The dilemma of the thief who's good at what he does and is thusly trapped in a dead-end career by a sense of professionalism is a crime fiction trope as old as the hills. It's also one that Robert Bresson seemingly sets out to explore in 1959's Pickpocket, a film (supposedly inspired by Samuel Fuller's noir Pickup on South Street) about a thief who believes he shouldn't be held accountable for doing what he does. Most films would turn this into a cat-and-mouse tale between the brilliant but amoral thief and the equally driven cop. But this is Bresson, he of Diary of a Country Priest and the long-suffering antisocial protagonist, ultimately concerned more with Dostoyevsky than Fuller.
The setup is non-existent, the backstory meaningless, as we are simply presented with the thief, Michel (Martin LaSalle), a gloomy young Parisian with no purpose in life. Even though his mother is slowly dying, he can't bring himself to even visit her, leaving caretaking duties to a kindly neighbor, Jeanne (the striking Marika Green). After the police let Michel go, he continues his minor crimes, lifting wallets in the Metro and thinking it absurd that there are laws which would stop him from doing so. Later, he meets up with a veteran pickpocket (Kassagi, who also served as the film's pickpocketing consultant) who shows him some finer moves and makes Michel part of a slick three-man operation: one distracts the victim, the second lifts the wallet and passes it off to the third.
All this is merely a backdrop for Bresson's real inquiry, that is, Michel's utter inability to fit in. LaSalle is a wonderful mope with a young Henry Fonda look and shocking pale eyes, which serve him well as he wanders the Paris streets, chin down, shoulders hunched, blending into crowds inside a fog of vague misanthropy. His room is even worse, a bare garret where he hides his stolen money and practices lifting wallets by putting his single suit coat on a hanger. While Michel is referred to once as being good with his hands, we get no indication that he's necessarily any master of the thieving arts. He's in a spiritual crisis, permanently set at an acute angle to the world and stealing because he thinks himself no good for anything else. Michel is pure haggard existentialism, only without any intellectual framework. At one point he tells Jeanne, "I believed in God, for three minutes," and that seems to sum it all up for him.
Bresson wasn't terribly interested in the standard contrivances of cinema, the story arcs, plot devices, exposition, and resolutions that are much the same now as half a century ago. Even at a relatively brief 75 minutes, this almost sadistically ascetic approach can make Pickpocket a challenging piece of work. There is almost no music, the performers are a flat and unaffected bunch (non-actors, all of them), the script has relatively little interest in the particulars of crime and law enforcement, and while Bresson may have been aware of things like close-ups and montages, he wants nothing to do with them. That said, there is a purity and grace to the picture that's hard to refute, even at its most difficult. The actual pickpocketing moments are swift and sensual glissandos, while the slow-burn of LaSalle's performance may be simplicity itself but it's hard to shake afterward - like the film itself.
Criterion's DVD presentation is a smart package, not overly laden with extras. The fullscreen picture transfer is quite excellent, with a surprisingly sharp-sounding audio track. There's audio commentary, an essay by Gary Indiana, footage of Kassagi's pickpocking methods, a documentary and interview, as well as an introduction by Paul Schrader, who gives a snappy summing-up of the film's themes and also shows how it's the film that influenced him more than just about any other, Travis Bickle being the New York noir version of Michel.