Cast & Crew
Dr. Edward Fisher
After escaping from a prison farm during the Depression, criminals T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie rob banks together, hiding out with friends Dee and Keechie and their relatives between jobs. Ater a car addicent, when Bowie is injured and Chicamaw leaves him with Keechie, the two fall in love. This creates a problem for Bowie when the police are closing in and he needs to join his friends who are heading for Mexico.
Dr. Edward Fisher
Arch Hall Sr.
Don H Matthews
Thieves Like Us
Thieves Like Us opens with T-Dub (Bert Remsen), Chicamaw (John Schuck) and Bowie (Keith Carradine), meeting up on a rural Mississippi backroad after breaking out of jail. Faced with no employment options under the circumstances, the trio take up bank robbing again and stay on the move constantly, living hand to mouth with relatives in between jobs. While the threesome are not particularly skillful in their robberies and often wound or kill people in their raids (most of which occur off-screen), they seem to enjoy reading about their own exploits in the newspapers as much as they enjoy the freedom of their routine. When Bowie is seriously wounded in a car accident and forced to recuperate while his partners fend for themselves, he falls in love with Keechie (Shelley Duvall), the niece of Chicamaw, who nurses him back to health. Their romance is short-lived, however, once Bowie teams up with his former partners for one last bank job.
Joan Tewkesbury, who had worked as an extra and Altman's script supervisor on McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), was an aspiring screenwriter who was given a chance by Altman to prove herself. "We couldn't get any movie financed and he had a book he needed to be adapted, Thieves Like Us," she recalled (in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff ). "I read it and adapted it in about four days for him. By this time I had been around Bob long enough. It's almost like when you find a really good dance partner you know where the next step's going to go. It's not that you anticipate it, but you can relax enough to go with it."
In terms of casting, Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine, who had appeared in some scenes together in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, proved to be ideal choices for the central young couple. (They would also go on to co-star in Altman's Nashville .) Three members of the director's acting ensemble Bert Remsen (a well respected casting director in Los Angeles), John Schuck and Tom Skerritt - were cast in the main supporting roles and, in her first substantial film role, Louise Fletcher, a television actress who began working in the late fifties, played the pivotal role of Mattie, T-Dub's sister-in-law, who betrays Bowie in the film's violent climax.
Tewkesbury commented, "In the film I always thought that Bert Remsen's character was Bob, reading his reviews the newspaper stories Bert would read about the bank robberies. You know, "Why'd they say that? They got that part wrong." It's interesting how the personal becomes part of the overall in those things."
Although Altman made his directorial feature debut in 1957 with The Delinquents and followed it with the documentary, The James Dean Story (1957), he didn't get another opportunity to direct a movie until 1968 with Countdown; he had spent the years in-between toiling in the television industry where he directed countless episodes of The Roaring '20s, Bonanza, Combat! and other popular series. His big critical and commercial breakthrough hit M*A*S*H* (1970) had made him a hot commodity in Hollywood but none of his subsequent films had made money and he had difficulty getting Thieves Like Us made. Tewkesbury said, "The money fell out for the project about three times. It was really by the grace of George Litto and Bob and the other producer, Jerry Bick, standing in a room and practically mortgaging their houses and saying, "Let's go ahead." It was a really good lesson in terms of not backing down."
Despite the fact that the Edward Anderson novel was set in the Midwest, Altman decided to shoot Thieves Like Us in Mississippi in rural towns near Vicksburg such as Canton, Pickens, Jackson and Hermansville. Equally unorthodox was his choice of cinematographer Jean Boffety who had been working in the French cinema since 1960 and would go on to work with Altman again on the director's much reviled sci-fi film, Quintet (1979). Severe weather and flooding during the filming of Thieves Like Us interrupted the production more than once and caused the relocation of some scenes. Boffety's work, however, is lush and muted, and evokes a pastoral and poetic vision of the rural South in the thirties. The film is also unique for dispensing with a traditional music score and using natural sound and radio broadcasts to punctuate and comment on the events on screen while still adding the necessary atmosphere. In one of the movie's most famous sequences, a radio production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet plays throughout an extended lovemaking session between Keechie and Bowie. Other popular radio programs from the '30s which are heard in the background include Gang Busters, The Shadow, The Royal Gelatin Hour, Speed Gibson and The Heart of Gold.
