Thieves Like Us is an adaptation of the Edward Anderson novel of the same name, which deals with a gangster and his wife as they try to make a life for themselves in Mississippi during the Great Depression. Anderson’s novel had already been filmed by Nicholas Ray as They Live By Night, but Altman’s adaptation has a very different tone, even if it does sometimes play as his own eccentric version of noir as well. In this version, Keith Carradine plays gangster Bowie, part of a trio of gangsters that also includes Chicamaw, played by John Shuck, and T-Dub, played by Bert Ramsen. For the first part of the film, Bowie, Chicamaw and T-Dub moves from one bank heist to another, while basing their operations in a boarding house run by Mattie, played by Louise Fletcher. However, when Bowie falls in love with Keechie, played by Shelley Duvall, they both move out and get married, fracturing the trio of gangsters, but also putting even more financial pressure on Bowie to rob banks. Since the gangsters were already a pretty elastic unit to begin with, Bowie is able to maintain some of his previous itinerant lifestyle, but gradually he is forced to choose between his bank robberies and his relationship, as his life and crime starts to disintegrate.
While Thieves Like Us may thus follow the same rough narrative as They Live By Night, it exhibits a very different rhythm and momentum. In Ray’s version, Bowie and Keechie were always hunched, furtive, trying to stay one step ahead of the law, spending most of their time in cars, or car-related spaces, that were shot through with the claustrophobia typical of so much crime cinema made at this time. By contrast, Altman’s characters are buoyed up and exhilarated by the momentum of the road, especially since they have to get a new car for each robbery, creating a continuous sense of horizontal movement across the screen that sees Altman largely prioritizing the panning within his trademark zoom-and-pan aesthetic. In the opening shot of the film, the camera moves slowly from right to left, mirroring a series of horizontal trajectories that set up the action – a collection of prisoners on a chain-gang train, a trio of prisoners breaking away from the train and rowing a boat across a lake, and then a car arriving in the distance to pick them up. As the film proceeds, these horizontal trajectories grow more complex, and often occur simultaneously, as when Bowie follows a stray dog along a rail bridge, while a car searches for him on a parallel road on the other side of the bridge, all as a train gradually approaches this all from the distance.
For the most part, the heists are also subsumed into this buoyant momentum, since Altman tends to focus mainly on the road trips to and from each bank robbery, turning the robberies into so many blips in the film’s broader trajectory. Finally, the road itself, and the landscapes around it, also contour this sense of forward momentum, since Altman, unlike Ray, shoots most of his driving scenes during the day, or in the early hours of evening. In Ray’s film, the darkness was so palpable and sticky that it seemed to suffocate the characters, but Altman holds back from this “darker than night” aesthetic of noir, preferring to collapse night into the many evening scenes that perpetually hold back the darkness. Only a few pivotal scenes take place in this darkness, and these are all contoured by the peculiar role that the radio plays here, both in terms of the story and Altman’s unique style.
Early in Thieves Like Us, it seems like Altman might use the gang’s heists to generate the collective propulsion so characteristic of his oeuvre at this particular point of time, but he opts for a more unusual platform, divesting the film of any soundtrack, and instead flooding most of the scenes with radio broadcasts. The radio is playing for virtually the entire film, as all types of radio programs percolate in and out of Altman’s mise-en-scenes. Music, news, serials and advertisements all bleed into a single ambience that is often difficult to distinguish from dialogue and other ambient noise. As a result, the radio tends to confound the distinction between foreground and background noise, producing a beautiful vision of the radio era in which every character seeps in and out of the radio programming – rather than vice versa – tapping into its flow so subliminally that they seem to be “speaking” radio.
Like They Live By Night, Thieves Like Us does have some tightly wound moments, but they always dissipate into a more Altman-esque languor around this pervasive radio ambience. In part, that’s because the film seems to be set at the dawn of car radios, meaning that the most visceral radio moments occur while characters are driving, while the act of driving takes on a new exuberance when accompanied by a radio soundtrack. As a result, the radios here maintain the momentum of the road, and a porous connection to the outside world, that cuts against the noirish claustrophobia of the original film, since the radio ensures that no space is ever truly cut off from the rest of society. In doing so, the radio also acts as a point of confluence between all the characters, especially since Altman often cuts between disparate characters listening to similar radio broadcasts. On the surface, Thieves Like Us doesn’t have enough characters to qualify as an ensemble film, but it turns out not to need any more, as the radio functions as an ensemble experience in and of itself, perpetually reminding the few characters that we see that they are part of a broader shared experience.
Paradoxically, then, the radio provides both intimacy and collectivity, alternately expanding and compressing the space between the characters. This is particularly clear in the case of Bowie and Keechie, who spend their first night together during a radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet. While the radio remains on for their entire lovemaking session, it never feels obtrusive, and rarely feels present in any discrete way, instead evoking Bowie and Keechie’s barely articulated hopes and dreams as they slide in and out of their conscious thoughts and experiences. In fact, the radio makes their experience more intimate and private, since it provides them with a public sphere to define their closeness against, resulting in one of the most tender scenes in Altman’s whole career, as well as two of the most tender performances that Carradine and Duvall ever committed to the big screen. Time and again, Altman uses the radio in this manner to evoke an intimacy, privacy and romantic fulfilment that that the mere representation of physical isolation can’t properly match or approximate.
