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Sunday, June 15, 2008


THIEVES and CALIFORNIA SPLIT/’74 were the last films Robert Altman made before he was tagged a genius, a creative curse similar to writers winning the Nobel Prize. He eventually recovered his form, in fits & starts, but never again had the run of masterpieces he helmed in the early ‘70s. An earlier version of this story (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT/’49, see above) was guilt-riven romance with contemporary noir trimmings, but Altman effectively returns to the novel’s mid-30s Southern environment, and with little of the cutesy self-consciousness seen in comparable Depression era pics like PAPER MOON/’73 or BONNIE AND CLYDE/’67. Altman helps set the scene by keeping period radio on the soundtrack. It works just fine as long as word & image move on separate tracks, but hearing ROMEO AND JULIET during the big love scene is one of the film’s few missteps. Altman also draws a narrative demarcation line between the bank-robber convicts and the doomed love story of the youngest robber & his innocent girl. You know the end is near when they do cross. Keith Carradine, as the kid, & John Schuck, as the psychopath in the gang, are beyond praise. And if Shelly Duvall perfectly fills her role, you’ll still see why she had a foreshortened career. It’s not her odd, but compelling face, but her posture, of all things. You feel she literally can’t carry a film. But for this brief moment, Altman was able to carry just about anything.

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