Early on in The Good Thief, down-and-out master thief Bob Montagnet remarks that he and a young Bosnian refugee he has just saved from a life of whoredom on the streets of Nice are both lost souls. It’s a redundant comment, to be sure — we’ve just seen Bob the gambler blow his money on cards in one of France’s less savory bars, and we’ve just seen Bob the junkie attempt to relieve that feeling of gambler’s futility (the one that goes hand in hand with the fleeting thrill of victory over chance) with a needleful of smack. That most mournfully nonchalant of poets, Leonard Cohen, sings on the sound track of lost bets and lost opportunities in a voice that’s the musical equivalent of Nick Nolte’s gruff, weathered, golden-years looks.
But even lost souls can be found, and salvation for Bob (Nolte) comes in the form of a scheme to rip off the considerable art holdings of a Monte Carlo casino. Bob is an addict, no doubt. But he’s also highly intelligent and functional, and perhaps the only thing more powerful and attractive than his addictions to dice and drugs is the opportunity to bet on himself and his loyal crew of hoods. He miraculously sobers up and plots the heist of the century, employing an arsenal of rumors and patsies to run in circles not just the cops, but also those in Nice’s underworld that he doesn’t want to be a part of his operation.
The Good Thief is Neil Jordan’s take on the 1955 Jean-Pierre Melville classic Bob le flambeur. It’s not an easy trick to follow a movie as good as Melville’s, especially one that so often draws its power from its wry simplicity, like an artist’s sketch on a napkin. Jordan’s film is not so much deeper as it is fleshed out; it’s at once different and the same, the most you can ask of a remake. And as much as Melville’s film was about style, so is Jordan’s. One of the things that makes Jordan one of the best directors of the last two decades is his uncanny ability to understand the equal power of silence and roar, and his use of color palette and production design as supporting — and sometimes lead — characters.
As such, there are several pleasures to be taken from The Good Thief. While it’s an excellent character study, it’s also a plot-laden fun ride of feints and jabs related to the heist. Jordan has made a proper update of Melville’s classic, translating the relatively effortless robbery of Bob le flambeur (oh, the days when one could empty a safe using nothing more than a stethoscope) into a modern-day masterpiece of technology and mental wherewithal. Several times he uses Melville’s spare dialogue word-for-word, and it retains the sharp kick of sarcastic innocence, particularly in the case of Anne, the would-be prostitute. Jordan’s casting of Nutsa Kukhianidze would be creepily plagiaristic if she didn’t do such a good job, for her looks and attitude — and even the sleepy timbre of her voice — are virtually identical to that of Melville’s Isabelle Corey.
The best parts of The Good Thief, though, are those that deal with Bob. He’s that most likable of criminals, the funny man who knows when he’s beat but still goes back for more. His life is a constant question of why: Why does he continue killing himself with debts and narcotics; why does he refuse to die; why does he retain his dignity even when sweating through withdrawal; why is he so damn engaging? It’s because he’s caught between two extremes that revolve around the same axis. Is it the bet itself that makes life worth living, or winning the bet that makes Bob worthy of life?
Bob is so wily and fun to watch, so good at operating right under the nose of the cops (represented by Roger — Tcheky Karyo — a detective) that even they can’t resist loving him and wishing him well, even if that means saving him from his own self-destruction. Anne wants to be his pet; half of France wants to be his friend. And while Bob wants the money to live well, his reasons for doing what he does are far deeper than just material goods.
What Bob really wants is to win, to know that his incredible run of horrible luck isn’t punishment for a life of crime but a trial that he’ll come through with flying colors. Bob isn’t the religious sort, but his losing streak — and, somewhat, his half-hearted acceptance of it, his refusal to do the smart thing and quit playing — has turned him into a modern-day Job. Job never gave up on God, surviving his hardships to live a life of prosperity and happiness. Bob never gives up on Lady Luck, who just might be related to the big guy upstairs after all.
Now playing exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S. of Maple). Call 248-644-3456.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.