(1974) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 01/24/07 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
I’d seen this movie years and years ago on cable. I’d stumbled on it largely because the title of the film was used for a New Order song, so I thought it would be worth investigating. I don’t know that I even knew who Robert Altman was at the time, but the film made a real impression on me. Some of the images just stayed with me all this time. This was about 16 years ago. A long time.
When I was living in England, I discovered They Live by Night (1948), Nicholas Ray’s first film and was totally blown away by it. Though I am not 100% sure all the significance of the statement, I would have to agree with Jean-Luc Godard that “Nicholas Ray is cinema” and this film is amazing. They Live by Night, of course, is adapted from Edward Anderson’s novel, Thieves Like Us, the same source material for Altman’s amazing film.
The novel I later discovered and read and it is brilliant. I believe that it was Anderson’s only book. It’s a dust bowl noir, sort of like David Goodis meets John Steinbeck or something. Tremendously good. Of course, it’s been a while since I read that book, too.
With Altman’s death last November, the recognition of his contributions to cinema has been widely praised, and the Castro Theatre showed some double features of his films for a week and I took the opportunity to revisit this film, which I hadn’t seen in so long, but had kept in mind all that time.
It’s completely brilliant, to be honest, from the very opening shot of the chain gang on a truck on the road that pans over to the two escaped criminals. What struck me so strongly was the tonal similarities to my favorite Altman film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), the Western set in the Pacific Northwest. Though, that film I think addresses different issues than this one.
There is a lot going on that I don’t totally get. The radio broadcasts that play over much of the film and the action are interesting commentary on the events being played out, sometimes in contrast, sometimes in tune. It’s an interesting aspect of the first form of media communication that brought information in real time across large distances. It also created a great deal of the culture of narratives and news information. Radio pervades the film, set largely in small towns and outskirts of towns in and around Mississippi.
The other pervassive thing was the coca cola drinking in this film. It’s like the only product in the world at times. Bottles are carried around, beverages are offered and sought, it’s everywhere throughout the film, even in the final sequences. Is it perhaps another comment of the growing globalization that radio began to offer. A pervasive product that everyone drinks? Is it product placement? It’s strong and bizarre.
Shelley Duvall is amazing as Keechie, her quirky as hell beauty and dim-witted charm. Though I have never been a fan of Keith Carradine, he also really is the character of Bowie, a good guy who only knows how to rob and steal, and hardly knows anything else. Actually, the whole cast is excellent. The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the southern landscape and the small towns in their dull, muted beauty.
Altman was a master. He has many excellent films to his name and this is absolutely among the best. It’s an amazing fact that two such different films have been adapted from one novel, by two important American directors of different generations, who created utterly unique, yet true to the novel, adaptations, masterworks. And the novel itself is a largely lost classic. It had been out of print for nearly 30 years after this film was made. It’s as good as anything out there.