Director/Screenwriter: Neil Jordan
By Roderick Heath
One of the most pleasant surprises of the decade’s films thus far, the almost completely ignored and wonderful The Good Thief, should not have been such a surprise. Neil Jordan long has walked the line between artistic zeal and commercial responsibility, making personal films in regular alternation with potboilers and blockbusters and, in the process, racking up one of the stranger resumes around. In between those films that get big attention, like Cannes Palme D’Or Winner Mona Lisa (1986), multiple Oscar nominee The Crying Game (1993), and blockbuster Interview with the Vampire (1994), he has produced a lot of films that get little attention. Some, like High Spirits (1988), We’re No Angels (1990), and In Dreams (1999), are tripe. But some under-regarded gems of his career include The Miracle (1991), a softer, teenage-romance variation on the image/reality dynamic in Mona Lisa and The Crying Game; his bizarre take on Hammer Horror and classic fairy tales, The Company of Wolves (1984); and Michael Collins, the 1995 film about an Irish nationalist hero that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture, not the moronic Braveheart.
The Good Thief is based on Jean-Pierre Melville’s thriller Bob le Flambeur (1955), itself an adaptation of a novel by Auguste Le Breton, who also provided the basis for Jules Dassin’s mighty Rififi (1955). The Good Thief made no impact, probably because at first glance, it seemed like another of the run of heist flicks at the time, whilst cineastes would not glance twice at a remake: Jonathan Demme’s similarly colourful and witty revision of Charade, The Truth About Charlie (2002) from the same year also fell by the wayside. But Jordan’s take stands as a candidate for the best English-language noir film of the decade. <Jordan’s remoulding of the material is far from another Hollywood cash-in on vintage product, but one of the warmest crime films imaginable, a condensation of many of Jordan’s pet themes, and a dense and loving mash note to film noir, the French Riviera, old-school tough guy romance, modern art, rock ’n roll, and everything else beautiful and sexy and a bit seamy.
Bob Montagnard (Nick Nolte) is a half-French, half-American gambler, heist artist, and heroin addict. Permanently exiled from New York (“I can’t go back there no more” is the limit of his comment), Bob is a legendary denizen of the Nice underworld, beloved of everybody, including Roger (Tcheky Karyo), a detective who keeps a watchful eye on Bob’s dealings. He’s at the absolute end of his tether, cursed with a losing streak, shooting up in the toilet of a sleazy sex and gambling dive, in the act of which he is seen by Anna (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a fawnish 17-year-old refugee with legs up to her armpits. She’s from Bosnia (“Is that what it’s called now?”) and has been set up and paid for by Raoul (Gérard Darmon), owner of said dive, who’s got her passport for keeps. Bob suggests that Roger arrest her now and skip all the misery she’s about to go through. “All I see is a girl on a motorcycle.” Roger sighs as she and Raoul ride off together.
Bob, who seems like the definition of loser despite his fancy talk, picks a fight with Raoul, and gets the crap beaten out of him—and a chance to lift Anna’s passport from Raoul. Later, when Raoul attacks him, Bob deftly lets him fall under the hooves of a horse. It’s the first sign we have of Bob’s genius, a genius he’s been deliberately suppressing “since my last five convictions.” Nadia is now free, but homeless. Bob takes her into his apartment; ironically, she’s far more interested in him than he is in her. He passes her along to Paolo (Saïd Taghmaoui), another stray Bob has adopted. Paolo idol-worships Bob and imitates his style.
When Bob blows the last of his cash on a losing horse, his friend Remi (Marc Lavoine) presents him with his last shot—a heist of priceless Impressionist and Modern paintings that hang on the walls of a newly renovated Monte Carlo casino—or seem to; in fact, the real paintings are kept in a vault in a nearby manor house, guarded by a formidable security system. Bob decisively throws away his drug paraphernalia and handcuffs himself to his bed to get clean, with orders to Anna and Paolo not to free him even if he begs. Anna enjoys taunting Bob as, in withdrawal, he pleads with her for the key to the cuffs—the first time she’s ever had someone in her power. When he rises from his bed and from addiction, Bob strides out into the world, ready to take it on.
With so many great schemes undone by informers, Bob’s new idea is to cultivate a snitch—specifically, drug-dealing Algerian miscreant Said (Ouassini Embarek), a snout for Roger who Bob once prevented from blowing Roger’s head off. The idea is to put out word on the jungle drums that their intent is to rob the casino the night before the Grand Prix, to distract from their actual target. The instigator of this job is the designer of the security system, Vlad, a Russian technowhiz played in a delightful piece of casting, by the great Croat director Emir Kusturica. A guitar-playing longhair who also designs laser shows for concerts (“Fuck rock ’n roll! You heist guys are easier to deal with.”), he has a family in St. Petersburg who want to get out of there. He’s determined to rip off his former employers to make that happen.
