An existential drama that doubles as a how-to primer for petty criminals, Robert Bresson's stark, spare profile of a thief (LaSalle) practicing his trade in the crowded metro cars and racetracks of Paris plays out like a Russian novel stripped of all pretensions. Once the movie's feral antihero, Michel, crosses the line and picks his first pocket, he becomes permanently hooked on the rush. His every waking hour is spent looking for victims, only returning to the monklike sanctity of a shabby flat to practice his technique. Forever tempting fate, this lurking phantom presence lives simply to steal.
Bresson's style here is so minimal that casual viewers might mistake the movie's stoic aesthetic for some sort of anticinematic gesture. Scenes are reduced to their simplest essence, and the actors' faces give almost no information; even a virtuoso sequence of Michel and two accomplices cleaning out train passengers may be the most po-faced presentation of fleet-fingered dexterity ever filmed. But the director's examination of Michel's spiritual descent into social parasitism isn't emotionally barren so much as elliptical, tackling its subject's moral free fall with Zen-like economy. When the criminal is granted a brief moment of grace at the end, the lack of affectation makes it all the more moving; by keeping the pathos at bay, Bresson's rigorous look at one man's journey out of self-loathing becomes a liberating experience for all.—David Fear