Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

“Could one turn a blind eye to certain kinds of theft?”

A young man (Martin LaSalle) becomes addicted to pickpocketing as a way of life, much to the distress of his concerned friends (Marika Green and Pierre Leymarie).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Studies
  • French Films
  • Robert Bresson Films
  • Thieves and Criminals

While most reviews and analyses of this Crime and Punishment-inspired character study by Robert Bresson are adulatory, DVD Savant’s take rings the truest to me. He argues that “Bresson’s deliberately intellectual approach is going to be a long reach for all but the most dedicated and focused audiences”, and he humorously notes that the primary actors — infamously directed by Bresson to not act — all “have a slightly glazed look in their eyes, like Pod people not quite comfortable in human bodies”, moving “as if it took a conscious act of will to do simple things like turn around or look in a certain direction”. Indeed, while LaSalle is effectively enigmatic for about the first ten minutes of the film, his mannerisms (an intense yet empty gaze; a tendency to look down at the floor, then glance back up again) quickly become not only tiresome but downright irritating.

Meanwhile, it’s devilishly difficult to care at all for his Raskolnikov-inspired character, who we’re purposely emotionally distanced from — given that he (and all the other characters) “behave in a way that expresses nothing beyond the exact words they say and things they do”. To that end, the most useful advice I’ve read about Bresson’s films is to view them more like graphic novels than filmed theatrical dramas; Bresson was aiming for “pure cinema”, and believed this was the best artistic direction to take. While Pickpocket is cited by many as Bresson’s masterpiece, however, I would argue that his earlier Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is the film in which his ascetic directorial style is best served. And for a much more engaging look at the “art” of pickpocketing, check out Sam Fuller’s vigorously anarchic Pickup on South Street (1953) — a truly enjoyable “must see” classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The remarkably tense opening pickpocket sequence (at the racetrack)

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance; but it won’t be for all tastes. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Pickpocket (1959)

  1. A must.

    Hadn’t seen this in years. Had little memory of it. So, when I read the DVD Savant quote in the assessment, I was briefly influenced into thinking it might be a chore rewatching it.

    Having just seen it again, I can’t really agree with the Savant. While I don’t think it’s a masterpiece (and I doubt that the film’s “what you are about to see…” preface is necessary), I find it a compelling work: quiet, austere, and just long enough (75 min.) to make its point.

    As I see it, if Bresson advised his cast to just act naturally, that’s what it seems he got. No one appears to be incompetent in front of a camera. I had the sense, for the most part, that I was watching real people as opposed to characters. (I was especially taken with Marika Green’s touching portrayal of the neighbor Jeanne. She ‘says’ a lot when she says nothing.) The protagonist, in particular (and with his constant evasive attitude), seems to exhibit the classic behavior of a sociopath; obviously not with murder on his mind, but harboring a firm distaste for the world which cripples him emotionally and draws him toward surreptitiously ‘raping’ people of a basic need.

    By the way, each scene that reveals theft or shows how a pickpocket prepares is extraordinary.

    With his talk of “supermen”, LaSalle’s Michel calls to mind the killers in Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ (though, of course, they are much more demented and egomaniacal).

    Paul Schrader – a huge Bresson fan – ‘borrowed’ the ending of this film twice (for ‘American Gigolo’ and ‘Light Sleeper’).

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