As for the famous scene where Bowie is ambushed by the law, Tewkesbury said, "Bob wanted more gunfire because of course we were living through all the assassinations. Bob wanted them to just kill, to kill the house with bullets. Overkill. Without asking any questions they just went in and shot the house until it fell down, literally. And then when Bowie was carried out, he was like another deer they shot while hunting."
When Thieves Like Us first opened in theatres, it was lavishly praised by many high profile critics. Vincent Canby of The Time York Times wrote, "There's nothing elegiacal about Thieves Like Us. Its feelings are expressed tersely. It seems to have been stripped down like a stock car, as if excess verbiage were another form of chrome finish. Nor does one get the feeling of victims cornered by society, which was one of the marks of the Ray film and a carryover from those thirties movies that possessed social consciences...Like the Anderson prose, the film is lean, uncluttered, even though Mr. Altman's method is full of irony and contrasts." Pauline Kael, an early convert of the director, said, "Robert Altman finds a sure, soft tone in this movie and never loses it. His account of Coca-Cola-swigging young lovers in the 30s is the most quietly poetic of his films; it's sensuous right from the first pearly-green long shot, and it seems to achieve beauty without artifice...the movie has the ambiance of a novel, yet it was also the most freely intuitive film Altman had made up to that time." And even Variety chimed in with "Thieves Like Us proves that when Robert Altman has a solid story and script, he can make an exceptional film, one mostly devoid of clutter, auterist mannerism, and other cinema chic. It's a better film than Nicholas Ray's first jab at the story in 1948."
Despite all of the positive reviews, moviegoers didn't flock to see Thieves Like Us and it was a box office disappointment for the distributor United Artists. Co-star John Schuck later said, "Thieves was a picture that was so non-mainstream that the studio had no idea how to promote it. They treated it like a bank-robbery movie, which it isn't, of course. And thank God for television and cable and all that. It's developed a sort of cult following and it got extraordinary reviews...But it was released and went in a few weeks."
Altman, of course, rarely took the time to ponder the reception of his films and was always thinking about and planning the next ones. Even during the making of Thieves Like Us he sent Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville to do research and keep a diary about what she saw and heard there, all of which became the basis and inspiration for his next major success Nashville, a film that garnered him his second Oscar® nomination for Best Director as well as a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.
Producer: Jerry Bick
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman, Joan Tewkesbury, Calder Willingham; Edward Anderson (novel "Thieves Like Us")
Cinematography: Jean Boffety
Film Editing: 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), Al Scott (Capt. Stammers), John Roper (Jasbo), Mary Waits (Noel Joy), Rodney Lee, Jr. (James Mattingly), William Watters (Alvin).
by Jeff Stafford
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff
Thieves Like Us
Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us on DVD
Synopsis: Bank robber T-Dub Masefield (Bert Remsen) springs his partner Chicamaw (John Schuck) from a prison farm along with convicted murderer Bowie Bowers (Keith Carradine), a relative innocent who has been in jail from the age of 14. The trio hides out with T-Dub's sister Mattie (Louise Fletcher) and sometimes with Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), a crooked gas station owner. Mobley's daughter Keechie (Shelley Duvall) takes a shine to Bowie and doesn't seem to mind his life of crime. The three fugitives rob several banks and are planning bigger capers; T-Dub takes up with the rather young Lula (Ann Latham) while the 'half breed' Chicamaw becomes bitter because he has no female companionship. Chicamaw murders two lawmen while freeing Bowie from a car crash. Keechie nurses Bowie and they become lovers. Bowie's partners are soon resentful of the young couple's commitment to one another. The rewards placed on the three are a temptation for the people with whom they hide ... friends and relatives alike.
The story of Thieves Like Us has inspired several filmmakers, most notably Nicholas Ray in his superb debut picture They Live by Night. That 1949 show starred Farley Granger and Kathy O'Donnell as star-crossed lover-fugitives "who were never properly introduced to the world." Other rural-bandit Romeo and Juliet movies followed, most noticeably Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy. Arthur Penn's more recent 1967 hit Bonnie & Clyde started a welcome trend toward more accurate period art direction in American movies. Thieves Like Us evokes the same 1930s Depression era, with F.D.R. on the radio and Coca-Cola selling for 5 cents. Robert Altman's long-lens shooting style adds a distancing effect, a kind of visual commentary on the past. Altman also keeps our emotional involvement in Anderson's story at an equal remove.
