DIRECTORS: ROBERT ALTMAN BREAKS THE RULES.

Quick Cut

In Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), he shows off his propensity for breaking the rules of genre in updating Nicholas Ray’s noir, They Live By Night (1948).

Long Take

As the foundations of the studio system began to shake in the mid-1960s, the old rules that dictated how Hollywood did business startled to crumble along with them. Massive productions like Cleopatra (1963), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Taylor & Burton epic (even its trailer is twice the normal length), with their cost overruns and interminable lengths, drove audiences from the theaters instead of to them, and the resulting fallout forced the studios to completely reconfigure their business models.

Chief among these changes, which brought about the period known as New Hollywood, was the opening of opportunities to young, enthusiastic directors, the first of the film school generation. Mike Nichols probably started it with The Graduate (1967). Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda kicked down the doors with Easy Rider (1969). Peter Bogdanovich struck big with The Last Picture Show (1971). Before long, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, William Friedkin, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, Bob Rafelson, and others joined in, making iconic films that totally upended the natural order of Hollywood. Suddenly, the challenging, opaque, unconventional films were the mainstream films, with studio backing.

The above mentioned titles notwithstanding, another film whose influence is hard to overstate is Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which made massive stars out of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and brought the film industry into the counter-culture movement of the 1960s by foregrounding sexuality and violence, both perpetrated by outlaw characters whose moral standing was not only questionable, but outright in opposition to the mainstream authority structure.

The film’s violent conclusion, where Bonnie and Clyde are brutally killed by police officers waiting in ambush, set off a firestorm of debate about on-screen bloodshed.

Though Bonnie and Clyde did their own rewriting of the rules in 1967, the kind of relationship depicted in the film did have cinematic forebears. There was Joseph H. Lewis’s 1950 film, Gun Crazy, which is about an outlaw couple each obsessed with firearms. It’s a noir classic, complete with a near-psychopathic femme fatale and a truly innovative bank robbery scene shot completely from outside the bank, in one take, from the backseat of the getaway car.

But two years earlier, there was Nicholas Ray, and his noir classic, They Live By Night. Based on the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, the film (and its source material) are set in the Great Depression-era South; it follows a pair of star-crossed lovers, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) as they attempt to evade the law. Bowie is wanted for escaping from prison and participating in some bank robberies with his partners, Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen).

Fast forward to 1974, and the New Hollywood period, where you’ll find Robert Altman, director of MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye, all early 1970s touchstones. In those films, among others, Altman established a desire to work expressly with genre, playing war, western, and detective, respectively; each times, he set out to call attention to Hollywood film genre conventions by undermining them, choosing to create a cinematic vision that was about denying the audiences the familiarity of comfort, only after initially promising it. Many of Altman’s films feel like they belong to the genre they’re masquerading as, but only for so long; it’s as if the genre is distorted, twisted through a funhouse mirror where all the elements are there, but they’re pulled out of traditional shape.

His 1974 take on Anderson’s novel, which keeps the title Thieves Like Us, fits perfectly into this conversation. The plot is essentially the same as the novel and Ray’s film, with some key changes; this time, Bowie and Keechie are played by Altman regulars Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall; Chicamaw is John Schuck, who played the Painless Pole in MASH.

Altman’s film is something of a curiosity for several reasons. For one thing, Altman, I believe I read in Peter Biskind’s account of the New Hollywood period, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, claims to have not been aware of Ray’s previous attempt at the material. I don’t know if I believe that; today, it’s easy to dial up just about anything using the internet, so it’s easy to buy into the idea that everyone knows about everything. A quick Google search for Thieves Like Us brings up not only Altman’s film, but also Anderson’s novel and They Live By Night. Anyway, in an era without the internet, maybe he wasn’t aware of it, but I’m skeptical.

Altman certainly was aware of Bonnie and Clyde, which makes Thieves Like Us even more interesting. Coming just seven years after Penn’s groundbreaking film, it’s fascinating to consider why Altman would even want to make it, since it was sure to draw comparisons to that massive film. Inevitably, it seems that Thieves Like Us would live in the shadow of Bonnie and Clyde. Watching it today, it feels like it does; Penn’s film is widely credited with being a watershed event in Hollywood history, and still images from it grace the pages of film history textbooks. On the fiftieth anniversary of its release, its stars screwed up the Best Picture announcement at the Academy Awards. On the other hand, some people remember Thieves Like Us.

