Thieves Like Us was never one of Robert Altman’s better known films. It did rather poorly at the box office in 1974, and I suspect it will fare little better on DVD. Certainly there is a bit more interest in Altman’s films with his recent passing, but Thieves Like Us is not a great representation of his work. It is a wonderful period piece, but there isn’t anything worthwhile happening inside that marvelously created world. Altman admits there were extreme cuts, over 45 minutes, made to the film. Perhaps that foota…e might have made a huge difference. An extended cut might have been the better way to go here. I suspect with Altman’s death, no one wanted to be the one to change any of his films right now.
The film is based on the Edward Anderson novel of the same title. The book had been filmed with superior results in the 1940’s as They Live By Night. Altman’s film more closely follows the book, and this could be its undoing. There is a reason why even the greatest written works are modified somewhat for the screen. This almost exact telling ends up being quite the bore. It just seems to go nowhere, and very slowly at that. The story follows three bank robbers who manage to escape prison only to return to their criminal ways. Most of the film centers on Bowie (Carradine), one of the robbers who falls in love with Keechie (Duvall). The other two are in and out of the story sparingly. The film is often compared with Bonnie and Clyde, but I don’t see it. First off, Bowie is never joined by Keechie on his criminal adventures. The most significant similarity is the brutality with which Bowie is gunned down in the film’s climax. Unfortunately Altman has developed superb characters and excellent actors to portray them, but he never ends up doing anything with them. Altman addresses the pacing and lack of action in his audio commentary, but he never tells us why. He only mentions at least 50 times that you couldn’t make a film with this pacing today. I think he’d have been better off not to have made one even 30 years ago. His reasoning is audiences today have less patience. That may be true, but the film didn’t exactly set any records even in 1974.
Thieves Like Us is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 The transfer is relatively clean, but plenty of grain is inherent from the original print. At times the film appears overly dark, which only serves to accent how weak the black levels are. There’s not enough shadow detail or contrast. These dark scenes make it difficult to see any detail in the picture. Colors are fair but likely purposefully subdued to fit the depression era period mood.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is the best option here. The dialogue is often spoken in low tones that at times fail to deliver in this mix. I had to go back more than once to catch what was said. The musical cues are rare and mostly jazzy bits with little else going on in the picture. There is some high end distortion but not bad enough to take away from the film. The film fails to excite on any acoustic level at all.
Robert Altman delivers an audio commentary that appears to be from the mid 1990’s. It’s likely it was recorded for a laser disc release, but I’m not sure. There’s a lot of dead air here where he simply doesn’t have anything to say. He does tend to repeat himself on the themes he does discuss like Coke bottles and the lack of action. It’s really bad when you’re bored to tears and then you hear the director tell you that, yes, there isn’t much going on here. He talks about the camera equipment a bit as well.
Only the commentary.
Die hard Robert Altman fans are really the only ones who are going to be interested in this DVD. If that describes you, you are likely interested in the commentary track as much as seeing this film. I know Altman can be an acquired taste, but this film is just too dang slow. There really isn’t much to like about this film. If you are one of those aforementioned fans, then you already bought this baby. For you, “I’m glad you have it if that’s what you want.”
Special Features List
- Robert Altman Commentary