The radio ambience also makes this one of Altman’s most vividly etched and unironic period exercises. In part, that’s because all of the radio broadcasts seem to be archival, curated as meticulously and lovingly as the soundtrack to any other Altman film. Above and beyond its content, however, the radio creates a profoundly shared sense of a particular time and space that exceeds any one experience, leading many critics, at the time of release, to note how evocatively it captured the ambience of their childhoods and earliest memories. In fact, Altman often seems to be considering how the origin of his own sonic signature – overlapping voices, multiple sonic planes, collapse of foreground and background noise – might have been influenced by his own experience of growing up in the radio era, making Thieves Like Us one of the rare films in Altman’s 70s period where he explicitly identifies himself as a child of the 1920s and 1930s, despite his affiliation for the 70s counterculture, and despite the way this sonic signature plays into his visions of countercultural collectivity.
Yet just as Altman was growing ambivalent about the counterculture, so Thieves Like Us grows increasingly ambivalent about its radio foundations. Early in the film, the radio generates an incredible bonhomie, with characters continually laughing at jokes on the radio, jokes they recall on the radio, or jokes that have gone viral and circulated throughout American culture in ways that could only occur during a radio era. In fact, most of the first part of Thieves Like Us consists of characters laughing, on the verge of laughing, or recovering from laughing, as the radio develops the American public sphere into a cosmic, comic and optimistic prospect for everyone who encounters it. This omnipresent laughter extends into a broader sense of play, which itself culminates with a joyous, buoyant scene in which Bowie and Chicamaw drive in tandem on the way to another heist, continually overtaking each other and driving side by side, as they mirror the way in which Altman himself flexibly rearranges the various horizontal trajectories that comprise the film’s style.
However, this gorgeous driving sequence is following by the starkest and most brutal scene in the film – a car crash that sees a woman wounded, before Chicamaw guns down two police officers who ask him to take her to the nearest hospital. While the radio’s slipstream has nourished and nurtured the characters up until this point, it also allows them to shrug off this brutality and continue on down the road. Yet this dual role of the radio, which prevents the film’s authenticity turning into straight nostalgia, eventually proves impossible to elude, partly because it is worked so deeply into the structure of the film from the very outset, via two Coca-Cola advertisements. The first occurs on a truck parked outside a bank during the first heist, while the second occurs during a radio broadcast. From this point on, Coca-Cola percolates through every scene – as refreshment, object, brand – embodying the enduring impact of radio even or especially when people aren’t listening to it, or aren’t aware they are listening to it. Escaping the pull of the radio becomes equated with escaping the pull of the Coca-Cola empire, starting with an erratic scene – one of the few very dark scenes – in which Bowie moves manically between radio stations in the car, desperately trying to avoid hearing a broadcast about the trio’s latest and most catastrophic bank heist.
This paves the way for the final act of the film, which follows Bowie as he breaks Chicamaw out of Mississippi State Penitentiary. The main entrance to the prison is flanked by a pair of giant Coca-Cola advertisements, as eluding the spaces endorsed by radio and Coca-Cola converges on the same project in Altman’s vision. No surprise, then, that Altman removes all radio broadcasts for the prison escape, resulting in the longest stretch of the film that is unaccompanied by radio. However, even in its physical absence, the radio contours the space between Bowie and Chicamaw, as Chicamaw responds to the prison break by petulantly claiming that Bowie always gets too much credit, on the radio, for the crimes they have committed together. Conversely, Bowie broke out Chicamaw to escape the radio, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before Chicamaw informed on him in jail, potentially thwarting his plans to work towards a life with Keechie in Mexico, figuratively and literally beyond the reach of American radio. Bowie is therefore left in a dissonant space, forced to discard Chicamaw because he prioritises the radio too much, but also aware that the only way he could really have managed Chicamaw was to kill him, or to collaborate with him on another heist in such a way as to give Chicamaw the radio spotlight.
In either case, the radio wins, making for an ending in which the power of the radio insinuates its way back into the final scenes of the film. As Keechie returns a crate of old Coca-Cola bottles to Mattie to be recycled, we start to hear the radio again, before the police arrive to shoot down Bowie in his motel room. Like the bottles, the radio can’t simply be thrown out, but instead remediates itself across the American media landscape, setting the stage for both the counterculture’s collective aspirations, and the blind spots within those aspirations. These blind spots are eerily articulated in an incredible final sequence in which the camera pans from a radio across a segregated railway station, accompanied by a broadcast about the need for fiscal regulation, before finally arriving at Keechie, who is drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola, since, as she confides to another passenger, “the baby makes me awfully thirsty.” Coming of age in the 1950s, this baby might well be Altman himself, attuned in the womb to radio as a distant echo of the counterculture he will eventually critique, much as this amniotic radio state now echoes back across the decades to him now.