Peripheral Vision

The Depression bank robbers in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us don’t have the glamour of Bonnie and Clyde and not much of the energy either. They’re just plain folks, a little slow and even stupid, listening to the radio and sipping Cokes, stuck with their lives. They walk through the movie in a kind of stupor, overwhelmed by their limitations; they rob banks because they’re poor and there’s not much of anything else they know how to do. “I should have robbed people with my brain instead of a gun,” young Bowie (Keith Carradine) says. “I should have been a doctor or a lawyer.” But it’s wishful thinking on the most mindless level, the might-have-been pulp of a fan magazine. His partners, T-Dub (Bert Remsen) and Chicamaw (John Schuck), are too old for that—they can only blunder on to the next bank. None of them has the compulsive itch for fame and money that defines most American movie criminals. They like to read about themselves in the newspapers but it’s not important to them (as it was to the Barrow gang); they find virtue in being ordinary. T-Dub says warmly of his sister-in-law, “Mattie’s real people, like us.”

Thieves Like Us was adapted by Calder Willingham, Joan Tewkesbury, and Altman from the same Edward Anderson novel that Nicholas Ray used for They Live by Night (1948), but it’s as different from that version as it is from virtually any other movie in the genre. Altman is a director who works on the periphery: he can take a tired motif and move around it with such precision and freshness that the very form seems altered, expanded. He looks at his subjects sideways. His talent is an original one, but it’s probably the most erratic now at work in American movies. The technique can jell to extraordinary effect (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) or get lost in muddle (The Long Goodbye) and occasionally even fall apart completely (Brewster McCloud). Thieves Like Us is one of Altman’s more successful movies, coherent and rich in detail, and it plays without a hitch. It has the rhythm of a hazy Mississippi heat cut with flashes of rain and it’s so firmly set in its period that it can’t be accused of cashing in on the nostalgia run. Altman shot the film on location in Mississippi towns that look as run-down now as they did then, and the 1930s artifacts are used so naturally that one doesn’t think of them as props. (The exception is an overworked soundtrack of radio programs.)

The movie focuses on the love affair between Bowie and slow-witted Keechie (Shelley Duvall), but its real concern is the fabric of ordinary life that both supports and limits them. One of the best sequences details an evening at Mattie’s house, where the gang is hiding out. The radio is playing “The Shadow” as Mattie washes the supper dishes. Her peroxided sister Lula (“beauty school is all that’s important to me”) is cutting TDub’s hair and fending off his passes. Little Bubber is playing with firecrackers, the kind of sullen mischief that one can see will be a lifetime occupation. Sister Noel Joy, a plump child who’s docile because she’s too embarrassed to be anything else, has got through the pathetic afternoon tap-dancing practice and is now playing dress-up-inmother’s-clothes before a mirror. There’s not much for the gang to do but digest the heavy meal and listen to the rain. Then Chicamaw and TDub stage a mock bank robbery in the living room, chairs piled on tables for tellers’ windows, little Bubber in blackface with a janitor’s broom, Noel Joy as the scared lady customer, Lula as the reluctant teller, real money tossed like Monopoly bills, real guns. But nobody wants to play except Chicamaw and when Lula keeps ruining the fantasy by arguing, he erupts into violence, frightening the children, exploding the evening with the suddenness of a car crash. When Mattie comes in, she breaks up the fight as if it were a squabble in a sandbox and simply tells them to “put the furniture back.” Chicamaw is so humiliated he goes on a drunken tear; the others feel politely scolded. Their lives look like a mess of dangerous horseplay for which “real people” don’t have the time: it’s trouble enough just getting by.

Thieves Like Us isn’t condescending about its characters, though it scores a few laughs off the dumb redneck Dee Mobley (who can’t find the wrench before his eyes) and comes close to being cute when Bowie and Keechie make love (a radio dramatization of Romeo and Juliet is going full blast in the background). The people here are not so much mean-spirited as mindless—they don’t have the brains to be, say, the Snopeses—and Altman delivers the inanities straight: “You ever been to the Red Bonnet Hotel?” Lula asks. “They have the nicest wallpaper.” When Bowie asks Keechie if she’s ever fired a .38 she says she hasn’t but her grip is probably good because she was the best in school at cracking pecans. And when Bowie tells her he’s killed a man, she shakes her head and says, “That’s dumb.” There’s a chill to scenes like these, but it’s never reflected in the characters, because they see violence as something outside themselves. It’s as surprising to them as Keechie’s pregnancy or the door that falls off its loose hinges— they can’t leap from cause to effect, they just take things as they come. But neither are they victims, except in the most general sense. Altman’s Depression settings are like a series of lush FSA photographs and one extraordinary shot of Keechie in a distorted mirror looks like a Dorothea Lange picture altered by Francis Bacon, but Thieves Like Us isn’t up to social commentary and we’re not meant to respond to the characters as victims of social upheaval. They’re more like victims of social inertia.

