Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us comes after McCabe and Mrs Miller and before Nashville but it's not one of the director's big, free-floating, star-studded statements about the American spirit (McCabe partially concerns itself with how the west was bought) or pop culture's impact on the American psyche: Buffalo Bill and the Indians is about how the west was packaged.

The film is not about country music either, though it's set way down in Dixie, and it's not about the unspoken power of the movies like The Player, except tangentially. Thieves is an uncredited remake of Nicholas Ray's 1948 classic They Live by Night and although Altman sets the story in the Thirties, his doomed hero (Keith Carradine) and heroine (Shelley Duvall) could be taking their lovelorn cues from the original's Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, a small-town Bonnie and Clyde forced into a life of crime.

The big difference is that Ray favours a sociological viewpoint (society is to blame) while Altman's characters simply drift towards death: Duvall doesn't want to fall in love with an escaped convict. It just happens and it seals her fate.

Thieves Like Us is unlike any other Altman film (it's simple, intimate and sort of instructively half asleep) yet I suspect it may be his crowning achievement. You feel that this movie, not M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, The Player or Short Cuts, is the tragic America of Altman's bittersweet dreams and it hurts too much to be smartass or worldly wise. There's such plain poetry in the way Carradine and Duvall gulp their Coke and make mindless small talk. They're hicks, but you want to stop, park the car and visit them for the short time that they have left.

There is an Altman season at The Everyman Cinema, Hampstead this week (071-435 1525 for details)

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