Relatively forgotten though it is, it’s worth considering the film as an entry in Altman’s long directorial career, most of which seems inspired by a, irreverent, Puckish sensibility for upending tradition. In Thieves Like Us, he’s taking aim at not only the more traditional film noir, couple-on-the-run entries, but also at Bonnie and Clyde itself. He must know he’s making a story that will inevitably be compared to Penn’s movie. So, he leans into it.

First, there’s the response to Ray’s film, intentional or not. Let’s focus in on a pair of key sequences in each movie that demonstrate the politics of the eras in which they were made, but also each director’s attempt at bringing the couple together for the first time. Here’s one of the most famous scenes in They Live By Night, where Bowie and Keechie stop off at a quickie wedding chapel.

The film has to include this scene. Keechie, by the end of the film, will be pregnant with Bowie’s baby, and according to the dictates of the Hollywood Production Code, in full flourish in 1948, they have to be married for that plot element to remain in the story. So here, Ray appears, on the surface at least, to be kowtowing to the morally righteous stewards of all that is good and holy.

However, the wedding itself is a subject of ridicule for most of the scene. The chapel proprietor, Hawkins, played with condescending avarice by Ian Wolfe, seems hardly a paragon of moral virtue. He marries Bowie and Keechie, but the nuptials are hardly fit for Father of the Bride, released just a couple of years later. There’s almost no ceremony to it; the proceedings are over quickly, and without the sanctity that such scenes are often afforded. The witnesses are hired by Hawkins, and each demand a tip of one dollar. Their congratulations to the young couple are rote and without feeling. Even Bowie is put off by Hawkins’s ‘way of marryin’ people.’ It’s as if the entire scene embraces its own begrudging inclusion in the narrative, like Bowie and Keechie are only going through with it because it’s something that both their culture and their filmmakers require them to do. In this scene, though Ray is outwardly conforming to the Production Code’s rules, he’s flipping them off at the same time.

Altman’s film, coming as it does in 1974, and free of the dictates of the Production Code, is able to completely forgo the pretense that Bowie and Keechie get married. However, he does present their courtship in a scene that brings them together, wherein he breaks the rules of space and time to show them falling in love.

The sequence occurs in the back of a garage owned by Dee Mobley (Tom Skerrit), where Bowie is recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident. This sequence does occur in They Live By Night, but it’s handled quite differently. Keechie is playing nursemaid; Bowie is confined to the bed.

One of Altman’s strongest choices throughout the film is his commitment to the presence of the radio, which is a near constant source of external narrative commentary. In an early bank robbery scene, for example, the radio in Bowie’s getaway car plays a program called Gang Busters, about police on the trail of crooks. In this scene, the radio plays a broadcast adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, Altman’s narrative comment on the burgeoning relationship between Bowie and Keechie.

Here’s the scene:

Far from a marriage, this scene breaks rules in its own way. Primarily, it does so by muddying the clear delineations of time. What is presented here, as Bowie and Keechie sleep together for the first (second, third, and fourth, apparently) time, is not an all-night marathon session of lovemaking, but several nights condensed into a sequence that blurs the beginnings and ends of days.

Altman marks this progression with the repetition of the Romeo & Juliet program on the radio, repeating key sections of the play’s dialogue (the balcony scene) and its external narration, as the booming announcer’s voice tells us, “Thus did Romeo & Juliet consummate their first interview by falling madly in love with one another.” Altman goes back to this well three times in the scene, turning it into a joke, of course, but he’s also collapsing the time that Bowie and Keechie spend together in bend. He doesn’t show us the day beginning or ending, doesn’t provide us with the traditional sex montage, full of dissolves that capture the throes of passion, or pans over to an open window where dawn is breaking.

Instead, he stays almost entirely in the bed, with Bowie and Keechie, as they solidify their bond. Here is where Altman conveys his own directorial tone, too. The debate about Romeo & Juliet (great romance, or horny, reckless teenagers?) informs our perception of Bowie and Keechie’s flowering relationship. We are invited to question the sincerity of this connection through the ironic deployment of Shakespeare’s greatest love story, as if the entirety of that play’s meaning could be reduced to a recap of the balcony scene. We also know, of course, that at the end of Romeo & Juliet, they both end up dead.