Jordan throws in more of his choice oddball supporting characters, including one of his traditional gender-bending touches, Philippa (Sarah Bridges), a transsexual weight lifter and con who professes herself “the same bad-ass motherfucker…except for spiders.” There’s also Albert and Bertram (Mark and Michael Polish, also directors), Irish twins who pretend to be one person working on the casino’s security team. They have their own plan to rob the casino’s vault, and, having made Bob and his crew, try to interest them in their plan. The most disturbing is Tony Angel (Ralph Fiennes in a ferocious cameo), a seedy art dealer to whom Bob sells his prized portrait by Picasso of his last wife Jacqueline Roque, which, according to legend, he acquired thanks to a bet made with Pablo over a bullfight.
Jordan’s eye for evoking lowlifes and seedy dens is impeccable, particularly in his use of scenes bathed in conflicting primary colors that resemble Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, which instantly references Mona Lisa. Bob, and Jordan, are entwined by their desire to fill their lives with beauty, and pay tribute to a host of cultural influences. The Good Thief breaks up the cinematic flow by using freeze-frames constantly at the end of shots and scenes, as if trying to catch a cubist texture, and liberal use of lens and editing table effects, thus making the film’s visuals pay homage to Impressionism, Modernism, and Pop Art. Likewise, the soundtrack bustles with ’60s French pop, Franco-Arabic rap, big-beat dance anthems. In fact, the film is keyed by two songs, the splendidly mopey Leonard Cohen dirge “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and a Bono version of “That’s Life.” In one hilarious scene of Roger trailing through the hills above the Riviera, the soundtrack blares with Johnny Halliday’s cool-ass version of “Black Is Black”; when Roger crashes, Bob helps him, asking with dry insouciance, “Why are the French so bad at rock ’n’ roll? We’ve given you Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and what do you give back? Johnny fucking Halliday!” Unlike in Mona Lisa, Jordan’s milieu is actually sexy, especially the buzzing nightclub where Anna gets a job dancing and waiting tables. Kukhianidze is radiant as the throaty-voiced ingénue who’s at least 10 years older than her body and delivers her own epitaph in her inimitable monotone: “I must be made of gold, everyone wants a piece of me!”
Anna acts as Bob’s lucky charm, but sends the males who compete for her around the bend. Said feeds her crack cocaine to extract details of the heist from her, Raoul hovers around looking for a chance at revenge, and Paolo, when he finds out about this, over-reacts and shoots Said when he’s talking with Roger, forcing Bob to order him to drive to Italy. Even worse, Tony Angel and a thug set upon Bob and Anna; the painting’s a fake. “But it’s a good fake,” Bob assures him. “What I do to both your faces will definitely be cubist!”? Angel promises if he’s not repaid in several days. Everything appears headed for disaster, and indeed the robbery is a comedy of errors, as Philippa cannot bring herself to turn off a gas main because the wheel’s encrusted with spider webs. Meanwhile, Bob and Anna arrange to be visible all through the heist by playing at the casino tables. “What you’re going to see is fake glamour, real money, and a lot of bad plastic surgery,” Bob promises her. It all builds to a glorious finale I won’t spoil here.
The pleasure and greatness of The Good Thief is its relative relaxedness; it has the same grizzled friendliness, put-on skill, and insouciant charm as its hero. Jordan isn’t pushing for either high moralism or fat-free thrills. It possesses a cultural resonance and combination of high class and true grit, and the emotional weight that comes from both, that the Ocean’s films never approached. Jordan could not care less either about the mechanics of the crime or for the morality of our naked desire for Bob to win through. This is not the same as saying the film has no moral centre, far from it; it’s simply that it’s on the side of the losers, the professionals, and the wits. The title is expostulated when Bob explains gaining inspiration from the story of the saved thief who hung beside Jesus on the cross. “Bob doesn’t want money, he just wants what money can get him,” Anna wisely states. Bob wants to fill his life with colour and glory, but can’t compete with mega-rich corporations that own the artworks he wants to own and run the house game. In the end, Bob succeeds not through a scam but by walking in the front door and looking grim fate right in the eye. The film’s one moment of real violence, when Paolo shoots Said, is to Bob a violation, and Paolo gets ejected for the lapse. But Paolo later gets a reward, because of extenuating circumstances; he was trying to protect Anna, to grow up, to live up to his hero. The film has the same respect for codes of human interaction and inter-reliance of a classic Howard Hawks film. Jordan maintains a balancing act between threatening melancholy and ebullience that is triumphant.
For Nolte, it’s a tour de force. Long a great actor without great films to work in, Nolte hit his stride with his amazing lead in Paul Schrader’s Affliction and here delivers a performance that combines the steely existential quality of Sterling Hayden in The Killing and the light touch of Cary Grant when he slummed. He goes to town with Jordan’s dialogue, which is quotable right through and often betrays Jordan’s roots as a poet. The lingo in the film is as pretty and barbed as a recitation of Bukowski, Amiri Baraka, or Tom Waits. The only problem is that with the jangling soundtrack and heavy mix of mumbles and accents, you might have trouble hearing it. But the true greatness of the film is the love it shows for its characters; whilst not shying away from what ails them, it loves them all the way to the finishing line.