I was a kleptomaniac in the third grade. I remember it vividly. It seems I did it out of sheer boredom – some needed thrill or excitement in my otherwise non-eventful seven year old existence. For an introvert like me, stealing was the perfect solitary game. The rules were simple: play until you got caught. As a youth I was immune to any serious form of punishment so the risk-reward was in my favor.
I kept my stash behind my wooden toy box on the porch. I targeted small plastic toys – the freebies that came in a Happy Meal. I mainly stole from my friends because they would expect it least; after all I was a staunch rule follower. I quickly pressed on to stealing from the classroom after I had exhausted the toy collections from my friends. During a reading circle I snatched a Winnie the Pooh magnet from my teacher’s cold metal desk.
Getting caught hardly deterred me, it only meant I had to refine my skills. My mother once gave me a chance to turn myself in and surrender my entire stash in return for a reduced sentence. The terms were quite lenient, all I had to do was pen a letter of apology to my pals. I decided to only return one item: a small fuzzy panda bear keychain and keep the rest of my loot safely stowed away behind the toy box. I had to play with these toys in secret, making them that much more coveted. My defining moment came when I lifted a small white board from the classroom closet. I ran home to my bunk bed and began to draw. I drew a tiger in a jail cell (my nickname growing up was Tiger). Was I figuratively turning myself in? It seems so, after that I hung up my brief brush with stealing.
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Bresson’s film takes a different route in persuading the audience to side with the criminal. The easy method is glamourizing it with the old Hollywood treatment as Hitchcock did in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955). If you gloss it over with a sheen of the graceful and cunning looks of Cary Grant, you’ll have no trouble getting the audience on your side. PICKPOCKET (1959) taps into the child’s mentality of morality. Children are often exempt from any severe punishment because they can always fall back on their lack of a fully developed moral compass. So how does one translate that concept to an adult character?
Our PICKPOCKET protagonist retains a boyish charm that helps the audience to sympathasize with his plight. This is achieved through his wide eyed expressions, calling to mind Henry Fonda’s character in THE WRONG MAN (1956). His suit is oversized, drowning his small frame in fabric and his tie is slightly askew. However, Michel is by no stretch an innocent man, he knowingly indulges in a life of crime. Despite this, the audience can’t help but root for the antihero.
A contemporary example of this is Breaking Bad. Walter White wins us over with his baby-like appearance. Often seen walking around in his tighty-whiteys, which resemble a diaper, and his baldhead due to chemo treatment, these traits give him the appearance of a very large infant. This is reinforced by his behavioral regression throughout the series. He begins as levelheaded teacher and then resorts to coping with temper tantrums and other questionable behaviors.
PICKPOCKET’s closing scene leaves the audience feeling robbed. Conventional Hollywood tales of morality indicate some resolution of morality or a swift act of justice to reinforce our sense of moral integrity. European filmmakers thought otherwise. They offer a slice of neo-realism instead. Like the art of the pickpocket, they distract us with a familiar American plot line, leading us on what we think is a path straight to redemption, tying up lose ends, the guy getting the girl because he “did the right thing.” Michel gets the girl but not because he did the right thing, quite the opposite he reveals: “Oh Jeanne to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.”