Altman's Pretty, Unseen Thieves Like Us

Despite the regularity with which critics and moviegoers alike rediscover Robert Altman, this gem-like middle work seems destined to remain underappreciated. Hard to comprehend why. In 1974, when he made it, Altman was in top form. He'd recently brought out McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, and the next year would see Nashville, his touchstone meisterwork. Like these films, Thieves comes at us initially like back-porch skiffle music, a sunny, blues-y thing that shows, slowly, its jazz engine.

    Thieves is set in the midwest of the 1930s, and early scenes between the three thieves of the title (Keith Carradine, John Schuck) chug along like only semi-serious routines about a trio of affable farm boys turned bank robbers. Only by degrees do you start to catch Altman's subject -- the "thistledown" Pauline Kael once praised him for working with. In this case it's less the idea of crime and punishment than the mesmerized state the boys find themselves in when they find themselves mythologized in the papers. (They realize they've turned a corner when their pictures turn up in an issue of Real Detective.)

    Eventually, the film, which strings the robberies out alongside a poignantly shy romance between Carradine and his Coke-sucking girl, Keechie (Shelley Duvall), shows itself as an agrarian noir by way of Madame Bovary. These thieves live just at the point when American pop culture was emerging; the cities may have had Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, but in the country there was the diversion of radio serials like "The Shadow" and rooms wall-papered with sheet music. No longer living in the wild west, these outlaws weren't yet cold-blooded sociopaths of a later urban era, and Altman's weird and interesting point becomes clear: his thieves are Huck Finn innocents, and like Huck they can't get enough of their own story.