The opening long-lens panorama establishes the drizzly Corot perspective, the camera passes from chain-gang handcar to paddling canoe to dusty jalopy in one curving 180° pan. (The moon-faced driver with a revolver to his head and an anecdote about a blistered turtle promptly secures the timbre of Faulknerian tragicomedy.) Depression-era lifers on the lam in Mississippi, the callow Ozarks stray (Keith Carradine) and the aging lecher (Bert Remsen) and the explosive bulldog (John Schuck), rattling around the pastoral void one and all. ("A little trouble up the road," mumbles the youngster after a nasty brush with the law, the story of everyone’s life.) Ray’s They Live by Night runs on fatalistic romanticism, Robert Altman’s version is less noir fever than wry, drifting reverie. The drama of the tale is resolved mostly offscreen, the main tension is really between the screen’s patina of offhand naturalism and the soundtrack’s running commentary pieced from period radio programs. The theatrical organ notes and gunfire from Gangbusters are deflated by a leisurely bank robbery witnessed entirely from the outside, soused crooks playact with bored children while The Shadow wonders about the evil lurking in the hearts of men. The raw and the self-conscious harmonize in the bashful rhythms of the courtship between Carradine’s rangy fugitive and the mechanic’s gawky daughter (Shelley Duvall): surrounded by walls papered with peeling song sheets while vulgarized Shakespeare soaks the airwaves, the spooning couple finds a moment of sustained luminosity on the margins of society’s margins. The American past evoked through a Gallic eye, as in Bonnie and Clyde but with spacious impressionistic light instead of nouvelle vague laceration. (Penn’s slow-mo is all but sent up towards the end, purposely overdone and shot from the wrong angle.) "Just let the mistletoe hang off my coattail for the rest of the world," sighs the would-be Public Enemy. Altman loves these outlaw-dreamers, yet knows that in the end for them there’s only the quilt caked with blood and mud and the train station’s vacant staircase. Cinematography by Jean Boffety. With Louise Fletcher, Ann Latham, and Tom Skerritt.
--- Fernando F. Croce