Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is Dostoevsky meets The Bicycle Thief. Vittorio de Sica’s film focuses on the man rather than on the whodunit?, and in the same way, Bresson’s film centers on the character Michel and the effect that his actions have on him rather than on the actions themselves. Both films have to do with stealing, though they are reversed in terms of the thievery of the protagonist. Whereas in The Bicycle Thief the main character is the victim of stealing and then, in his desperation, feels forced to steal (and is caught), in Pickpocket the character steals from the beginning and only by the end seems to become sobered to his actions. Still, Pickpocket is not primarily a moralistic tale. In this way it feels much more like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnikov, Michel is a slave to his small, dilapidated dwelling-place. His over-sized coat is as much to hide stolen items as it is simply the only coat he owns. He holds his cards very close, suspecting even his closest “friends” (i.e. acquaintances) of knowing his covert doings when they sometimes, but often don’t, have a clue. But as opposed to Raskolnikov, Michel has more of a late-20th century air about him. He would not have the gall to commit murder (not only like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov but also Camus’ Stranger). He is more apathetic than ambivalent. He is increasingly noncommittal as the film draws to a close. Paralyzed by fear and conscience, he craves complete control of himself and his surroundings, not even venturing to the realm of intoxication.
The camera, like Michel the character, both needs and is repelled by crowds. A sense of claustrophobia resides wherever he does. During pickpocketing scenes, point of view is generally restricted to either over-the-shoulder (Michel’s) or a 90-degree of his face along with the face of the other whose pocket he is picking. The film’s structure is interesting, with Michel caught at both the beginning (at a horse race) and the end (also at a horse race). The film’s thrust seems to lie more in its epilogue, however, when Jeanne visits him in jail, and he states, “Oh Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.” His dialogue confirms what has heretofore been the case, that he is to be the object of our attention. All that we have seen so far has not been for its own sake – this is not Ocean’s Eleven – but rather for the impact they have on Michel and where they take him in the end. Throughout the film, hands (particularly Michel’s) are of import to the camera. In the final scene, though he grasps through the bars of prison, he cannot hold what he wants: not her wallet, but her.