Thieves Like Us
An interesting history here. It’s based on a novel, but it was made once before, in 1948, as They Live By Night. It was Nicholas Ray’s first picture. Both movies tell the story of Bowie (Farley Granger in the first one, Keith Carradine in the second) and his two partners in crime, Chickama (Howard Da Silva and John Schuck) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen and Bert Remsen), and Keechie, the girl he falls in love with (Cathy O’Donnell and Shelley Duvall). The guys break out of a prison farm in Mississippi and go on a bank robbery spree. In spite of being dumb as Moe, Larry, and Curly, they do pretty good. They’ve got a nice little bundle of swag and there’s talk of going to Mexico, but of course they spend most of it. In the original, Bowie was wrongly convicted of killing a man, and is only doing these jobs to raise money for a lawyer to prove his innocence. In the remake, he never makes that claim, and in fact owns up to killing the man, saying it was him or me.
That’s probably because the remake, the one under discussion here (I haven’t seen the other one, yet) was directed by Robert Altman. He is into altogether grittier stuff, and doesn’t really care if Bowie is an innocent man. He is an amiable one, and really shouldn’t be hanging around with these two psychopaths, but he seems just too easygoing to worry about much. The dialog is typical Altman, overlapping, with these guys having a lot of dumb conversations and telling a lot of dumb jokes and laughing their asses off. Even though most of the cops in the South are looking for them, they don’t take any particular precautions. And their dumb luck holds. Until the end, and you won’t be surprised to hear that it all ends badly.
There’s one really amazing scene. You want to know just how dumb Chickama is? Bowie comes up with an ingenious plan to bust the fool out of Parchman Farm (and it really is a good plan, for once, and brazen as hell). So Chickama gets out and what does he do? He immediately starts bitching about how all the newspaper stories focus on Bowie. Why don’t they write about him? And that’s not enough, he starts calling Keechie filthy names, can’t seem to hear himself or stop himself. Bowie pulls over, tells him to get his fat ass out of the car, and leaves him there by the side of the road in his striped pajamas!
One of the finest touches is that there is no musical score as such. But almost every scene is accompanied by the radio playing. This is 1937, Seabiscuit is winning races, FDR is in the White House, addressing the nation. Some of the radio stuff is music, but most of it is something most of us don’t know much about: radio drama. It’s interesting to realize that radio was totally different in those days. It was all scheduled programs, just like TV. Comedies, dramas, musical performances. Nobody was spinning records. Most of these shows sound incredibly lame and slow in this day and age, but they must have been wonderful to the people back then.