Almost two decades after her documentary debut (modern football in 1951), Robert Altman enjoyed critical and public acclaim in 1970 with MASH, Palme d’Or at the 23rd edition of the Cannes Film Festival and huge success. A revenge for a filmmaker who will have waited for his time for a long time, having then inherited a project for which he was far from being the first choice. Fred Zinnemann, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, David Lean, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, Stanley Kubrick, George Roy Hill, Franklin J. Schaffner and Bob Rafelson, were all contacted before him, and declined, either for lack of time or for fear of controversy. At forty-five, Altman was about to enter the most prolific and exciting phase of his career: the 1970s. Anyone who made his mark on television can now satisfy his hunger for cinema and chain shootings while keeping his artistic independence (it is exercised on the margins of the majors), in a desire for full creative freedom. Regularly acclaimed by the press (he enjoys the solid support of Pauline Kael), he struggles more to meet the public. However, it was during the seventies that he made several of his most famous films: Nashville, John McCabe, three women. Right after his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Long Goodbyefame Private in our regions, he was going to look into the transposition of another work: Thieves like us by Edward Anderson. A writing that had already been brought to the screen in 1947 by Nicholas Ray for his first attempt, The lovers of the night (They Live by Night in original version). Jerry Bick, producer of his previous feature film, was previously a literary agent for authors such as Jim Thompson. He procures the rights to Anderson’s book and offers it to Altman. The latter shows his interest, but adheres only little to the scenario previously commissioned from Calder Willingham (Spartacus, Paths of Glory, The winner, Little Big Man), he then asks his collaborator Joan Tewkesbury to rehabilitate it with him. He quickly has in mind his two main actors, two faithful, Keith Carradine (appeared in John McCabe) and Shelley Duvall (also seen in John McCabe as well as Brewster McCloud). Despite a modest budget, the start-up turned out to be more difficult than expected, he went into production himself, joined by George Litto (the man who would later be behind Obsession, impulses and Fury by Brian DePalma). Thieves like us becomes in French We are all thieves and was released on the screens in 1974. A forgotten and little-known work produced at the heart of a prosperous decade, it resurfaces on Blu-Ray and DVD at the Atelier d’images, with a new high-definition master. In 1930s Mississippi, Chicanaw. T. Dub (Bert Remsen) and young Bowie Bowers (Keith Carradine) escape from prison. Armed and dangerous, they multiply bank robberies and make the headlines. Wounded, Bowie is forced to hide on a farm. There he meets Keechie (Shelley Duvall), a young woman with whom he will fall madly in love…
Opening in wide shots. The camera implanted in the heart of a vast landscape approaches and moves away from the characters who appear in the frame. Men with still vague identities stand out, dialogues are audible, however Robert Altman seems more concerned with the idea of auscultating the setting (and signifying its scope) within which his story begins, than explaining the prevailing context. He thus reminds us of his first cinematic steps in the documentary, leaving us at first glance knowingly outside the action. He imposes a film of large spaces which will gradually refocus on its individualities, preferring above all to probe their environment. The information relating to the pasts of his antiheroes is scattered randomly, it is up to the spectator to question himself and to connect the threads of the plot alone. It is interesting to note that the whole becomes clearer narratively when the staging initiates the rapprochement between Bowie and Keechie, as if the filmmaker finally consented to a slight “concession” of treatment. Nevertheless, seven years after the cartoon of Bonnie & Clydewho has become as much an emblem of New Hollywood as of gangster cinema, Altman, like the neo-noir on Private, continues his work of deconstruction of the genres he invests. Whether We are all thieves is anchored in the same historical period, the Great Depression, as Arthur Penn’s feature film or even the Dillinger by John Milius released the previous year, it breaks with the glamor and lyricism of the first but also with the dry efficiency of the second. In a gesture aimed at annihilating the obligatory figures of the register, the robbery sequences are relegated out of frame or coldly filmed in static shots that are as anti-spectacular as possible.
Visually, the director favors raw realism, even hyperrealism (to quote the intervention of Olivier Père in the supplements) inspired by the photography of the New Deal, Walker Evans in the lead. He finds in his approach a precious ally, the cinematographer Jean Boffety (The Big Mouths by Robert Enrico Things of life by Claude Sautet Heat wave by Yves Boisset, Died on a rainy Sunday by Joël Santoni…) who rejects pure aesthetics as much as naturalism. The latter creates a soberly stylized image, each apparent effect finds its justification directly in the frame, one thinks in particular of the compositions playing with windows and mirrors. This formal outline is accompanied by essential sound work, both precise and experimental. The radio quickly becomes a character in its own right: it delivers information, opens the heroes to culture (Romeo and Juliet audible during the first love scene), allows musical breaks (always intradiegetic) and maintains a link with the outside world (apart from robberies, individuals live confined and hidden). Olivier Père evokes a particular attention to the sound that runs through Altman’s work, from the loudspeaker in the camp of MASHto songs by Leonard Cohen on Nashville. Here, it is a necessary complement to the action (a feeling of abundance and profusion gradually contrasts with the vagueness of the first minutes) and at the same time an ironic commentary on the adventures.
The moderate empathy that Robert Altman seems to feel for Bowie and Keetchie is partly due to the investment of his two interpreters, fair, innocent and candid (the wonder of the young woman when her lover offers her a watch). Without any outpouring, he observes the discovery of reciprocal feelings that both of them were unaware of, even if it means softening slightly. However, this romance may constitute the heart of the plot, it never appears otherwise than as a parenthesis within an evocation of the great History. Teasingly, the filmmaker does not hesitate to draw a parallel between his gangsters and a child playing with firecrackers, making no mystery of his lack of interest and his low regard for the former. Lost and uneducated, they represent the outcasts of the American dream, having turned to crime with the hope of repairing a short-term injustice. Conversely, Keechie’s family members, also left behind, stick to an honest course, without necessarily knowing a better fate. Devoid of folklore or any form of nostalgia, We are all thieves, is a way for its author to dig into the upheavals generated by the time. The culprits he designates are not the same as those depicted in the media. He attacks a system that transforms the most precarious into outlaws, while the powerful find their reasons for satisfaction. The banks, alleged victims, receive insurance and generate a posteriori a profit. At the same time, the growth of banditry allows the state to strengthen its authority, toughen its laws and establish its domination by force, as evidenced by the future creation of the FBI. In the end, the film captivates as much, if not more, by the relevance and acuity of its reviews, as by its cinematographic choices alone. Resolutely pessimistic, like a very dark final climax that sounds like a harsh reality check, the director offers his heroine a second chance in extremis and the possibility of a new beginning. Vain illusion or belated hint of optimism?
We are all thieves, is not necessarily Robert Altman’s great little-known film, but is an interesting curiosity to put into perspective with other of his more imposing successes made during the same decade. In addition to a quality master, the edition comes with the original trailer as well as a long interview with Olivier Père entitled: Robert Altman or the art of deconstruction. This document of almost forty-five minutes, first evokes the career of the filmmaker, before looking into the novel by Edward Anderson and its first cinematographic adaptation, then to deepen in a last movement this new version produced in 1974. Scholarly, concise and fascinating, this supplement offers precious keys to understanding the film in all its richness, but also the filmography of a filmmaker whose work is still very unequally celebrated.
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Robert Altman – “We are all thieves/ Thieves like us” (1974)