Arthur "Bowie" Bowers (Keith Carradine) escapes from a Mississippi prison along with two older convicts: Elmo "Chicamaw" Mobley (John Schuck) and Thomas "T-Dub" Masefield (Bert Remsen). The trio commits a string of bank robberies, hoping to pull together enough money to live comfortably while they hide from the law. Between this activity they split their time staying with T-Dub's sister-in-law Mattie (Louise Fletcher) and Elmo's brother Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt). Bowie becomes acquainted with Dee's daughter Keechie (Shelley Duvall), and they fall in love. But the trio's time spent on the lam is starting cause a strain on everyone involved. Bowie struggles to remain loyal to his partners and to his lover, who wants him to turn away from a life of crime. But fate has unexpected twists and betrayals waiting for them.
Altman, writer Joan Tewkesbury, and several members of the cast would later work together on Nashville.
No relation to the Stephen Cole novel.
This film has examples of the following tropes:
- Affably Evil: T-Dub is actually a pleasant guy outside of his criminal acts, in contrast to the borderline-Jerkass Chicamaw.
- The Alcoholic: Chicamaw.
- Bank Robbery: Chicamaw and T-Dub are experienced robbers who methodically plan out their bank hits.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Mattie.
- Coincidental Broadcast: Despite the constant use of radio as a soundtrack, the film only resorts to this once: Bowie hears a news report about T-Dub getting killed by the police.
- Creator Cameo: That's screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury (credited under her then-married name Joan Maguire) as the woman at the train station that Keechie talks to in the final scene.
- The Great Depression: The setting for the story. Many of the radio broadcasts comment on the financial crisis, including speeches from Franklin D. Roosevelt and Father Charles Coughlin.
- Killed Offscreen: T-Dub.
- Outlaw Couple: Keechie doesn't participate in any of the bank robberies and isn't too keen on Bowie continuing them, but she certainly is aiding and abetting him while he's on the run.
- More Dakka: How the police deal with Bowie.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: It's interesting to compare this film and They Live by Night to the novel. They both compress the novel in different ways (They Live by Night is focused on Bowie and Keechie, Thieves Like Us develops the other characters a bit more). Thieves Like Us is 28 minutes longer than They Live by Night and didn't have to worry about The Hays Code. The naturalistic acting and rich period detail of Thieves Like Us make it seem almost like a documentary, while They Live by Night plays like a stylized fictionalization of the same people and events.
- Reality Has No Soundtrack: The film forgoes a music score in favor of having diegetic actual radio broadcasts from The Great Depression in the backgrounds of scenes.
- Someone to Remember Him By: As the film ends Keechie is pregnant with Bowie's child, but pointedly says that she will not name the baby after its father.
- Spared by the Adaptation: In the original novel Keechie gets gunned down along with Bowie. Robert Altman thought that was too similar to Bonnie and Clyde so he decided to let Keechie live and end the film with her leaving Mississippi. This incidentally is more or less how They Live by Night ended, albeit without the pregnancy
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: The radio broadcasts often seem related to the scenes they're featured in, most memorably when Bowie and Keechie listen to a presentation of Romeo and Juliet while they make love.
- Title Drop: No direct one, but a couple allusions.Bowie (to the dog): You're just a thief like me.T-Dub: Gotta find me a doctor who's a thief like us.
- Villain Protagonist: Bowie is easily the most likable of the convicts, even though he's a convicted murderer.
- Working on the Chain Gang: Chicamaw does forced labor after he gets recaptured.