Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Thieves Likes Us (1974)
After seeing 3 Women two weeks ago, I was understandably eager to fill in some gaps in my Robert Altman filmography knowledge. Thieves Like Us (1974) seemed like the perfect property. Depression-era bank robbers? Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall both in the same movie? Altman? A sure-fire YES. I was surprised to find a different, quieter movie than the synopsis and the movie poster would have you believe. The basic plot concerns three escaped convicts robbing banks in the mid-west, in the 1930's; but if you're looking for wham-bam, Bonnie and Clyde stuff, this not the right stop at which to get off.
Do you ever watch a movie set in the twenties' or thirties', but made in the sixties' or seventies', and think "Oh for goodness sake, didn't anyone even give an old college try towards historical accuracy? I would be pleased if ONE PERSON in this movie wasn't wearing a flapper headress and heels to go work in the shoebox factory". The idea of "ah, it'll look thirties' enough" is pervasive throughout period movies made in that era. I understand that they're not meant to be documentaries, but sometimes the seventies'-ness of a movie is almost distractingly offputting. Gatsby, for all that it tried, still looks more like a soft-focus, Vogue fashion layout than the Jazz Age. Considering this, I was actually taken aback by the attention to detail lavished on the set dressing in this movie. IT. IS. FABULOUS. I kept peering into the backgrounds and foregrounds of the scenes, trying to get a better look at the items on the mantlepiece or clustered on shop shelves. Second only maybe to Paper Moon (which was made in black and white and by thirties' movie connosieur Peter Bogdanovich, making it a little unfair to draw comparisons), the setting makes you feel the thirties'. Take a look at some of these screenshots, and you're not going to see any Hollywood back-lot, fifties' Western town thinly disguised to look like a thirties' small town type messing around going on here. It's all legitimate! To the point of almost resembling old photos you'd see in American Heritage or the like.
Keith Carradine stars as Bowie (usually pronounced by all the other characters as to sound more like "Boy"), the youngest of the three bank robbers. I remembered his performance as Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood and as Special Agent Lundy on Dexter as being really, really great-- while I like his long faced father and brother (John Carradine and David Carradine, respectively), there's a smiling, jocular, sweet and knowing something about Keith's voice and manner in particular that really draws me to him as a character. Never is this so well showcased as in the role of Bowie, who has the gum-chewing, teenage cluelessness of a comic strip character, and yet somehow still manages to rob banks for a living. Today, the concept of "having a plan" from practically middle school as to what you want to do with your life is so heavily engrained into school-going youths that it's hard to wrap your head around the way Bowie has just fallen into things. He ran away from home, knocked over a drug store at an early age with "some guys he knew", just to make some easy money, and ended up shooting the store owner when the owner chased after them with a gun. Which, at sixteen, put him in penitentiary for murder. ON A LIFE SENTENCE. The lack of intentionality leading up to "guess what, here's the rest of your life", is so interesting to me... it must happen all the time. Still, in spite of his being a bona fide criminal, you root and you root and you root for poor Bowie to make that one last score with the two middle aged "main men" of the robbery gang, so he can just get out of it and settle down with the equally babe-in-the-woods Keechie (Shelley Duvall).
Though prominently featured on the box, Shelley Duvall really only gets to stay in the narrative as a main character about halfway through the running time. A major shift from the rouged, sleekly page-boy'd Millie in 3 Women, Duvall is makeup-less to the point of almost looking sweaty throughout many of her closeups (another seventies' "absolutely not" in the period piece playbook... had it been a major release, even as a small town girl, she would have had false eyelashes a mile long). Her eyes, without the benefit of mascara or eyeliner, somehow look even larger than ever, as she matter-of-factly asks Bowie (Keith Carradine) about the murder that landed him a life sentence at sixteen. Keechie is the daughter of the gas station owner who puts the three robbers up after their intial prison break, and there's a great mix of innocent naiviete and early practicality that reminds me a lot of what most of our grandmothers or great-grandmothers must have been like at eighteen.
