Robert Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US sort of trundles into rickety existence with a bunch of scenes sort of recognizable from their vague equivalents in Nick Ray’s debut THIEVES LIKE US, only less incisive, more diffuse and goofy and realistic. You don’t really know why you’re watching until a dog comes panting along a railway bridge, its soft puffing exactly like that of a tiny hairy steam train. Keith Carradine, forced by barely-explained plot contingencies to sleep rough, gathers the compliant hound to his bosom. “You’ll be my blanket,” he says, rolling into a nook under the train tracks. BONK — the dog bumps its head on the overhead sleeper.
“Sorry,” ad libs Carradine, and wins our affection. He can rob as many people as he likes for the rest of the movie, his canine apology makes him one of us.
This residual goodwill proves very handy as the film, one of Altman’s most low-key, minor-league ’70s works, soon reverts to trundling, and Carradine’s character does little to ingratiate himself. Farley Granger in the original is impossibly naive, but what to Nick Ray is innocence, to Altman is stupidity. He doesn’t try to seduce us, as Arthur Penn & co did in BONNIE AND CLYDE, but that leaves the film to be defined mainly in the negative, for all the conventional things it resists doing, rather for any bold new ground it positively breaks.
The use of old-time radio shows on the soundtrack seems unusually obvious for Altman — hearing The Shadow or something doesn’t seem to provide a new layer the way the tannoy announcements do in M*A*S*H. But the constant presence of Coca-Cola in the film is intriguing — we see it being promoted, the heroes drink nothing but, and in the final scene, every extra seems to have their own bottle. This is, I believe, before Cola got into movie-making, so I don’t think it’s mere product placement. Altman clearly has something on his mind. It’s like the fizzy drink version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.