In a remarkably productive five-year period, from 1970 to 1975, the maverick American film director Robert Altman released one of the best (and certainly the funniest) anti-war films ever made (MASH, 1970), the bizarre fantasy Brewster McCloud (1970), a haunting revisionist western considered by many his masterpiece (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971), a chilling portrait of a woman’s descent into madness (Images, 1972), a sly and ironic update of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973), a comedy about two hapless gamblers (California Split, 1974), an evocative adaptation of a 1937 crime novel (Thieves Like Us, 1974), and the sprawling, critically-acclaimed social satire Nashville (1975). Eight movies, each a true original, in five years, representing a burst of creative energy arguably unequal;led in the history of American film.

With the notable exceptions of MASH and Nashville, the movies in this period did poorly at the box-office, proving once again that Altman – an intuitive, unpredictable filmmaker – is often too idiosyncratic for mainstream audiences. Luckily for the rest of us he is still, at 78, out there making movies in his own inimitable way.

Thieves Like Us is the story of three escaped convicts (Keith Carradine as Bowie, John Shuck as Chickamaw and Bert Remsen as T-Dub) who embark on a crime spree, robbing small-town banks in the Mississippi delta at the height of the Depression. Midway though the film Bowie, the youngest thief, is injured in an automobile accident and subsequently falls in love with Keechie (Shelley Duvall) the shy, impoverished woman who nurses him back to health. The young lovers then go on the run, naively hoping that somehow Bowie’s tragic past will not catch up with them.

Like Stanley Kubrick, Altman has often been chided for the cold, sometimes cruel tone of his films – a critique which seems, in retrospect, a little like chiding George Orwell for his sceptical world-view. Altman is at heart a satirist, and his unrelenting dissection of the foibles of mankind is what gives his movies their punch. Imagine MASH without the pitch-black humor (for those who prefer such things, there is always the TV series), or The Player (1992) without its skewed vision of how most Hollywood movies actually get made. An iconoclast with a fierce streak of independence, Altman saves his sharpest arrows for the softest targets (the stubborn bureaucrat, the venal politician, the corporate mouthpiece), then surrounds those targets with affectionate portraits of offbeat characters who try, often in vain, to buck the systems Altman insistently scorns.

The three escaped convicts in Thieves Like Us are outcast in every sense of the word – even the prison system can’t contain them – and they rob banks because it is all they know how to do. T-Dub and Chickamaw are veteran criminals, and the scenes between Shuck and Remsen have a relaxed familiarity, an air of jest: they exchange jokes to camouflage their fear. Carradine, on the other hand, is younger than his partners (he was sent to prison at sixteen), and more reserved – he has the aura of a loner. In one memorable scene he takes shelter for the night beneath a railroad bridge, where his only companion a stray dog. "You belong to someone," he asks the animal, "or you just a thief like me?"

In Thieves Like Us, as in McCabe & Mrs. Miller three years before, the anchor of the narrative is a sympathetic and ultimately heartbreaking portrayal of lovers caught in the grip of circumstances beyond their control. Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham’s insightful script (adapted from a novel by Edward Anderson) follows Carradine and Duvall from the storage room of a mechanic’s garage where he recovers from his injuries, to a cabin on a nearby lake, where their relationship deepens, and grows more complex. Shyly, they brook the subject of having children. When Bowie announces that he must meet up again with Shuck and Remsen, Keechie demands he promise that this is the last job, but he’s unable to. "You have to trust me," he says.

Like all of Altman’s movies, Thieves Like Us is visually ambitious. In an early sequence the camera slowly pans across a muddy road to an abandoned chapel, the pale light slanting off a weathered steeple, the solitary cry of a mourning dove rising from the surrounding woods. In the next shot we see Bowie sleeping inside the chapel, then his two partners warming themselves around a small fire. The camera movements are languid, and yet the composition is precise, grounding us firmly in both the lives of these men and the Mississippi landscape they inhabit. In another segment Bowie and Chickamaw, in separate vehicles, race down a rural highway while Altman effortlessly alternates between long shots of the road and close-ups of the grinning men in the cars, reflected trees sliding across the windshields. Working with the esteemed French cinematographer Jean Boffety, Altman employs a palette of colors (the deep, verdant greens of the delta, the russet earth tones of the small southern towns) and a series of visual motifs (drizzling rain, Coca-Cola bottles, screen doors) that are repeated throughout the picture.

Although Thieves Like Us is essentially a tragedy, the director’s playful sense of humor consistently shines through. Bert Remsen’s T-Dub is, in particular, a comic figure, a friendly buffoon with an easy laugh and an unconcealed lust for Lula (Ann Latham), the sister of a friend (Louise Fletcher as Mattie) in whose house the three men are hiding. Chikamaw is a joker with an edge. In one frightening scene he drunkenly playacts a bank robbery with Lula, then erupts into sudden rage when Lula complains. In contrast, Bowie’s humor, particularly his banter with Keechie, is sweet and clumsy, almost innocent.

As usual, Altman’s sound design is innovative. In lieu of a traditional background score (and, for the most part, the overlapping dialogue he was already becoming infamous for) Altman uses radio programs from the 1930s to highlight individual scenes. During the first bank robbery, Gangbusters plays in the background. There are snatches of music, political speeches, newscasts. Only the repetitive use of a sound clip from Romeo and Juliet seems ill-advised and heavy-handed: it’s like a comedian repeating a punchline the audience has already heard.

As Bowie, Carradine is likable and engaging, a screen natural. Shuck and Remsen provide solid support. And Louise Fletcher effectively projects the stoic resolve of a born survivor. But in a movie filled with so many salutary performances, it is Duvall’s turn as Keechie that stands out. As one of his stock performers in the seventies, Duvall appeared in a number of Altman projects, including the enigmatic 3 Women (1977) for which she won the Best Actress award at Cannes. And although she played in those pictures everything from a music groupie in Nashville to a mail-order bride in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, no role ever matched her unique talents as well as Keechie. When she first appears on the screen, her mismatched clothes and waif-like features are reminiscent of Walker Evans’ famous photographs of the Depression-era rural poor. And her flat, deliberate manner of speaking is perfectly in synch with her character. As she enters the room where Bowie is recuperating from his accident, the camera frames her for a moment against a doorway of white light, and in that moment she is strikingly beautiful – a healer – and we understand how Carradine could fall for her.

There are always passages in Altman’s movies that feel like no one else’s, just as there are in the movies of Bergman, or Hitchcock, or Truffaut. At the end of Thieves Like Us, Keechie is waiting in a depot to board a train. She begins to speak to the woman sitting next to her (played, incidentally, by screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury). She tells her that she’s pregnant, that she has some money, that the father of the child is dead. When the woman asks if Fort Worth, the train’s destination, is her home, Keechie shrugs and replies "I guess so". Then in the slow-motion shot that closes the movie she climbs a stairway to the train and disappears in a swirl of bodies, vanishing from our one point of reference, the darkening screen.