That’s where Thieves Like Us starts to connect with its other intertext, Bonnie and Clyde. The climactic moments of Penn’s film destroy both anti-heroes; no distinction is made for Bonnie’s femininity throughout the film. She runs and guns along with Clyde, and she pays just as violently for her actions. Despite the fact that in Anderson’s original novel Thieves Like Us, Keechie is killed alongside Bowie, both They Live By Night and Thieves Like Us spare her, saving the violent end just for the male outlaw.

Keechie is no Bonnie, though. She’s not an active participant in Bowie’s crimes, and in fact, stands in moral judgment of his behavior. She’s angry with him when he heads off to rob another bank with Chicamaw and T-Dub (Bert Remsen in Thieves), and though she becomes a fugitive, she doesn’t really commit a crime. Perhaps this is why Ray’s film doesn’t kill her off; to do so would seem too unfair, even in a noir universe. She is pregnant, and largely a bystander to the criminal activity. Her only transgression is loving Bowie.

One would expect, then, that by the time of the 1970s and the new permissiveness, Altman’s knives would be out for Keechie, ready to kill her off in an attempt to further expose the cowardice of the Texas Rangers as they gun down Bowie inside his bungalow while Keechie watches in horror from the other side of the courtyard. Here is the film’s climactic sequence:

It’s just Bowie, though. The scene feels very much like the end of Bonnie and Clyde, with Altman’s use of slow motion, though he reserves is for Keechie’s horrified reaction shots. Really, though, it’s the fusillade of bullets that destroy the bungalow, with Bowie inside, that feel reminiscent.

Altman is knowing, though, in his restraint. Where the climax of Bonnie and Clyde is about watching the bodily destruction of the film’s antiheroes, inviting us to question whether or not they deserved to be treated so brutally, in such a cowardly way by the Louisiana authorities who ambushed them, the end of Thieves Like Us has something different in mind. It’s tempting to wonder whether, in another timeline, in the absence of the existence of Bonnie and Clyde, Altman would have photographed the conclusion of this film more like that one, with all of its ignominious, violent glory.

I’m not sure. The real money shot in this scene to me correlates it back to the lovemaking sequence in the garage, which consistently Altman-zoomed in on the quilt that covered Bowie and Keechie from the camera’s watchful eye as they consummated their interview by falling madly in love with one another. This time, Keechie sees the quilt again, but it bears Bowie’s bullet-riddled body as the Rangers carry it from the bungalow and set it in the muddy courtyard. The quilt covers him again, this time in death. Only his feet are visible, but the bullets have ripped through both of them. We see a bloody tear in one of his shoes, and we know the extent of the damage, even without seeing the balletic spray of the Rangers’ bullets.

Then, Altman sticks the landing with a concluding scene where Keechie, still alive, remember, at the train station, is on her way to somewhere else. She’s still pregnant with Bowie’s child, and tells the woman seated next to her that no matter what, she won’t name the boy after his father. The difference between the previous scene, where Keechie howled in pain as the Rangers fired at Bowie, and this one, where she seems eager to erase all memory of him, is striking.

This is where Thieves Like Us really extends beyond Bonnie and Clyde. Penn wants us with Bonnie and Clyde to the end, no matter how far they’ve gone, how many banks they’ve robbed, how many people they’ve killed. We judge the police for their brutal assault, and we question the larger systemic authority that they represent.

Thieves Like Us, though, doesn’t let its characters off the hook. In that way, it’s a meaner, more cynical movie. Of the criminals presented in the film, Bowie is the most benign; he commits no severe acts of violence, and though he breaks Chicamaw out of jail, he abandons him by the side of the road after Chicamaw needlessly kills the prison warden they have kidnapped to help aid the escape. Bowie is on his way back to the bungalow, seemingly with the desire to give up his life of crime forever when he’s gunned down.

Keechie doesn’t know that, and judges Bowie a no-good liar, even when we know he was just about to change. Keechie commits to scrubbing him out of her life, but she doesn’t have to.

Altman’s response to both classic period noir and a contemporary competitor, both of which loom large in the New Hollywood period, Thieves Like Us is worth investigating more deeply. It reveals its director’s fascination with upending genres both old and new, but also reveals the gravity of the contempt he had for institutions and rules, no matter how much he might dress it up in grinning irreverence.

 

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