The Good Thief (2003)

“I wanted to create a world that doesn’t quite exist, you know, a world of nighttime clubs and nighttime criminality, kind of an underworld in a Mediterranean city.” Neil Jordan’s commentary for Fox’s DVD of The Good Thief is refreshingly matter of fact. He points out details, gives a little background, explains his reasons for casting choices, camera angles, and thematic focus. “I wanted it to be study of character more than a movie about gambling, more than a heist movie. I wanted it to be a movie about somebody coming back to life, you know, finding some kind of redemption, albeit through a crime, through a story of crime, through a story of deceit.”

This story begins with Bob Montagnet (Nick Nolte), an American expatriate-heroin addict-sometime gambler, who, as the film opens, is feeling sorry and wasted. Shooting up in the filthy, green-tinted bathroom in a club where he’s playing cards, he’s jolted by the appearance of a girl — in a barely-there pink dress, with a black eye, applying lipstick. Wholly unperturbed at the sight of him, 17-year-old Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a newcomer to the Riviera, explains that she’s working for his associate, that is, she’s about to start turning tricks. Bob is annoyed. “You’re too young to work here,” he says, his eyes bloodshot and filmy. “And you’re too old to be doing that,” she answers, looking toward his needle.

Their friendship thus forged, Bob and Anne both understand that she’s looking for another way in life, that the prostitution is temporary. Her ambition fuels Bob’s. In order to manage Anne’s rescue, he needs to clean himself up (this granting a slightly less than conventional detox scene, where he’s tied his bed and providing a hallucinatory perspective on his room). He most admires Picasso, he says, because that cat was “the best thief who ever lived.” Bob, by contrast, is a “good thief,” good of heart and intention, good at what he does. When Anne offers him sex, thinking that his effort on her behalf means he wants something specific in return, Bob says no thank you (Jordan explains this as, maybe a result of his heroin use, or maybe his age — he’s lost his libido, and besides, his interest in Anne lies elsewhere). His interests are more complicated and more astute; and The Good Thief is less concerned with standard caper movie designs (where the primary guy gets with the girl), and more with a fanciful mosaic of illusion, loyalty, and thievery.

Based on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur (1955), Jordan’s film doubles all stakes of the original, and more elaborately, of the remaking process (this includes the satisfyingly confusing appearance of two guards, played by U.S. filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish). As Jordan puts it on the commentary track, he wasn’t initially keen on making a remake, but he took it on because the script worked out for him. “It’s often a matter of luck when you begin a script, begin writing something” he says. “Things either come alive or they don’t.” In this case, he says, “Bob” started speaking, and Jordan determined that he would talk his way through the movie, about gambling, probability theory, art, and anything else — very chatty.

The person he talks to most is a local cop named Roger (Tchéky Karyo), who observes not only Bob’s repeated bad choices, but also his occasional moral merits. Though they respect one another, they also realize (and more or less accept) that they’ll never fully understand one another. The puzzling is enough. Mostly eluding Roger’s watchful eye, Bob puts together a crack team — including Raoul (Gérard Darmon), resourceful scammer Paulo (Saïd Taghmaoui), and security systems expert Vladimir (Bosnian director Emir Kusturica) — in order to rob a casino, but not in any obvious way; the intricacies of the plot, and the diverse crew might recall the antics of, say, Ocean’s 11, but Jordan’s film is less enamored of itself, less interested in the plotting and the effects, and more willing to take risks, with its characters’ faltering as well as their wholly entertaining cunning.

Bob takes up an elaborate scheme, which involves pretending to steal fake paintings while really stealing real ones, all the while leaving much of the scheme to luck, as a gambler must, of course. This capacity for giving over control is what most endears Bob, to all those who watch him — Roger, Anne, his compatriots and his enemies, and of course, the rest of us. The watching is made exceedingly pleasurable by Chris Menges’ brilliant cinematography, often handheld, simultaneously fresh, gritty, and resplendent, hardly an easy combination.

The DVD transfer delivers this terrific and shifting look, along with a fairly standard “Making of” featurette and, more interestingly, seven deleted scenes (a couple that show Bob shooting up are grim indeed). As Jordan says on the commentary track, I was quite resolute about working against the kind of elegance one associates with the entire environment we shot the film in, until the end. At the end, it becomes quite elegant when he has to enter the casino.”

Throughout, The Good Thief‘s relationship to its “environment” also speaks to its relationship to Melville’s original film — the doubles are less orderly than they are witty and fun. This sophisticated attitude is reflected as well in the film’s multicultural cast. None of these characters thinks twice about the differences he sees in another, save for the heist crew’s ribbing of one of their own, surprising everyone when he returns to work — apparently they haven’t met up in some time — as a transgendered woman.

Also working against expectations is the subtle relationship between Bob and Anne. For all its many deceptions and illusions, The Good Thief allows this to develop as if in a real world, where genuine affection and appreciation grant generosity rather than competition or arrogance. Bob sees in Anne a younger version of himself — ambitious, vital, thrilled by surfaces. This “vision” indicates Bob’s self-knowledge, his consciousness of own limits and considerable gifts. He can see that, as seductive and glorious as the surfaces (art, casinos, pretty little street scenes) may be, his salvation lies in himself, in another form. And the film’s smartest conceit, its most exciting insight, lies exactly here — that Bob and Anne can infatuate and delight one another as self-aware self-reflections.