Nicholas Ray simplified the tale of Keechie and Bowie but Altman prefers to set his characters adrift in events that are never more than half-explained. The characterizations remain vivid. T-Dub and Chicamaw are entertaining eccentrics who can turn murderous without much provocation. As nobody in the film seems particularly concerned about being caught or betrayed to the law, it's difficult to become worked up over their eventual fates. It's a toss-up to decide whether the characters are shallow, or if Altman simply refuses to impose filmic judgments on them. Chicamaw seems bitter about being a half-breed Indian and not having a woman of his own, but the film doesn't identify these tensions as the root cause of his frequent violence.
The source book definitely had a social statement to make, with its story of the relative innocents Keechie and Bowie victimized by a society that unfairly labels them as mad-dog fugitives. The script by Calder Willingham and Joan Tewksbury lets them be what they are. Keechie is the ignorant daughter of a crooked mechanic and Bowie is a teen murderer who no longer cares who he might kill. Instead of being traumatized by Chicamaw's cold-blooded slayings or angry that the media are exaggerating his menace, Bowie just shrugs his shoulders. It's no big deal.
The heart of Thieves Like Us is Altman's greatest discovery, Shelley Duvall. Awkward, ungainly and nobody's idea of a beauty, the endearing Duvall nevertheless projects a full range of emotions. Her Keechie becomes a loyal companion to Bowie, rebelling only when he reneges on his promise to abandon his bank-robbing habits. The latter part of the film and its wrenching climax are all Keechie's; she even overcomes the woefully under-directed moment when Mattie tells her she's going to have a baby.
Altman underscores his characters with a constant chorus of authentic Depression-era radio shows. Some of the songs comment on the proceedings while descriptions of the dashing serial hero in a radio drama counterpoint the actions of our less-noble robbers. This radio accompaniment is much smoother than the sarcastic loudspeaker announcements in Altman's M*A*S*H. Droll humor also prevails, as T-Dub and Chicamaw constantly throw smart remarks at each other. T-Dub jokes and kids while he aggressively molests Lula. Bowie seeks to cheer up Keechie with a series of lame jokes: "What's the Mississippi state tree? A telephone pole."
When the band of bank robbers eventually falls apart, it's like a bad joke without a punch line. To repay Chicamaw for saving him after the car accident, Bowie returns the favor by busting his buddy out of a prison farm. The sequence is almost comic in form. Chicamaw needlessly murders Al Scott's annoying prison warden. After risking so much to free his comrade, Bowie ditches Chicamaw on the road, because he insults Keechie.
(Spoiler) Edward Anderson envisioned Keechie and Bowie as martyrs of an unfeeling society. Nicholas Ray also played the finale as high tragedy, emphasizing Mattie's Judas-like betrayal. The unhappy woman turns in the desperate Bowie and the pregnant Keechie in the hope of freeing her own husband from prison. Inexplicably, Altman leaves Mattie's actions unexplained. Bowie disappears into a shack and is killed off-screen; Keechie screams in shock as Mattie restrains her from interfering with the faceless posse. We feel Keechie's anguish but little else. It's as if Altman wanted to exclude all elements that might interfere with Keechie's subjective experience.
MGM/Fox's DVD of Thieves Like Us presents Altman's eccentric mood piece in a beautiful enhanced transfer. Jean Boffety's handsome, hazy photography finds good compositions in all of those telephoto master shots, and the film's sound design is so interesting that we don't notice the absence of a conventional music score.
The one extra is a full-length commentary from the late director, recorded in 1996. It has few revelations and many silent passages. Watching the film again, Altman praises his cameraman and talks forever about the place of Coca-Cola in the film, but has little to say about Shelley Duvall. Altman likes Thieves Like Us quite a bit; he made it for United Artists, which rejected his script for Nashville. That film ended up being a big hit while Thieves Like Us did next to no business. The original poster shows a comic bank robbery scene that looks like a bad take on Bonnie and Clyde.
For more information about Thieves Like Us, visit MGM Home Entertainment. To order Thieves Like Us, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us on DVD
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1974
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1974
Shown at Locarno International Film Festival (50 Years of American Film) August 6-16, 1997.
Remake of "They Live By Night" (1948) directed by Nicholas Ray.