If you wanted to give the Martian cultural ambassador a quick view of the differences between American and French cinema, you might start by showing a double feature of Rebert Bresson’s 1959 Pickpocket and Sam Fuller’s 1953 Pickup on South Street. Two films on the same subject–the travails of a pickpocket. One highly influenced by the other–can you guess which? And, wow, two completely different takes on the subject, two completely different approaches to casting and film-making.
Both movies share some common elements:
1. A guy, a girl, a cop
2. Nicely shot pickpocket scenes (including some ideas that Bresson lifted from Fuller)
But see if you can guess which movie is which. (Ambassador Kraglach didn’t do very well when we gave him the quiz before the screening.):
1. The pickpocket works alone.
2. The pickpocket works with a team.
3. The pickpocket rarely gets caught.
4. The pickpocket often gets caught.
5. Guns, guns, guns!
6. No gunplay.
7. The pickpocket lives in an improbable shack on the waterfront.
8. Dude lives in a garret.
9. Big name actors give broad performances.
10. Unknown actors give restrained, mannequin-like performances.
11. Action, action, action!
12. The most dramtic moments–the first arrest, the death of the mother, are completely elided. We go straight from the setup to the aftermath.
13. A commie plot!
14. No commies.
17. The girl gets shot by commies.
18. The girl has a baby.
19. The pickpocket has a moral transformation–he is not all bad since he refuses to be a commie.
20. The pickpocket has a moral transformation–the girl comes back to him and he realizes that he loves her.
How did you do? Both are great movies, obviously for very different reasons. But pairing films like this ultimately makes me yearn for the Americans to stray from the formulas a bit. For example, I wish a few American directors would realize the value of working with unknowns. In the Fuller pic, when Thelma Ritter gets shot, we are watching Thelma Ritter get shot, not Mo the Stoolie. Thinking about the new trend for Americans to shoot the exact same cast over and over again, I realize that this is in part driven by a desire for the directors to put a recognizable signature on their films–“Oh, there’s that guy and that guy. This must be a PTA flic.” Yuck.
The Pickpocket came out recently in a Criterion edition with an excellent introduction by Paul Schrader. Schrader tipped me off to the relationship between the two films, and also about Pickpocket’s influence on his masterpiece, Taxi Driver.