In his films, Altman rarely seems to notice the work of other directors. To the degree that he does, his notice takes the form of a generalized anti-style.
“I’m making a movie about bank robbers, but it’s not the kind of movie about bank robbers you’d make.”
Bonnie and Clyde is fast-paced, violent, sexy, and those qualities inform and enhance each other. The pacing of Thieves Like Us is less than urgent. Scenes take their time or as much time as Altman is willing to give them, and he’s in no hurry. Almost all the violence takes place off screen. In fact, major characters die off screen. And the love story between Keith Carradine’s apprentice bank robber, Bowie, and Keechie, a Coca-Cola addicted clerk in her father’s small town garage, played by Shelley Duvall, is a story of domestic tranquility interrupted rather than one of erotic compulsion and projection brought to their inevitable climax.
Keechie knows that Bowie is a bank robber and a killer but to her that’s the uninteresting part of him. Where Bonnie Parker thrills at Clyde Barrow’s barely contained violence, Keechie is immediately bored as soon as Bowie begins to tell how he came to be sent to prison for murder.
She’d much rather hear about the time he spent working for a carnival.
Keechie’s attracted to what’s dull about Bowie. She likes him because he’s a good-looking guy about her own age who is pleasant company and tells dumb jokes and likes Coke and is interested in talking to her.
Duvall has an extended nude scene but the point of it is emphasize how comfortable Keechie is living with Bowie and how comfortable Bowie is living with her.
The reason she wants to go with Bowie on one of his trips to meet his partners isn’t that she wants to join in the fun. It’s that she wants to stop it. She agrees to stay home only because he promises he’s going to tell them he’s quitting the gang.
All of this means that Thieves Like Us and Bonnie and Clyde could be used as a compare and contrast assignment for a film class. Altman was openly aware of Bonnie and Clyde when he was making his film. Add to this the knowledge that Altman and Warren Beatty didn’t get along all that well during the making of McCabe and Mrs Miller, and Beatty was the star, producer, and, arguably, the co-director and co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde.
But Altman and Beatty’s arguments on the set of McCabe were about working styles---Beatty, a purer product of the Hollywood studio system than Altman, was an old-fashioned sort of perfectionist and his approach to getting things perfect was conventional---meticulous planning, intense focus and discipline on the set, and lots of takes. Beatty thought that the right way was to keep shooting until you knew you’d gotten the perfect take. If it took forty-six takes, it took forty-six takes. Altman figured that if he did five or six takes, maybe nine or ten, at least one, but probably more than that, would be interesting.
Beatty was also concerned that Altman’s experiments with recording on sixteen tracks would result in nothing but noise in which much of the overlapping dialogue drowned itself out. He was right and Altman himself was frustrated by the soundtrack in the end, but it turned out not to matter because something Altman had decided about writing dialog back when he was directing M*A*S*H happened to be proven true by the “noise.” People only need to hear bits and pieces of a conversation to “hear” everything that’s being said.
But if Altman wound up saying to Warren Beatty with Thieves Like Us it was less along the lines of “I can made a movie about bank robbers, but not the kind of movie about bank robbers you made,” and more like, “See, I can do it your way too.”
Rather than being a commentary on Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us can be seen as Altman’s response to Altman.
Thieves Like Us is disconcertingly underpopulated for an Altman film. Scene after scene takes place in which there are no more than two or three characters talking to each other, and the result is a quietness that is lacking not just from McCabe and Mrs Miller, but from all the other movies Altman made in the 1970s.
And since there aren’t any background characters to talk over, talk under, or talk around, what the main characters have to say to each other receives an attention conversations don’t in the other films, particularly McCabe. Scenes are driven by dialogue more than by images which forces Altman to force his actors to stick to the script or at least stick more closely to it than actors on his other movies had to or were allowed to.
Thieves Like Us, then, is only typically an Altman movie in the ways that it is self-consciously not a typical Altman movie.
Which seems like the kind of thing on my part that warrants discussion, so let’s get down to it.
Called it a night at 11:30 or so, but the discussion never shuts down. Feel free to add comments anytime and don’t forget to take a complimentary mint on your way out.
Next week: The Player.
You can watch The Player online via Amazon.
My main source for the biographical and background information is Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff, which, along with all the movies under discussion here and all the rest of Altman’s films that are out on DVD, is available for purchase through my aStore.