This scene, from outside the bank as a robbery takes place, might as well be a Grant Wood painting. It's so beautifully framed!
You don't "see" a lot of the crimes taking place as much as you see "T-Dub", "Chicamaw", and Bowie driving away afterwards, counting their money at a safe house, and talking about how the next one will definitely be "the last". The sense of lingering dread of getting caught...how constricting and claustrophobic the idea of "waiting until the heat dies down a little" can be... the realization that there may never be "that one last, great haul", but another and another until you get caught... are all far more effectively delivered by showing you more of the mundane, after-and-between-crimes scenes than the attempts themselves. Also, note the combination of old, Victorian and teens' furniture and furnishings with newer things in this room, just like you would have it in a real person's house. I love it!
The real focal points of the movie, Bowie and Keechie, together with what I'd consider the main co-stars: the radio and Coca-Cola. In every other scene, someone's listening to a crime drama or a mid-day soap opera, having gangsters or sob stories as the background noise to their own lives. As pervasive as we think the television is in its influence on American culture, I like to think about a 1930's in which the radio was as constant a companion as the tv ever was. As for Coca-Cola, people drink Cokes, ask about Cokes, offer each other Cokes, express a wistful desire to have a Coke, in this movie like ad exec's drink cocktails in Mad Men. At one point, a promotional girl dressed as a turn of the century Coca-Cola ad rolls up in the back of a car outside one of the banks the gang is about to rob, handing out free Cokes and reminding the recipients of her bounty, "Remember to tell your friends how you got these from Coca-Cola"! I had no idea the Red-Bull style, giveaway marketing went back that far! Also, I now want a Coke.
When they hole up at T-Dub's cousin's wife's house, we get a look at one of those big, Norman Rockwell, meat and potatoes American dinners I've only ever dreamed about. Look at the sheer amount of things on the table! (for instructions on how to cook like you mean it, you should check out Square Meals by Jane and Michael Stern. Go on, do it!)
A Wanted ad in a national crime magazine reminds you that to the rest of the nation, these aren't the familiar, flawed-but-likeable characters we've gotten to know, but cold, hard killers and robbers, fugitives from justice. Look how stark and unlike themselves they look in the mug shots.
The living area where Keechie takes care of Bowie after his injury is wallpapered in turn of the century sheet music. See what i said about attention to detail? I've actually seen places wallpapered in comics and other colorful paper items in Life magazine pictures from the time. Atta boy, Altman!
T-Dub, at one point, marries the girl who I think is his cousin's daughter? Weird, yes, but I wanted you to see her Joan Blondell hair, sweetheart neckline black velvet dress, fur wrap and little star brooch. Isn't she just a kewpie? And if so, can you see the doll of her kind sitting on the mantle? We love it.
If you like Depression-era movies, this is the ONE for you, but I do need to warn you, the last ten minutes is probably one of the harshest endings since the crime-doesn't-pay shocker at the end of The Public Enemy (1931). Remind me never to rob several banks if I get that time machine up and going, because as said: CRIME. DOES NOT. PAY, people.
Check out this poster, which tries to make it look like a second sequel to (the enjoyable, perfectly paced, but far less gripping) The Sting. Be aware that the movie is nothing like this poster.
Do you have any bank robber/gangster pictures that are absolutely must-see? Or do you shy away from gun-toting scofflaw movies?
Watch Thieves Like Us on youtube (in shame!) or
Grab a copy on Amazon (for as little as $1.44 plus s/h!)
Watch it instant streaming on Netflix! (all you need is your subscription)
Just watch it! :)
PS: The book Thieves Like Us, by Edward Anderson, was filmed once before as They Live By Night, directed by Nicholas Ray and released in 1949. While pretty different (the Ray movie is more of a noir, for some reason), you might want to catch that one as well just for the magnificent direction. Nick Ray fans FOR LIFE!
PPS: While looking for the title online, I kept picking this dang New Order song, which I love, which has nothing to do with the movie, and which is now stuck in my head. I'm sharing the love here:
Til next time!