Only just now coming out on DVD, two months after Robert Altman's death and years after most of the films in his catalog, 1974's Thieves Like Us has never gotten its due as one of his finest directorial efforts. Two reasons spring to mind: The film followed Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde, another seminal work about bank-robbing outlaws, and it was lodged in the middle of the era's greatest creative winning streak, when Altman turned out M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville in the space of five years. But Thieves Like Us stands up to any one of them, because it plays to Altman's strengths for upending genre expectations and evoking a specific era so rigorously that it hardly feels staged at all. Remove all the crime-movie trappings—and there aren't that many, once Altman gets through with them—and the film would still endure for its surface alone, capturing the Depression-era South with brushstrokes of language, décor, and radio-plays on the soundtrack.
Immediately defusing the highly charged nature of other movies about outlaws, Altman's gorgeous opening shot follows a handcart full of chain-gang members gliding down the tracks, then swings around to two men paddling a canoe in a pond. The men (Keith Carradine and John Schuck) are fugitives on the lam, but Altman's lyrical introduction sets a surprisingly gentle tone for the rest of the film to follow. The crooks are joined by Bert Remsen, a veteran thief who's the group's default mastermind, both because of his bank-robbing experience and because he's necessary ballast between the passive Carradine and the volatile Schuck. While holing up to dodge the statewide manhunt, Carradine is smitten with their reluctant caretaker, Shelley Duvall.
Though Carradine has the blackest mark possible on his criminal record—as a teenager, he shot a man and barely escaped a death sentence—he's a reluctant outlaw, and the film suggests that he'd be an ordinary breadwinner if fate hadn't interceded. Duvall recognizes his decency, but sees his essential weakness, too, and she doesn't fall in love with him so much as stumble. The conclusion of their relationship is inevitable, but the conclusion to the movie is far from it, as Altman closes with a quiet ambivalence that honors Duvall more than his ostensible hero.
Key features: Altman never gave great commentary, but it's nice to hear his voice again.