I have been attempted to be pickpocketed all of twice in my life, so I don't have any real experience with this subject matter. The first time I was in Europe, standing about slack-jawed like all the other Americans. Someone tried to use a knife to cut through my super-special travel bag that was re-enforced with steel wire, so my bag remained around my neck. I guess the beautiful vistas were distraction enough, which is why so many tourists are robbed, I would assume. The second time I was on the CTA, visiting a friend. I had purchased some sour gummy worms and put them in my bag after opening them. I had this old, surplus medic bag that just had a flap covering and fastened with buckles. I left the buckles open and spread out the gummy worms bag so I could just slip my hand in under the top and grab some treats to shovel in my face for discreet eating. Gross, I know. When I stood to get off the train, a woman stopped and talked to me about my hair. I felt a tug, I ignored it. As I exited I looked down and noticed the flap of my bag tucked into itself and upset - and I realized that someone had tried to grab for a wallet or iPod or somesuch thing, but instead only encountered my gummy worm-barrier. Genius, on my part. Enough about me - you're here for the films (or so I tell myself).
Pickpocket is about, as you might expect, a pickpocket. He lives alone in a tiny run-down room with no lock on the door and lots of dusty books. He is a great thief, and most of the short film is about his various little stealings, and the other thieves that he meets up with to share secrets and pull of thefts together. There is something vaguely sexual about all of the scenes where Michel, our pickpocket hero, is stealing. The way he fingers pocketbooks, sneaks up behind his victims to hear their breathing. He creates with them a kind of intimacy that he doesn't otherwise have.
One of the greatest parts of this movie are the numerous close-up shots of the thieving. The camera always focuses on the little movements that we don't see when we are targeted. We see what distracts us and soothes us so we don't feel the prying hands or shifts in weight. It's fascinating to watch - Ebert describes it as a ballet, which I agree with. One of the most interesting and memorable scenes is where we get to watch all of the small movements that a group of thieves make as they work together on a crowded train. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen, I was so interested in what was going on. It was delicate and subtle and somehow almost beautiful, although, of course, all sorts of immoral. But that's what makes this movie fun. We all like to watch movies about characters we can't relate to, it's more interesting that way. None of us are good thieves, but we do (or Anthony and I do) possess a strange sort of respect for them, or at least fascination. The obsession with "how the other side lives" is a part of this, I assume. This is why we watch mafia movies and crime movies, since our lives are dull and normal and we don't get to take part in exciting heists or even petty thievery.
Ebert brings up another really interesting facet of this film, writing, "In this story you may sense echoes of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, another story about a lonely intellectual who lived in a garret and thought he had a license, denied to common men, to commit crimes. Bresson's Michel, like Dostoyevsky's hero Raskolnikov, needs money in order to realize his dreams, and sees no reason why some lackluster ordinary person should not be forced to supply it. The reasoning is immoral, but the characters claim special privileges above and beyond common morality" (The Great Movies, 366). Ah yes, Dostoyevsky, I did sense the old man here. The idea of a man being better than everyone else going about committing crimes because, being better than everyone else, he is entitled to. There is even the strange obsession with toying with the law enforcement who are trying to stop you, the sick fascination with getting caught. How far can you go before someone stops you? Each time Michel escapes, he feels more smug and arrogant. He is, indeed, better than everyone else. He sort of wants to be caught, it would seem, in these scenes.
I hope you give this film a chance. It's barely longer than a TV show, and it's streaming on Netflix, and Hulu Plus, and is really interesting and worth your time. It's great for dopes like me who have read Dostoyevsky, especially Crime and Punishment, since you can feel very special about your literature knowledge, which I always find exciting. It's also great for the rest of us that just like movies about heists and thieves and evading the police (for so long, of course). It's a really great little film - let me know if you check it out!
Ebet's Great Movie Essay on Pickpocket