Pickpocket is precisely the kind of film that could never have been made in Hollywood in the 50’s. The Hays Code was a set of morality guidelines that dictated what was and was not acceptable to be shown in motion pictures. Amongst many other things, the code would not allow a criminal to be depicted on screen in such a way as to induce sympathy from the audience. It also said that criminals must always be punished for their actions. (For a complete copy of the code, visit
Luckily, the Hays Code only applied to films made in the US, giving foreign filmmakers certain freedoms that were not awarded to those in here the states. Robert Bresson made the most of his freedoms with Pickpocket, a film that, as one might deduce, tells the story of one such nimble-fingered miscreant, and his evolution into the business. His first attempts are quite clumsy, but with time, practice, and the help of a tutor, he soon becomes quite handy. Of course, nobody can break the rules of law forever, and consequences almost inevitably follow a crime.
The soundtrack on this disc is presented in the original French Mono. The good news is, quite a bit of audio has been drawn out of this single channel track. Not only is the dialog easy to hear (which is especially handy for those of you in Canada who happen to speak French), but even minor sounds like footsteps come through with clarity. Of particular note is the film’s classical score, which is rich and full, despite coming through the same speaker as everything else. While I was disappointed with the video, I was actually quite impressed with the clarity of the audio.
This disc does not represent some of Criterion’s best work. The film was made in 1959, and it is obvious. Grain riddles the frame in most scenes, and there is a problem with flicker. It looks like the original negative was in very poor shape, and though I am sure a ton of work has been done to improve the image, it is only possible to go so far with source material this bad.
The package for this release boasts a “new, restored high-definition digital transfer”. While this may be true, it is important to remember that we are operating on a sliding scale. A major improvement from “horrible” is still “below average”. This release may very well represent the best condition this film has ever been available in, but the result is still not anything that would hold a candle to the quality of a more modern film release.
For a single disc release, this disc is simply packed with extras. Right off, there is an all new video introduction by writer-director Paul Schrader. This is a great widescreen extra that really adds a lot to the experience for those that have seen the film before. Criterion was kind enough to let viewers know on the menu screen that this piece includes some discussion about the ending of the film, so you may want to watch the film before viewing this extra. I know it is a small thing, but there are plenty of discs that I have seen in my day that could greatly have benefited from such a disclaimer.
Next up is a feature length commentary by Bresson film scholar James Quandt. This track is one of those that is pre-scripted, but I think that was a good plan under these circumstance, as Quandt has so much to say, and such a short time to say it in (as the film itself is only 75 minutes long). The Models of Pickpocket is a 2003 documentary that focuses on a reunion of the actors from the film. This is also a first-rate, widescreen production, as so many of Criterion’s extra features are.
Continuing on, viewers next come upon an episode of the French interview television program Cinepanorama, on which Breson was a guest. A similar extra follows in the shape of a Q&A session which took place in Paris following a showing of the film in 2000. The panel includes the film’s co-star, Marika Green, as well as filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Ameris. This piece is not of the same high quality as many of the other extras, as it looks to be shot with a handheld home video camera. Still, better for it to be here under poor conditions than to not be here at all.
For those that may look at this film as more of a “how-to” piece than a character study, Criterion was kind enough to include Footage of sleight-of-hand artist and Pickpocket consultant Kassagi, from a 1962 episode of the French television show La piste aux etoiles. This footage is of very poor quality, but in a strange way, the grainy footage almost adds to the mystery of this fascinating performance.
Finally, the extras wrap up with the inclusion of the film’s trailer and an essay by film critic Gary Indiana. No other studio does as much for foreign and independent releases as Criterion.
The reason that so many more films deal with criminals than with law abiding citizens is that criminals are just more interesting. These are flawed people with a complex nature, from the main character on down. Pickpocket is a film filled with rich, vibrant characters. It is more than just the evolution of a criminal, it is the evolution of a human being.
As is the case with almost all Criterion products, this release represents the best possible format in which to study this film. Remastered video, even better audio and a slew of extras makes Pickpocket a foreign film fan’s favorite.
Special Features List
- Audio commentary by film scholar James Quandt
- New video introduction by writer-director Paul Schrader
- The Models of “Pickpocket,” a 2003 documentary by filmmaker Babette Mangolte, featuring actors from the film
- A 1960 interview with Bresson, from the French television program Cinepanorama
- Q&A on Pickpocket, with actress Marika Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Ameris fielding questions at a 2000 screening of the film
- Footage of sleight-of-hand artist and Pickpocket consultant Kassagi, from a 1962 episode of the French television show La piste aux etoiles
- Original theatrical trailer
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- A new essay by novelist and culture critic Gary Indiana