Sleeper Hit


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.

8 Responses to “Sleeper Hit”

  1. Minor Altman (and the use of a radio broadcast of “Romeo and Juliet” is annoying) but the last shot of Shelley Duvall mounting a stairway is especially lovely.

  2. Yes! Lots of good bits, in fact, which didn’t quite gel. But it has its defenders.

    I’d love to know what was behind the Coca Cola motif.

  3. chris schneider Says:

    “What to Nick Ray is innocence, to Altman is stupidity” — bravo, David! File it under “Truer words …” Husband#1 and I saw this together, on a double-bill with McCABE, and my less-than-enchanted companion remarked that Altman seemed to have a thing” for women getting out of bathtubs. I remember liking Louise Fletcher at the end, in any case.

  4. Never trust Louise Fletcher!

    All straight men probably have a thing about women getting out of bathtubs, though the bathtub itself may not be necessary.

  5. Andreas Flohr Says:

    Hello Mr.Cairns, The excessive Coca Cola merchandising is a remembrance to Altmans teenager days in Kansas City.

    A. Flohr

  6. I didn’t exist in the ’30’s,but (BONNIE&CLYDE being my fave film)this puts me in the ’30’s,more than any other film set there.” 37 banks” I just love that ongoing bit. this is one of my favorite films ever. of course, MS.DUVALL has my heart in the palm of her hand,anyway. the direction ,and apparently cinematography ,are irresistable .saw it yrs. ago on a theater screen .Altman was a GREAT director.

  7. Amazing how he and Nick Ray could take the same story and treat it in basically opposite ways and both make terrific films.

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