"They Live by Night," the 1948 screen adaptation of the Edward Anderson novel "Thieves Like Us," and other films that have obviously been inspired by it, like "Gun Crazy" (1949) and "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), have all been so good that it makes you wonder if yet another version of the same story is necessary. The answer is yes, because Robert Altman is behind this version, and if Altman proved nothing else as a director, he proved that he could take any material and make it his own.
Altman's "Thieves Like Us" is a beautiful and heartbreaking version of the lovers-on-the-lam story, with Keith Carradine cast as Bowie, the soft spoken, sensitive member of a trio of escaped convicts and bank robbers (the other two, Chickamaw and T-Dub, played by Altman regulars John Schuck and Bert Remsen, respectively). During a lull in their series of robberies, Bowie sets up house with Keechie (Shelley Duvall), a shy, simple country girl, and they take a stab at a sort of domestic bliss despite the fact that Bowie is doomed and it's only a matter of time before the law catches up to him. Meanwhile, T-Dub's sister-in-law, Mattie (Louise Fletcher), who has helped the fugitives because of family obligations, begins to tire of the example the trio are setting for her own children, and becomes an accomplice to the police trying to track down the criminals.
Previous screen versions of this story cast gorgeous actors as the lovers and made us fall in love with them. In 1948 it was Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell; in 1967 it was Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. We fall in love with Carradine and Duvall too, but for different reasons. They are decidedly NOT gorgeous actors -- they're both skinny, ungainly and awkward. But they're both incredibly simple and sweet, and they have some lovely and naturalistic moments together that make us wish these two could just settle down, have a family and achieve their own small share of happiness. Altman constantly reminds us of the happiness these two are denied through use of an endless parade of print and radio advertisements that serves as a running commentary throughout the film. During a horrible depression during which so many people could afford nothing, Altman seems to be accusing the American consumerist culture of incessantly reminding everyone of what they didn't have. The way to happiness, Altman implies, seemed to lie in material comforts; no wonder the trio of men in this film prefer robbing banks to the alternatives available to them.
And there's another theme winding its way through Altman's version, one which appeared again and again in his work, that of frustrated male inadequacy. The men in this film turn to the most destructive behavior (thieving, drinking, sexual aggression) in order to cope with a world they feel they've lost control of, and this behavior is continuously juxtaposed to the feminine, domestic sphere represented by Mattie, eternally capable and resourceful, and resentful of the disruption the men bring along with them.
"Thieves Like Us" does not have that beautiful, ethereal sheen to it that characterized Altman's other early-1970s films, mostly because he did not use expert cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond on this outing. But thanks to the winsome performances of Carradine and Duvall, and the touching representation of their characters' tentative relationship, this is one of his warmest and emotionally resonant films from that time period.