Thieves Like Us shares with Bonnie and Clyde its emphasis on the role of the mass media in stunted fantasy lives (the soundtrack plays “Gangbusters” as the robbers march into a bank), but it drops the edginess, the excitement, and the investigation into pop mythology that made Bonnie and Clyde a landmark movie. It may be interesting to play a crime movie in low-key, but it’s also odd, as if whole snatches of notes were missing. For a movie so well made and so welt acted. Thieves Like Us is curiously uninvolving. in part, this is a function of Altman’s peripheral vision—he skirts the violence so much that we never see how it shapes the characters’ lives—but it also has a good deal to do with the ordinariness of the material itself. We don’t get very far into the heads of the characters because they’re so simpleminded there’s nowhere to go. The love affair is nice, but it doesn’t spark on the screen (how could it?), and the Anal death scene, when Bowie is annihilated by the police at Mattie’s motel, carries nothing like the turmoil and impact of its counterpart in Bonnie and Clyde. Keechie screams in slow motion on the porch, a dumb animal moan of loss, but it’s Mattie we watch (Louise Fletcher in a flawless performance). She has tipped off the cops to gain favor for her husband in jail and as she holds Keechie back from the shooting her face is a map of complicated emotion—guilty, protective, horrified, the face of a woman who has the intelligence to know that this is just the final scene of a hell they’ve lived in all along. Thieves Like Us is like an old master’s commissioned portrait of an anemic royal cousin—the background is wonderful, full of skill and a sense of the period, but the subject is unworthy and since the artist never managed to get a new fix on it, we have to keep looking around the head, squinting at art.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, broadcast by CBS on January 31 and almost certain to be repeated sometime this year, is unquestionably the finest film to have been made for television and it raises an interesting question: when they make something good for television, is it too good for television? Movies made for television have thus far been hardly worth bothering about, so terrible that even their potential as a B-movie training ground for young writers and directors was an open question. But Miss Jane Pittman, unless it is a fluke, changes all that. On the night it was broadcast it was not only the best program on television but the best new movie to be seen anywhere. And aside from a few shallow interiors that had the look of television. Miss Jane Pittman is very much a “real" movie: it doesn’t compromise on scope, color tone, or visual depth (qualities that indeed were lost or altered in the transfer to the box).

Films as rich and visually dense as Miss Jane Pittman rarely work as well on TV, where minimal sets often will do (one reason why filmed theater and bare 1930s comedies play so effectively), and there is a real danger that as more talent and energy get drained off into TV properties this whole side of moviemaking will be reduced and in any case underplayed. Given the speed with which TV consumes material and the relatively modest budgets it allows, fine craftsmanship may become a luxury of the most vulnerable sort. Perhaps the most impressive and encouraging thing about Miss Jane Pittman is that even with all the limitations TV imposes, everyone involved just went ahead anyway and made the best movie they could.

What is not lost on TV, however, is Miss Jane Pittman’s enormous emotional impact. Based on the Ernest J. Gaines novel, the story takes a 110-year-old black woman, from her childhood in slavery to a final heroic hour in a 1962 civil rights demonstration. The presentation is sketchy in spots but given its range and the fact that large chunks had to be cut (including some long scenes with Odetta as a slave woman), this could hardly be helped and it doesn’t much matter anyway. What does matter is that the film is as moving and powerful a study of black life in this country as has yet been produced. Its variety is astonishing: a lynching scene that is probably the most harrowing ever made; a lyrical river picnic, the ladies with straw hats and parasols, that seems as finely composed as a Seurat; the return of Ned (Jane’s surrogate son) after twenty years, when joy seems to flow out from her arms to embrace the entire screen; the crazy plantation owner who calls his hands together then can’t remember why; half-blind old Jane umpiring a baseball game.

The movie is, of course, a record of exploitation and endurance, but it is not an indictment and it gains its power by taking in so much warmth and humor and day-to-day life that our full emotions respond when the violence comes. Miss Jane Pittman is never cheap or easy and it is as attentive to its supporting stories as to the central drama (there is scarcely a minor character who doesn’t suggest a longer story of his own).

It could have gone wrong in any number of ways but Cicely Tyson, as Jane, holds it together—she begins playing the role from age twenty—and by the time the final scene comes, a long walk to the courthouse drinking fountain, it is all her show. The movie is never sentimental because she won’t let it be; she molds the material with the sheer force of her integrity.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was directed by John Korty, written by Tracy Keenan Wynn, edited by Sidney Levin, and produced by Robert Christiansen and Rick Rosenberg for Tomorrow Entertainment. They have done superb work. As for Cicely Tyson, it is enough to say that hers is one of the great performances now recorded on film.