Two convicts break out of Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1936 to join a third on a long spree of bank robbing, their special talent and claim to fame. The youngest of the three falls in love along the way with a girl met at their hideout, the older man is a happy professional criminal with a romance of his own, the third is a fast lover and hard drinker fond of his work. The young lovers begin to move out of the sphere in which they have met, a last robbery in Yazoo City goes badly and puts paid to the gang once and for all as a profitable venture, but isn't the end of the story quite yet, as all three are wanted and notorious men with altogether different points of view on the situation they are faced with.
Based on Ethan Anderson's 1937 novel of the same name, Robert Altman's 'Thieves Like Us', tells the story of two young lovers in Depression-era Mississippi. The book was previously adapted as 'They Live By Night', the directorial debut of Nicholas Ray, who created a well-regarded film noir classic whose influence can be seen in films such as 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Badlands'.
Bowie (Keith Carradine) is a young man on the lam after escaping prison along with his bank-robbing buddies, Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T.W (Bert Remsen). The three hole up at Chicamaw's cousin Dee's (Tom Skerritt) gas station, and Chicamaw's teenage niece Keechie (Shelley Duvall) catches Bowie's eye. He tries to strike up conversations, but she has little interest.
The men press their luck and continue robbing banks, which they do not just to make money, but because they enjoy the notoriety that comes from reading about their exploits in the newspaper. One night, Bowie gets into a very bad car accident. Chicamaw takes drastic action to remove Bowie from the scene in order to take him back to Dee's before running off. Keechie tends to Bowie and their feelings for each other become mutual.
In a great bit of foreshadowing, Altman has the two consummate their love while a performance of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' plays on the radio. However, there's a bit of an audio screw-up that follows. The two awake from a nap, obviously a result of their exhaustive lovemaking, and go back at it. This occurs twice in the sequence but the play hasn't progressed very far by the time round three is about to commence, creating a very odd, though likely unintended, impression about the two.
Altman strips away the romanticism of a life of crime usually associated with the genre. T.W. turns creepy when he preys on a young woman, especially because her relation to him is unclear as I think back, and Chicamaw is a scary psychopath, especially when he's drinking. Keechie doesn't enjoy waiting around uncertain if Bowie is ever going to return. She begs him to leave the life, but it's all he knows. The film delivers a satisfying end to the story, even though its expected as the conclusion draws near.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents 'Thieves Like US' on a 25GB Region A Blu-ray disc housed in a standard blue case. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. Jean Boffety's cinematography made use of diffusion to evoke the era. He softened the focus by doing things like shooting through rain, both actual water and optical effect, and glass. This leads to many scenes where the objects aren't sharp nor have hard edges.
In the opening scene, film grain is evident, especially against the gray sky. The green Mississippi fields come through in a strong hue while many of the other colors are intentionally dull, another artistic choice. Faint specks of white and black appear. There's also some slight banding around exposed light bulbs.
Blacks are inky and well defined. As the main characters sit in a house after the Yazoo City bank robbery, Chicamaw's black hair stands apart from the darkness. A scene that shows how great the contrast is when Keechie is taking a bath. Part of the room is lit in the frame while portions are consumed by shadow and Bowie sits off the upper left corner with a bed lamp.
The audio is available in DTS-HD 2.0 Mono. Dialogue is clear throughout. There's not a traditional score. Instead, the music is diegetic, mainly heard coming through radios, except for one scene where Bowie is driving and the music can be heard as the shot shows the outside the car.
Many of the radio broadcasts sound old, accompanied by hiss and signs of age and wear; yet they shouldn't because they should be new within the timeframe of the scene. Radio dialogue recorded for the purposes of the movie don't match because they sound too modern. The track has a wide dynamic range, from the soft roar of crackling fire to the power of many gunshots.
Based on the strength of the film alone, Altman's 'Thieves Like Us' is well worth one's time. The high-definition presentation is good enough, and getting to hear a talented director like Altman speak about his work is a treat. Recommended.