Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket first published by Movie Gazette, 25 April 2005

Solitary misfit Michel (Martin Lasalle) has decided to try his hand at picking pockets, but gets caught after his very first attempt – only to be released by the chief inspector (Jean Pelegri) for lack of evidence. Reluctant to visit his dying mother despite the encouragement of her young neighbour Jeanne (Marika Green) and his own sometime friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), Michel is drawn back to lifting wallets on trains, eventually gravitating towards a more experienced pickpocket (Kassagi) with whom he soon forms a skilled team. Yet as their operations grow more elaborate, so does Michel’s need for greater risk and his apparent desire, however conflicted, to get caught. 

On the surface, Pickpocket seems the exact opposite of Robert Bresson’s previous film, A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut, 1956) – for where one ends with its hero escaping to freedom, the other ends with its protagonist locked behind bars. These differences, however, are only superficial, for in fact right from the very beginning of Pickpocket, Michel is a prisoner of his own anxiety, deceit, paranoia and guilt, cooped up in a cell-like garret, and, as his introductory voice-over makes clear, condemned to a life of silence and solitude by his criminal doings. It is only when he ends up in prison that he can speak and write openly about who he is. Unlike before, when all the physical contact he ever had with others was a furtive flick of the fingers over wrists or breastpockets, he is now able for the first time to reach out to someone – even if it is through prison bars. He has at last escaped his self-enforced detachment from others, and so is, paradoxically, free.


Despite its concern with police procedural and the mechanics of crime (including a breathtakingly virtuosic sequence in which Michel and two accomplices work a train station, adroitly relieving unwitting travellers of their property), Pickpocket is, as its introductory text insists, no policier or crime thriller, at least not in the conventional sense. Rather it is an intriguing and complex profile of a lost soul, inspired less by the cops-and-robbers plotting of pulp fiction than by the moral richness of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1866). Anguished, estranged, convinced of life’s absurdity, and finding fulfilment only in his determined actions, Michel is the kind of hero, or anti-hero, celebrated by the French existentialists, and who would later feature in Jean-Pierre Melville‘s policiers like Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). He is also, in his compulsive delinquency, that most fascinating of cinematic figures, the rebel without a cause, and Pickpocket is certainly, amongst other things, a rites-de-passage film.

Melville was also greatly influenced by the spare style of Pickpocket – for Bresson has pared his film down to its barest essentials, and coaxed extraordinary restraint from his cast of mostly non-professional actors, with Martin Lasalle in particular giving a performance of mesmerisingly blank intensity as Michel. Such austere economy leaves considerable room for the viewer’s imagination to roam in retracing the elliptical and enigmatic trajectory of Michel’s ‘strange path’. For like a wallet conspicuous in a mark’s pocket, it is easy to see from the outset where this film’s plot will end up, but several viewings are required to understand the legerdemain involved in just how it gets there – making Pickpocket a true classic that dazzles with its meticulous craftsmanship (matching its protagonist’s tour-de-force acts of theft), while expanding and evolving in its significance each time it is viewed. 

Summary: Robert Bresson’s existential character study meticulously examines a pickpocket whose criminality is its own punishment. 

Anton Bitel