some degree of cult celebrity status manifests itself in his concern for their representation in the news; his slaying of innocent civilians becomes his way of drawing attention to his lawless attitude towards society.
Though this is a gangster/crime film, the only real violence that unfolds before us with naked brutality is the final sequence in which Bowie is massacred by local law enforcement. The rest of the violence takes place off screen and Altman never once dwells on representing the physical nature of violence. Instead, he wants us to accept how violence is an inherent part of the personality of Bowie and Chicamaw, and that they will never be able to break free of the need to use violence as a means of confirming their existence in the scheme of things. Nothing is stylised or embellished, and the relationship between Bowie and Keechie is treated in a very tender and humane way, so much so that our identification with Bowie becomes one fraught with anxiety. Unmotivated by any kind of narrative structure, Altman tells his story through the use of episodes and encounters that seem random and unfold with a naturalism which embraces an observational camera style rather than your traditional bombastic, over stylised Hollywood gangster mode of address.
Like 'McCabe and Mrs Miller', this is a sad and sombre film that revels in destroying the relationship and love story between Bowie and Keechie. Bowie's death may seem unjust and unfair, but the image of his dead body rolled up in a multi coloured rug with blood dripping down the sides is unforgettable and powerfully executed by Altman to finally state how his life in the eyes of civilised society is absolutely and fundamentally worthless.