Don’t Let A Thief Steal Into Your Heart

Thieves Like Us

The house is half-finished. Junk from the past clutters its rooms. The walls are papered in sheet music. The only place to stand is next to the warmth of the stove. One could also sit in a rocking chair or lie in a bed. The radio drones constantly. On the bed is a beanpole of a man, recovering from recent injury. On the rocking chair is another beanpole, the woman who has been caring for him. She’s a teenager and he’s barely out of his teens. She moves near him to pick up a light for her cigarette, and he grabs her suddenly, full of need, and kisses her and holds her close, whispering “Don’t you leave me. Don’t you ever leave me.” The music on the radio swells and the announcer states importantly, “Thus did Romeo and Juliet consummate their first union by falling madly in love with each other.”

This is a beautiful scene, a Romantic vision of first love through the lens of a 70s humanist pothead thinking of hardscrabble Great Depression lives. The half-finished house papered in music is a perfectly evocative metaphor for young people falling in love. The two beanpoles are Keith Carradine, playing a young bank robber named Bowie, and Shelley Duvall, playing a girl with almost no prospects named Keechie. Duvall has never been more lovely than she was in this scene, her eyes Modigliani-big, her hair caressing her long face tenderly, her mouth an enigmatic grin full of possibility. You can see why Bowie loves her so much. As young lovers will, they doze, chat, joke, coo, and make love the rest of the night, each time punctuated by the radio announcer repeating the Romeo and Juliet line. This is a movie about murderous bank robbers?

Well, yeah, but it’s a comedy about murderous bank robbers made by Robert Altman at the height of his directorial powers (I’m talking 1974). Second in his oeuvre only to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us manages to be funny and tender on the subject of desperate men in desperate times, as if Altman saw Bonnie and Clyde and found it a movie full of good intentions, but devoid of real people.

There’s real-seeming people galore in Thieves Like Us. Besides Bowie and Keechie, there’s the other bank robbers Chicamaw (John Shuck) and T-Dub (Burt Remsen). There’s T-Dub’s sister-in-law Mattie (Louise Fletcher, still a year away from forever being Nurse Ratched), and her sister Lula (Ann Latham), T-Dub’s Lolita love interest. There’s Keechie’s drunkard dad Mobley (Tom Skerritt), who’s jealous of the attention Bowie and the other receive in the press. There’s the overly chatty taxi driver Jasbo (John Driver) and Captain Stammers (Al Scott), the courtly prison warden fooled by Bowie into letting Chicamaw escape.

The movie opens on a scene of a damp Mississippi afternoon that almost looks painted. Chicamaw and Bowie are tiny at first, rowing across a small pond to escape a prison work gang, where they meet T-Dub, who shows up in a cab driven by Jasbo. When they abandon Jasbo, Chicamaw does the classic “cover your eyes and wait an hour, and I’ll be back in 10 minutes to make sure” move of rough men who don’t want to kill in the movies. Jasbo believes him and continues to talk to Chicamaw long after he’s gone.

Over the course of the picture, they rob a few banks with a near-casual competence, murder a few people who get in their way, hide out at Matties’s place, split up, get back together, get busted (Chicamaw), break out, and get shot. The radio is ubiquitous, although people don’t pay much attention to it. It’s an interesting counterpart to TV culture in that people are obsessed enough with the mass media to leave it on all the time, but rarely entranced by it enough to interrupt conversation.

In other words, the plot’s OK, but the characters and details are the movie. I’ve already said this is Altman at his best. Although the man has been often accused of misanthropy by those who don’t understand him, when he turns his always-devoted eye on the wonders of human experience, he catches the minutiae that give life its character. Besides the people who feel real, Thieves Like Us is full of detail.

Later, when things are going bad (and what, you think things are going to go well for bank-robbing Mississippi prison-escapees?), Bowie takes Keechie, pregnant and too inexperienced to realize it, to the motor home T-Dub bought Mattie before he met the end of his tale. Bowie cleverly breaks Chicamaw out of jail, using sweet old Captain Stammers (who’s not sweet enough to invite Bowie to join his wife and him at their copious, Southern-style lunch) as a hostage. When Chicamaw (who’s been growing in meanness throughout the picture) kills Stammers, Bowie abandons him on the road and rushes back to the motor home. Mattie’s called in the cops to get the reward, of course, and almost lets Keechie die with Bowie.

At the end, Keechie is waiting for a train to anywhere else (Dallas, really, an anywhere else kind of place) and tells another woman that her child’s father was no good, anyway. What else can you do when your heart’s been stolen and your love is dead? Father Coughlin, the Rush Limbaugh of his day, drones on in the background as Keechie walks up the stairs to her future. Yeah, it’s a comedy, but life’s only funny in bursts and starts, too.